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Dia was founded in by Philippa de Menil and her husband, Heiner Friedrich, a charismatic but spendthrift German art dealer who sponsored Heizer's Munich sculpture years before.

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Friedrich considered supporting Heizer at the start of "City," but the two fell out. Then Dia's fortunes briefly collapsed. Wright, with fresh patronage, revived Friedrich's original ambition to back all sorts of grand art projects, like Heizer's. Then Heizer got sick. In , he mistook pain in his fingers and toes for frostbite because he had been standing in the cold 12 hours a day working on his sculpture. But back then I took no care of myself. I hadn't seen a doctor or a dentist for 20 years. The pain became unbearable. On his way by plane to a hospital in New York, he collapsed and nearly died.

Polyneuropathy was the diagnosis, a nerve disease that progressively caused him to lose much of the use of his hands. His weight plummeted. For a while he couldn't walk, then he had to use crutches. He was in the hospital for months. His recovery was slow.

Public Art: "Art's Last, Lonely Cowboy" | Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation

Fed up, he resolved to demolish what he had done so far of "City. Able to hire workers and rent heavy equipment at last, Heizer went back to work. Although still ailing, he finished the first Complexes by , when I initially visited him -- 27 years after he started.

Unbowed, he declared there were another four, even grander, stages to go. If he'd never gotten to those, he would still have accomplished a feat on a scale not unlike, say, Mount Rushmore, which, along with the cowboy paintings of Charles Russell and Frederic Remington, is just about the only American art Heizer now volunteers to praise.

Two Remington cowboy sculptures are on either end of the long table in his living room, and he keeps handy an old book of Russell's paintings of the West. I was flabbergasted when I returned last summer, after several years away, to see what Heizer had accomplished since my earlier visit. I couldn't decipher the work at first, save for a few distinctive shapes. The sculpture melded with the valley. But then Heizer packed me into his truck and drove me to the sculpture, a quarter mile away from the ranch.

The additions now dwarf the first phase of the project, making. Complexes One, Two and Three, which are collectively nearly the size of Yankee Stadium, look tiny and precious.

The new phases are more pneumatic -- raked dirt formations resembling hills, valleys and mountains. Heizer occasionally refers to the valley as virgin land; he obsesses about the originality of his conception, about protecting his property and his art from violation by the rail, from developers hunting for underground water, from people trying to sneak in to see the sculpture before it's finished. His project is propelled by anger and resentment and monomania but also by Eros: sculpture as voluptuous, unspoiled and ecstatic, an organic body one mound from the air, I saw, clearly resembles an erect phallus.

The question, at a time when there's so little talk about government financing for new art of any sort, is whether a country that claims to prize its rugged individualists and its native treasures, both natural and cultural, will care enough to try to avoid "City" by running the nuclear train elsewhere -- whether accommodations will be made simply to preserve a sculpture and the equally obscure, awesome valley it occupies.

Obscure, in the art's case, not just because it's physically remote, but also because Heizer has frightened away almost everyone from seeing "City. Christo and Jeanne-Claude regard the public spectacle of their installation as part of the work itself: the art is a kind of temporary performance. Only when "City" is finished -- Heizer predicts it could take another decade to complete the 15 miles of concrete curbs that delineate the mounds and shore up the dirt slopes -- will the public be invited. Meanwhile, as he kept insisting to me while we were bumping down what sufficed for the path through Murphy Gap, anyone trying to show up uninvited will be arrested for trespassing or shot at.

Before I visited him the first time, he interrupted a tirade on the telephone against critics and people he contemptuously called art tourists who want to make the rounds of Earth Art. Then I heard gunshots. When he got back to the phone, he said he'd had to shoot at some coyotes. Then he just picked up the tirade where he left off.

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In a narrow pass along the drive across the desert this time around, I noticed someone had crudely painted "Mike's Country Stay Out" on a rock. The only directional sign for 35 miles was pocked with bullet holes -- used as target practice by ranchers, Heizer told me. It's a message, he speculated.

Like him, he said, they just want to be left alone. Heizer's ranch is a three-hour drive north of two million people in Las Vegas, but it's an hour's drive from almost anyone. His driveway is an unmarked dirt road meandering across several empty valleys and mountain ranges, more than an hour from blacktop.

He rarely leaves the ranch these days, and hardly anyone visits except the construction crew. Heizer's Garden Valley is in Lincoln County, which, like half of Nevada, is a place where ranchers run cattle up-country during the spring and summer, down-country during the winter. This is mountainous range.

Gold miners used to prospect here; there is still mining for opal and vermiculite. Heizer and his second wife, Mary Shanahan -- a slender, friendly, brown-haired woman with a wry sense of humor, 21 years his junior, a painter, who was his assistant before they married -- tend a small herd of cattle.

They're raising beefalo. They also grow alfalfa.

Their house is simple, comfortable, a low two-story building with a big kitchen in front. Heizer fixed it up with hickory floors and fir beams. There's a metal shop, a dog kennel, a bunkhouse for workers to sleep in overnight, pens for cattle and farming equipment scattered along with half-finished sculptures in the yard.

Mary, although she's from Michigan, is a Western classic, soft-spoken and steady. She can birth a calf, make plum jam, change a truck tire, help oversee the complicated accounting on the project, ride herd over construction workers and ranch hands, format the digital images of the sculpture on the computer, reprogram electronics for the testy solar panels and in her spare time retreat to a studio behind Heizer's office and paint abstract pictures of an ethereal calm and Western light.

She's in charge of the herd. The plan is to keep expanding it, she said. She and Heizer live pretty much like many small-time ranchers in their elective isolation.

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He's just the only guy around building the equivalent of the ancient pyramids in his front yard. Lincoln County is Mormon country, where ranching families go back to the 's, people don't like the government telling them what to do and outsiders are regarded with suspicion. It took a while for locals to get to know Heizer, who stayed to himself. His prickliness was always partly calculated: it kept away unwanted busybodies and skeptics while burnishing his reputation as art's ornery outlaw.

One evening I discovered Mary and Heizer laughing in the living room.

She had come across some old letters that Robert Heizer, Michael's father, had written to various people. They were rants, she said. Like father, like son, I surmised. When I initially visited Heizer, his pent-up frustration had made him extremely testy with what was then a laconic crew that had no experience constructing anything like "City. He's a perfectionist; they shrug.

If Heizer, over the years, picked fights and lost allies, insisting, against common sense, he was the first, the only, the best artist around, clearly some people have stuck loyally by him. He's honorable.

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Patrick Lannan Jr. I'm an artist. I don't work with drawings or models. This is a creative process. It's an act of faith on their part. Then one day Julius climbed the ladder unannounced. You have already taken four full years. Heizer figures that when his own work is done, it will be there for anybody to see for centuries -- that he's building not for today but for the ages.

It's a perspective he came by naturally. His father was collaborating on a book about the transport of massive stones in antiquity when he died in , at An obituary by colleagues from the Berkeley anthropology department described Robert Heizer as "a lone, work-addicted man whose prodigious production required rigid self-discipline. It's a picture of a slender, youngish Robert holding a box of year-old rusty iron spikes that bound the oaken ribs of a sunken Spanish explorer ship.

A newspaper cartoon of Robert is tucked in the same folder.