Richard Long: Walking And Marking
Until October 21; Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

Six weeks ago Richard Long broke his leg while walking in the Cairngorms: a cruel twist of fate for the man who introduced walking as an artform into the 20th century cultural canon. But he’s back on his feet now, just in time for the opening in Edinburgh of his first major retrospective in Britain since 1991.

Whether by accident or design, Long shares this year’s headlines with fellow Land Artist Andy Goldsworthy, whose retrospective currently fills every nook and cranny at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. It’s a great opportunity to compare the two, and proves their work, though superficially similar in many ways, to be quite different in content.

While Goldsworthy’s relationship with the land is workmanlike, Long’s is more romantic. While social values and agricultural history loom large in Goldsworthy’s thinking, Long prefers remote places, untouched by human interference. The former digs in, while the latter moves lightly over the surface of the earth.

The shows are very different in structure too. While Yorkshire Sculpture Park hosts a sprawling collection of indoor and outdoor works, the exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (SNGMA) is largely indoor, its arrangement tightly controlled. This precision echoes the pristine edges of Long’s sculptures, paintings, drawings and photographs, which owe a strong debt to the minimalism which went before.

The late 1960s were a time of artistic departure points, as a generation of artists on both sides of the Atlantic rebelled against the ever-decreasing circles of minimalism. In Germany, Joseph Beuys extended the boundaries of art with his all-embracing notion of social sculpture. In California, Bruce Nauman declared that whatever happened in an artist’s studio was art, including Walking In An Exaggerated Manner Around The Perimeter Of A Square. Meanwhile another American, Robert Smithson, was making transient works in inaccessible places, showing only documentation back in the gallery.

Long first came up with the idea of a walk as a work of art in 1967, when as a student he made his famous Line Made By Walking. A photograph documents that first walk, showing only the straight, trampled path left in the grass by the artist’s feet. In one sense, the work is a drawing (think of Paul Klee’s 1925 description of drawing as “taking a line for a walk”). But in another, Long would recast walking as art whether it left traces or not.

The artist set himself objectives, drawing straight lines and circles on maps and following them faithfully, or taking water from the mouth of a river and bringing it all the way to its source. He found different ways of conveying these acts to a gallery audience, after the fact.

Often he creates a simple circle in the wilderness, by subtly rearranging stones, branches, or sand. The resulting photograph preserves that memory while somewhere out there, unseen, the materials settle back into obscurity. Sometimes, our only record of his walk is a sparse line or two of text, detailing the days it took, the number of tides, or the stones he turned on the way. The walk becomes to us an abstract measurement of time and space, though to him, it was a very real, sometimes gruelling experience.

“My work is real,” Long insisted in 1980, “not illusory or conceptual. It is about real stones, real time, real actions.” Sometimes it’s hard to grasp these realities through the artist’s austere delivery, but glimpses of a warmer nature do sneak through. A photograph of Long’s clothes and rucksack laid out to dry on a river bank commemorates his Falling In A River Walk of 1998.

Long’s commitment to walking was born in an era of rebellion against the impersonal, industrially uniform objects of minimalism, but his sculptures and photographs are imbued with its formal qualities. He sticks to simple, universal shapes, and though they are bursting with the infinite freedom of nature, still they are arranged with pin-point accuracy.

This tension is central to all of his mud drawings, which balance the unpredictable, very personal marks of fingerprints and handprints with the colour fields and geometric patterns of minimalism. His first ever cut slate work – owned by the SNGMA and presiding magnificently over one whole room – replaces the uniform bricks of André’s famous Equivalent VIII with irregular chunks of Cornish slate. Some of his larger, angular wall-paintings evoke visions of Frank Stella in a mud-splashing frenzy.

Long likes to keep things simple, and to allow his work to speak for itself. “I like very plain sculptures,” he said in 1971, “and usually people look for far too much in them.” The arrangement of the exhibition complements this approach perfectly, with an elegant hang, light and airy, almost completely devoid of explanatory text. The varied mix keeps things interesting, and every so often you turn a corner to be hit with the impact of fresh, fragrant Firth of Forth mud all over the wall.

The geography of the gallery’s first floor – arranged around one long, narrow corridor – has allowed for a tremendous vista from one end to the other; walking in the wilderness, Long has been known to identify reference points on both horizons, keeping them in view in order to maintain a perfectly straight line. Here, two of his own works become those reference points. And so our journey through the exhibition becomes a formal walk in its own right.

Catrìona Black, Sunday Herald 01.07.07