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September 12, 2007

The simple yet revolutionary sculpture of Richard Long

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In the August 11, 2007 Financial Times Richard Cork explored the work of British sculptor Richard Long, whose current retrospective at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh he termed "stunning."

A number of Long's pieces are pictured above and below.

Here's the article.
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Out of the studio and back to the land

In the late 1960s, when the young Richard Long emerged with such single-minded conviction, British sculpture was dominated by large, abstract and often brightly coloured forms in welded steel. Anthony Caro and Phillip King, the leaders of this movement, taught at St Martin’s College of Art in London, where Long himself studied. But he had no intention of aping their example. Far from it: like his equally precocious fellow-students Gilbert & George, Long was bent on pursuing an independent path.

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Bristol-born and familiar from an early age with the River Avon’s mud, he had relished going on rural journeys with his father. Long was delighted above all by country walks and saw no reason why his art should be produced in the confines of a studio. It seemed right to make work outside, far removed from any urban context. And Long also aimed at stripping his art of all inessentials, focusing on elemental circles, lines and spirals.

The simplicity of his work cannot disguise its revolutionary stance. Nothing seems more natural than the earliest exhibits in Richard Long: Walking and Marking, his stunning retrospective at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh – in particular, a black-and-white photograph of a straight line he made by walking back and forth across a field of grass. But the implications of this piece, made exactly 40 years ago, proved boundless. Suddenly, the entire world became open to artists.

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He was fascinated by water too. Down in Cornwall, making a 1970 work entitled “A Sculpture Left by the Tide”, he formed seaweed and other remains into concentric circles on a deserted beach. The same year he even went under the water, laying out stones in the Little Pigeon River running through Tennessee’s Great Smokey Mountains. Long quoted, on his photograph of the work, some potent words from a song he loved by Johnny Cash: “Because you’re mine, I walk the line.”

When the outcome of these expeditions was first exhibited and illustrated in magazines, many older sculptors refused to accept them as art. But the truth is that Long, controversial exponent of the new, was profoundly stimulated by art’s oldest manifestations.

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At the Edinburgh exhibition is a photograph of a potent floor-piece produced for his show at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1971. The vigorously applied marks formed a spiral tracing of a walk he made from the bottom to the top of Silbury Hill. This ancient mound, near the standing stones of Avebury in Wiltshire, provided Long with a hugely impressive and mysterious precedent for his own work.

With unflagging energy, he set off during the 1970s to roam through the wildest places on earth. We gradually realise that the duration of the journey, and the ever-shifting stimulus provided by new surroundings, are lodged at the very centre of his concerns. Long often uses word-pieces to chart the changes in weather, geology and light he encounters on an expedition. Titles such as “A 25-Day Walk in Nepal” foreground his fascination with the passage of time, yet it does not prevent him from pausing, contemplating and then making a substantial work whenever the location demands. A remote stretch of coastland in County Clare prompted him to erect a monumental circle of standing stones, just as imposing as their primeval predecessors.

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From the outset, Long has thrived on finding ways to match the intensity of his open-air art in spaces as imposing as the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. He suffered a broken leg while walking in the Highlands only weeks before the opening of this show. But the vitality of the wall-works made specially for this show is outstanding. They come as a release after the first few rooms, dominated by framed photographs, texts and map-works. Long is not afraid to take risks, and even the wildest expanse of wall fails to curb his reliance on spontaneity.

The first of these works is the most impulsive. He threw muddy water from the Firth of Forth straight on to the white surface, creating three enormous splashes. They hit the ceiling and dribbled down to the skirting-board, catching the pulse of Long’s dynamism as he works.

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Even more spectacular is the panoramic “Firth of Forth Mud Arc”. This explosive work looks like the base of a titanic sun about to set, sundered by seven vertical pale streaks coursing through it like lightning. These mud works are impossible to rub out while Long is working on them. Hence their feeling of high concentration, working from outline drawing and yet embracing a high level of chance when the mud finally splashes down.

The biggest room in the show is occupied by a very different exhibit: a line running in a grey oblong of cut slate pieces down the centre of the wooden floor. None of the pieces touches each other and each one is subtly different. Yet they add up to an indissoluble whole, stretching with a sense of absolute inevitability between the old fireplaces installed at either end. The muscular directness and sobriety of “Stone Line” contrast with the muddy wall-works. It ranks among Long’s most severe achievements, and must reflect the family tragedy preceding its execution in 1980. His father died the day he produced this iconic piece. “I saw my mum,” he recalls in a catalogue interview, “then came up on the train and made that work.”

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The floor in the following room has been left empty but only because Long has filled the wall opposite the windows with “Cairngorm Line”. Working now with china clay on a black-painted base, he makes severe bands of glacial colour ascend from skirting-board to cornice. Although extremely minimal, they are full of agitated marks that spill out like a hailstorm of whiteness over their deep nocturnal surroundings. Long ensures that the entire work is ablaze with streaming light and quickened by an irrepressible urge to evoke the grandeur and vitality of nature at her most untamed.

When the exhibition ends in October, all these outstandingly powerful wall-pieces will be destroyed. I wish they could be saved as lasting testaments to Long’s achievement in opening up and redefining art’s relationship with the land. His personal presence can be sensed most directly in the final room, where hands coated in Firth of Forth mud have been forcibly pressed into black paint. They radiate outwards from the centre in what Long describes as “Midsummer Day Circles”. Looking at them, we feel they could travel on forever, transcending all territorial boundaries and stretching to the edges of the natural world.

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Richard Long: Walking and Marking; Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh; until October 21. Tel: +44 (0)131-624 6200

September 12, 2007 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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Comments

I don't know about anybody else but they look an awful lot like Andy Goldsworthy sculptures

Posted by: C Mayer | Apr 20, 2008 1:37:20 PM

I was very impressed by the exhibition of Richard Long's work at the National Museum of Modern Art in Edinburgh. Sorry to find that the catalogue did not include the map of the rivers of GB; is there a source for a copy?

Posted by: Graham Leake | Oct 17, 2007 8:27:43 AM

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