The British artist Andy Goldsworthy, who first made a name for himself in the early 1980s, has always been most strongly associated with the land art practitioners of his own and the previous generation. Although other figures haunt the outer ring of his inspiration (Brancusi with his smooth forms, Matisse with his flowing cut-out lines), Goldsworthy’s most obvious affinities are with his fellow British earth-inscriber Richard Long and with Americans of the 1960s such as Robert Smithson (whose signature work Spiral Jetty uses more than six thousand tons of black basalt to form a counterclockwise coil that runs from the Rozel Point peninsula into the Great Salt Lake in Utah) or Michael Heizer (whose Double Negative consists of two enormous trenches cut into the eastern edge of the Mormon Mesa in Nevada).
But whereas these artists have long been embraced by the academy and honored with museum exhibitions, Goldsworthy’s reputation has always depended on a more popular kind of support. His books—including A Collaboration with Nature (1990), Stone (1994), Wood (1996), Time (2000), Passage (2004), Enclosure (2007), and many others—sell as Christmas presents, and not just in museum shops. He is much celebrated in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park but only recently did any of his work make it into the Tate. As a result, the idea has taken root in some quarters that his art might be a bit too likable for its own good and excessively straightforward in its consideration of how the human species does and does not connect with the environment.
Is this suspicion simply a form of snobbism? Two enormous and beautifully produced new volumes representing Goldsworthy’s recent activities offer the chance to find out. One, Ephemeral Works, contains a photographic record of what Goldsworthy considers to be the two hundred “most significant” fleeting and/or small works he made between 2004 and 2014. These range from creations shown in the book’s two opening photographs—one taken in early spring of a hazel tree in which a couple of branches have been neatly “smeared with black earth,” and one taken near the start of summer of the same tree with the same branches now “rubbed with chalk”—to a concluding picture of the jagged stump of an ash tree, crowned (or maybe wounded) by Goldsworthy with spikes of ice.
Between these images, on page after lusciously presented page, we find a multitude of other photographs that address themes the book jacket handily identifies as “materiality, temporality, growth, vitality, permanence, decay, chance, labor, and memory.” They include images of rocks in a waterfall on which Goldsworthy has plastered patterns…
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