Following Inspiration Across Hill and Dale
Goldsworthy’s Wall Goes for a Walk at Storm King
by Jason Edward Kaufman
MOUNTAINVILLE, NY. Andy Goldsworthy could easily pass for a tree-hugging Luddite. Just consider some of the bearded, 53-year-old, English-born sculptor/photographer’s signature stunts. He walks in the woods collecting colorful leaves, then applies a dampened layer to tree limbs or boulders, giving them surreal green or red skins. He might decide to fill a streamside pool with bright yellow dandelions. Or he may gather up fallen branches and pile them in hive-like stacks, or build little arches out of slabs of ice.
He’s the self-appointed high priest of his own nature cult. In an age of high-tech, mass media, and globe-spanning commerce, Goldsworthy’s low-tech down-to-earth individualism is a retrograde reaction to the tenor of the times. His gentle interventions into nature — many of them destined to fade away soon after the artist photographs them — provide an appealing antidote to the glitz pervading so much of modern society, including the art world. And they can be both beautiful and mysterious, engaging modernist notions of formal beauty while evoking a primal connection with the environment.
This summer, Storm King Art Center — a 500-acre outdoor sculpture park in the Hudson River Valley a little more than an hour north of New York City — has mounted a retrospective of Goldsworthy’s work, on view until Nov. 15. The main piece is a wall commissioned in 1995. Goldsworthy designed it and a crack team of wallers from England and Scotland built it under the artist’s supervision. Structurally, it’s a run-of-the-mill construction of local stones neatly fitted one atop the other, the sort of dry wall farmers long have used to demarcate property lines and keep herds from roaming.
In plan, however, it’s an oddity. Rather than a more or less straight line, it meanders among trees along the edge of a field, looping around the trunks of maples and oaks as it winds down a slope and into a pond, then emerges from the other side and shoots up a hill. Goldsworthy calls his whimsical snaking ribbon of rock “The Wall that Went for a Walk.”
It’s about a mile away from Storm King’s mansion-museum, so viewing it entails a hike (or, on weekends and Wednesdays, a mini-bus ride) across fields dotted with Mark DiSuveros, Richard Serras, Robert Morrises, Alexander Calders and other steel behemoths — hulking artworks which seem far more obtrusive in these natural surroundings than does Goldsworthy’s rustic wall, whose tranquil organic presence relates more closely with Storm King’s works by Isamu Noguchi and Henry Moore.
During his many visits to the site, Goldsworthy executed smaller pieces which he recorded in photographs now on view in the upstairs galleries of the museum. Many of these delicate ephemeral projects make use of varicolored leaves: red ones stitched together with plant stalks then threaded among the drooping green tendrils of a willow tree; bright green ones coating a river rock, converting it into an emerald island; fiery yellow, orange, red, and violet ones arranged in concentric circles around a hole in the ground in such a way as to suggest radiating heat.
Like the wall, these more modest undertakings are the products of often exquisite craft combined with refined aesthetic sensibility. And there’s more to the exhibition. On the ground floor the artist has created three site-specific installations which bring nature inside the museum.
A gallery has a carpet of clay in which a serpentine band is embedded, echoing the path of the wall outside. A sandstone wall proceeds through floor-to-ceiling French windows out onto the patio, around a tree, and back inside through another window — forming a circle half inside the museum and half outside.
Another room contains a spherical cluster of oak branches, a large orb roughly 10-feet in diameter that nearly fills the space like an oversize Magritte apple. The solidity of the piece suggests the limbs were woven, pinned, or glued in place, but in fact Goldsworthy merely stacked them into a tightly interlocking mass. A second oak stack rests on the lawn outside.
In a telephone interview, the soft-spoken Englishman says that growing up on the edge of suburban Leeds, where houses nudge into the countryside, he was keenly aware of the raw land under the skin of development. His work as a gardener and farmer brought him closer to the earth, and when he became an art student he rejected studio practice to return to the out of doors.
“In art college you have this cubicle and you’re supposed to make work [as] a means of self-expression,” he says, then scornfully asks, “What have I got to express at that age?” It’s a question many art students would do well to ask themselves. Goldsworthy found his artistic voice, he says, “when I went outside and realized art is also a way of feeling, of being nourished, of understanding, of looking and being aware of things.” In other words, he reconceived his vocation as a process of investigating the world rather than representing it.
Goldsworthy’s wide-eyed, innocent-in-the-woods approach has proven very popular, eliciting invitations to work around the globe. Last month, for example, the Barbican Gallery in London commissioned 14 gargantuan snowballs whose gradual melting over several summer days revealed pebbles, wheat, berries, and other contents — reminding commuters of seasonal change, transformation, and the transience of existence.
Though his oeuvre has an undeniable ecological and moral edge, Goldsworthy denies any political or religious message. He says he has no desire to reform people’s relationship with the land, a motivation that he says is often assumed by interpreters of his work. Nonetheless, it’s no surprise that Greenpeace hired him to make an installation in its London offices. And while he admits he feels a spiritual connection with the land, he says he practices no religion.
He does concede that the handmade aspect of his work may share something with anti-industrial William Morris and the late 19th-century English Arts & Craft movement. However, he claims closer kinship with modern abstract sculptors like Brancusi whose works preserve the sensual properties of their materials. Goldsworthy expresses an almost pantheistic respect for the qualities of wood, stone, earth, leaves, and the rest of his pastoral palette.
His strongest affinities are less with Brancusi, though, than with Richard Long, the British contemporary known for circular arrangements of stones, and with American earthwork artists of the 1960s and ‘70s such as Walter de Maria, whose Earth Room in SoHo (permanently maintained by Dia Center for the Arts) is filled with a few feet of top soil, and Robert Smithson, whose famed Spiral Jetty extends into the Great Salt Lake.
Mr. Goldsworthy shares something spiritual with these artists — there’s a bit of Stonehenge in all their work — but his art displays a more refined attention to craft and formal composition.
At a time when the art world is marked by overblown gestures and inflated celebrity — think of Richard Serra’s mammoth steel plates or Jeff Koons’s king-sized flower puppy — Goldsworthy‘s fragile creations constitute human action at its most basic, almost diffident level. It’s easy to forget the natural order that underlies our sophisticated society. A direct confrontation with nature can awaken the romantic impulse in us, remind us of the sublime grandeur of creation, the miracle and enigma of existence. It is healthy to be reminded of our humble place, and a walk in the Hudson Highlands with Goldsworthy can help.
Jason Edward Kaufman ©
This article appeared in The Wall Street Journal, July 18, 2000, p. A20.