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 of gaudily green sycamore leaves, hawthorn trees from which he has dangled rickety structures made of nettle stalks, sidewalks in New York on which he has splashed gutter water, lines of snow on a hillside that he has photographed as they melt, whiplashes of kelp he has tossed into the air and photographed as they coiled and scribbled against a gray sky, and icicles he has broken and reconstructed to form various snaky or starburst shapes.
The sheer number of these works seems to bear out the publisher’s claim that Goldsworthy creates something “on an almost daily basis,” now most commonly around his home in the village of Penpont, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, where he settled in 1986. It is well worth saying, therefore, that Ephemeral Works is among other things a monument to an extraordinarily active physical and mental engagement with circumstance. So too, at a necessarily slower pace, is the companion volume Projects, which provides a record of forty-four larger-scale works, most of which involved a great deal more preparation and effort, and have been produced mainly since 2010. Equally impressive is the range of materials that Goldsworthy uses: wind-fallen branches, lumps and smearings of clay, rugged boulders, and found objects such as a hawser, barbed wire, and gloves find their way into these works, alongside more predictable items such as stones from walls and roof slates.
It’s easy to see why critics in the past have sometimes described this flurry of busyness as childlike: there’s a youthful restlessness about it, and also a primitive pleasure in traipsing off into the wilds and just mucking about. Goldsworthy used to resist this characterization, but later came to accept it as a form of praise. “Since I have had my own children,” he told the London Observer in 2007,
and seen how intensely a child looks at things, you really can’t describe that looking as naive. My work is childlike in the sense that I am never satisfied to look at something and say that is just a pond or a tree or whatever. I want to touch it, get under the skin of it somehow, try and work out exactly what it is.
These remarks are a useful entry point for thinking about Goldsworthy’s Ephemeral Works. On the one hand they catch his commitment to the value of looking as an end in itself; on the other, they register his hunger to engage with difficult themes that might lie beneath the superficial beauties of the world. But does the book realize this dual ambition? It’s oddly difficult to give a settled answer, because many of the qualities that distinguish his work—its energy, in particular—mean that we look at each creation knowing that another one is waiting for us just around the corner. This means that we feel continually hurried on from page to page, with a voice in our ear saying, “Or you might prefer this next one instead.”
Goldsworthy’s work is in some respects reminiscent of the poems of Ted Hughes: it’s convulsively spontaneous, endlessly enthusiastic about natural forms, and extraordinarily prolific. To the extent that these things make us think about Goldsworthy’s major themes—flow, change, mortality itself—all well and good. But, as with Hughes, they can also make us feel the work is too provisional, that it is content merely to take a stab at something and might actually be rather complacent about the ideas Goldsworthy wants to persuade us he takes urgently.
Given this, it’s helpful to see what recurring patterns emerge from the swirl of his ephemeral creations, and ask if they provide his work with a foundational solidity. There is the pattern of his material, of course—those many natural ingredients that flagrantly express the fragility of existence. There is also the pattern of his shapes, which are generally less specific in their value, but which for this reason are possibly more significant in their effect. One shape that recurs very strikingly through the book, so that it might be considered a kind of punctuation mark, is that of Goldsworthy’s own body—left on a road surface, a forest path, a boulder, a pavement, or a fallen tree trunk when he lies down at the beginning of a rain shower, and which then remains as a ghostly print when he stands up again, until the falling rain or some kind of traffic obliterates it.
These “rain shadows” form an interesting counterpart to the figures created by his contemporary Antony Gormley. Gormley’s self-images are placed in a variety of settings—on rooftops, in cathedral crypts, along seashores—to insist on their isolation and vulnerability even while making us feel how substantial they are. Goldsworthy’s insert themselves into a scene to raise similar questions about transience and integration. They also force us to consider the relationship of the lines created by his anatomy to other lines that exist in the natural or urban scene surrounding them. In the end, they make us think that human beings only find their place in the scheme of things with difficulty, and, even when they do, make an awkward fit.
In this respect, the human lines share a common purpose with all the other lines that Goldsworthy directs us to consider: the straight lines of his sticks and stalks, for instance, which cut through a landscape, or a tree shape or a stream that insists on bending. Or the jagged lines of his icicles remade into zigzags, which are arranged against a background of gentler or simpler shapes. Or the snaking lines of his beech leaves when they are woven into a long and sinuous strand that wanders and ripples along the broader current of a stream. Each of these forms is in some way at odds with its setting—seeking to become a part of it, often in fact derived from it, but incapable of doing more than pass through it.
In other words, Goldsworthy’s most powerful images embody a series of linked paradoxes. They recognize the inevitability of decay while making a plea for fixity; they celebrate surfaces while discovering whatever it is that surfaces conceal; and they enjoy a moment of belonging that they admit cannot last. His works that include spherical holes of one kind or another are especially important in this connection, because they create an idea of completion (roundedness) even while they make us think about extinction.
The work called Black Earth Stone (July 2005), for instance, consists of an almost perfectly round black ball set among stones on a beach in Martha’s Vineyard. It is at one and the same time an artifact made of natural things that has been set among other natural things and a terrifying little shocker. Much the same goes for the hummock hole of Hay Field (March 2009), made in the long grass of a Scottish hayfield flattened by wind and rain. The swirl of grass stems around the opening and the darkness of the interior of the hole as it appears in a wide sea of grassy greenness no sooner raise thoughts about playful pastoral hiding places and creaturely burrows than they replace them with entirely dreadful notions. The twisting grass around the hole is like the swirl of water in a basin that drains down to the Everlasting.
In works such as these, the paradoxes of Goldsworthy’s vision (which are preserved for us by a mechanical means—photography—that is itself paradoxically at odds with the material it represents) are tense and alive. But they are not presented with equal strength in all the photographs included in Ephemeral Works. Several feel saccharine or kitschy (“Wet, yellow elm leaves. Laid around a smooth, barkless, dark, wet, fallen elm tree. Dumfriesshire, Scotland. November 2011”); others seem insufficiently proofed against ironical mockery (a photo sequence of the artist burrowing through a line of hay); still others seem conceptually slight (that kelp flying through the air).
This probably explains why Goldsworthy’s reputation is reckoned by some to be less secure than Richard Long’s, and why the Tate took such a long time to acquire any of his work (although it now has several photographs). The plain fact of the matter is that in Ephemeral Works, as well as in previous books, Goldsworthy comes across as an artist of uneven quality—bold in conception and dramatically engaged with the battle between opposites when at his best; inconsequentially glib and decorative at his worst.
How do these strengths and weaknesses show up in Projects? The majority of the works in this companion volume use the same or similar material (boulders, cut stone, clay, parts of trees); they explore a similar range of organic shapes (spheres, zigzag lines, cairns); they examine the relationship between Goldsworthy’s interventions and whatever landscape in which they are placed; and they echo the “rain shadows” in a series of “Sleeping Stones,” which are smooth and shallow hollows carved out of a cut-stone foundation block and made to fit Goldsworthy’s body. Here, though, we notice a difference from the ephemeral work. In every one of the “rain shadows” Goldsworthy’s physical form is briefly preserved with his arms raised from his sides and his feet apart; in the “Sleeping Stones” he is compressed, arms down and feet together. The effect is to make us think less about the snow angels that children like to make and more about corpses in burial chambers.
This is a significant shift, and forms a part of the generally darker vision that appears throughout Projects. Maybe this increase in gravity is simply a product of Goldsworthy’s advancing age and the inevitably clearer view he now has of his own grave. But it’s also the case that in recent years he has suffered the loss of both parents (in one of the ephemeral pieces we see him casting his father’s ashes), and also the death in a car accident of his first wife and the mother of his children, the sculptor Judith Gregson. None of these events is dwelled upon in the lengthy interview with his present partner, the art historian Tina Fiske, that serves as a preface to Projects, but it’s impossible not to speculate about their effect on the work—as well as the effect of the lingering trauma caused by the early death of his sister-in-law, which he has sometimes described as the event that confirmed his obsession with “the permanence of temporary objects and the temporality of permanent objects.” Goldsworthy’s engagement with mortality is simply more somber now than previously. It is more graphic in its investigation of themes to do with shelter and burial, alongside those to do with decay, flow, and growth that have shaped his thinking from the beginning.
Culvert Cairn (2013), in California, seems central to this development. Goldsworthy describes it in the brief text accompanying his photographs of the work as “the most technically and physically challenging project represented in this publication,” and the pictures themselves give a good sense of what he means. At the outset we see an unpromising jumble of rocks surrounding a couple of corrugated iron pipes that jut out from beneath a road circling a hillside and incompetently carry a stream. These are followed by other pictures of the site being cleared and a round chamber being constructed from beautiful Greywacke sandstone that Goldsworthy describes as “extremely hard to cut but also prone to fracture,” then yet more pictures, this time of a six-foot-high cairn made of the same material being nested inside the chamber. The series closes with pictures of the stream deluging onto and around the cairn.
Like all Goldsworthy’s best work, Culvert Cairn amounts to a tightly constructed maze of paradoxes. The cairn is what it is, but equally and obviously mysterious: Is it solid or is it filled with life? It is a product of very hard work that merits exposure and commendation, but is also hidden—not just in an out-of-the-way spot under a lonely road but also, after rainfall, by the torrent that gushes over it. The associations of its shape are largely benign or even life-affirming (it is a kind of egg), but also sinister—it is like the pod of an alien species, possessing who knows what powers. It is set in a location that should require usefulness (the control of floods, support of a road as it passes over a stream) but seems to exist purely as the embodiment of an enigmatic kind of value—namely beauty.
The same kind of tensions appear in a number of the other photograph clusters in Projects. In Refuges des Arbes (2008) a substantial oak bough is tightly contained in a coffin-like box made of slate. In Stone Sea (at the St. Louis Art Museum, 2012), nineteen severely hunched limestone arches are squeezed into the “awkward space” created when a new extension was made to the museum by the British architect David Chipperfield. In Coppice Room (2010), undertaken for the Jupiter Artland Foundation in Edinburgh, 120 sycamore tree trunks are fixed vertically from floor to ceiling “and positioned so that they became more closely packed toward the far end wall.”
In such snippets of commentary that Goldsworthy provides to accompany his images, he is usefully informative about facts and figures and materials, but less articulate about intentions and effects. About Coppice Room, for instance, he says: “People are able to walk into the room, through the trees, until they can progress no further, making the relatively small space feel almost endless.” What he might equally well have said, and does not, is that the increasingly crowded-together tree trunks create a human cut-off point, a lostness and a blockedness. In one sense this reluctance to say more than he does is not surprising: Why should—and how can—artists of any kind say what their work is meant to achieve? In another respect the reticence is revealing, because it alerts us to a quality in Goldsworthy’s work that is precisely to do with things being unsaid, or unsayable.
Goldsworthy hinted at this in Rivers and Tides, the excellent documentary Thomas Riedelsheimer made about his work in 2001 (a second documentary by him, Leaning into the Wind, will be released in the US this March). “There’s a world,” Goldsworthy told his invisible inquisitor, “beyond what words can define for me. Words do their job, but what I’m doing here”—which in the film is throwing handfuls of ground-up ironstone into a river, and watching it stain the current red—“says a lot more.” Says without speech, that is. Says by purely being, or purely doing. Says in the mute voice of the cairn under the stream flow, or the oak bough in its box, or the beech trunks in their shed—or the glacial rock contained in a section of wall in a forest in New Hampshire, in the piece called Watershed Boulder (2015).
Moving as these wordless works are, their power is confirmed and elaborated in Projects by others that appear to be in dialogue with them. Two striking examples of this are Five Men, Seventeen Days, Fifteen Boulders, One Wall (2010) and Wood Line (2011). The latter lays a snaking trail made of 113 sections of eucalyptus logs through the Presidio of San Francisco, and the former (which in this respect is akin to a well-known earlier piece by Goldsworthy called Storm King Wall, which was built between 1997 and 1998) consists of an undulating wall that ripples around boulders at the Storm King Art Center in New York State. Both pieces comprehend the sense of finality and enclosure that Goldsworthy creates in Coppice Room and elsewhere, but both show his human-made line wriggling past obstacles so that it can insist on the possibility of escape or even freedom. They are, in their qualified way, works that are as optimistic as those dealing with confinement and ending are bleak and suffocating.
They are also works that impressively extend the expression of themes that have obsessed Goldsworthy from the beginning of his career. At the same time as they let us hear the silence produced by the deadlocked confrontation of equally weighed and weighted opposites, they allow the earth to have its say. Not just by giving close attention to small and insignificant-seeming things such as thorns and leaves and nettles and petals, but by embracing the fact of their own transience while also reminding us that everything in nature involves a past and future, as well as the present in which we regard it.