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 hes 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 years headlines
with fellow Land Artist Andy Goldsworthy, whose retrospective currently
fills every nook and cranny at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Its
a great opportunity to compare the two, and proves their work, though
superficially similar in many ways, to be quite different in content.
While Goldsworthys relationship with the land is workmanlike,
Longs is more romantic. While social values and agricultural
history loom large in Goldsworthys 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 Longs sculptures, paintings, drawings
and photographs, which owe a strong debt to the minimalism which went
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 artists 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 artists feet. In one sense, the work
is a drawing (think of Paul Klees 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 its hard to grasp these realities through the artists
austere delivery, but glimpses of a warmer nature do sneak through.
A photograph of Longs clothes and rucksack laid out to dry on
a river bank commemorates his Falling In A River Walk of 1998.
Longs 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
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 Andrés
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 gallerys 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.
Black, Sunday Herald 01.07.07