But there is another way to view such works and their eccentric creators: as prescient. In a culture swimming in expensive objects, where art has become thoroughly corporate, never before has an immersive experience seemed more important; there is singular joy in works that draw attention to the barren beauty of the land and the endless skies above it, pieces too large for even a billionaire to build a private museum around. “People have dismissed the earthworks as monuments, but in fact, they’re critiques of the monumental,” says Michael Govan, the 56-year-old director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, who has championed the land artists for nearly 30 years, especially when he was the head of the New York-based Dia Art Foundation in the 1990s and early aughts. He points to “City” and its low, rolling geometries, as well as the hypnotic 1,500-foot swirl of black basalt and salt crystals that make up the most famous of all land artworks, Robert Smithson’s 1970 “Spiral Jetty,” a natural sculpture in a shallow lake bed in northern Utah. Much of Turrell’s “Roden Crater,” Govan says, is underground, purposefully recasting a former site of violent eruptions into a subtle temple of light.
Not that such work tends to attract gentle personalities. The artists largely were products of a tumultuous era and landscape: first, the ragged and fierce avant-garde that developed in Northern California at the end of the 1960s, and then the dark, abrasive downtown New York art and music scene, which would soon give way to the canvas of the Western deserts. Safety and caution were never held in esteem. Smithson, a prolific essayist, died at 35 in 1973 when the small plane in which he was scouting locations for a new piece crashed near Amarillo, Texas. The reclusive Walter De Maria, who in his early 20s was a drummer with the precursor band to the Velvet Underground, created “The Lightning Field,” composed of 400 sharpened 20-foot stainless-steel posts in a roughly one-square-mile grid about three hours from “Star Axis” in western New Mexico; he lived alone in the same SoHo loft for more than 50 years and was felled by a stroke in 2013. Over the course of trying to complete “City,” Heizer developed severe respiratory problems and nerve damage that led to years of opiate addiction only recently shook. Mary Shanahan, his wife of 15 years, left him in 2014 — beaten down by his needs and those of “City” — and he stopped eating, plummeting to about 100 pounds. “Every bone in me is torqued and twisted,” he told The New Yorker’s Dana Goodyear in 2016.
Ross, a Pennsylvania contractor’s son, has always seemed the counter example, steady and calibrated with an almost merry, avuncular demeanor. Temperate and health-conscious, he has long availed himself of both Eastern and Western medicine, regarding both arcane herbal supplements and the high-tech surgical procedures perhaps in his future as ways to keep going. In contrast to Heizer, who in his early years debated art late into the night at the legendary bar Max’s Kansas City, Ross spent the late 1960s immersed in a decidedly unmacho milieu: designing sets and performing with the experimental Judson Dance Theater in Lower Manhattan and later with Anna Halprin, the San Francisco-based postmodern choreographer who mentored Meredith Monk and Trisha Brown. It was a scene dominated by powerful women, recalls the dancer and choreographer Yvonne Rainer, 85. When Ross wandered in, offering to adapt some of the vertiginous latticework sculptures he had been working on and then manipulate them onstage for the dancers, there was, she says, “nothing aggressive or macho about him. He listened.”
Despite its audacious ambition to map time, “Star Axis” is far smaller in scale than either Turrell’s or Heizer’s projects. But that, paradoxically, is part of its emotional power. Every granite step to the oculus seems imbued with Ross’s Zen-like determination; you can’t help but imagine the hundreds of sunsets he has experienced there in silence. “His project,” says Govan, “is not only for us to meditate on time and light. It’s also Charles’s mediation, and you feel that when you’re experiencing it. The calculations, the moving of stone, the mixing of concrete, the collaboration with those same workers all those years. There’s a humanness to it.”