Sticks and Stones

Second Thoughts on a British Earthworker

Even considering the changing nature of one's taste—the ups, downs, insecurities, and inconsistencies—when it comes to historical art, most of us know what we like and what we don't, and these things tend not to change much over time. Does one ever fall out of love with Giotto, Piero della Francesca, or Vermeer, or tire of Velázquez and Goya? I don't remember ever not liking Michelangelo or managing more than a tolerance for Reynolds. When it comes to contemporary art, however, going from like to dislike is common. If it weren't, we'd all still think Jim Dine or Sherrie Levine were worth looking at. But going from not liking to liking is the road less traveled.

Before two weeks ago, I only experienced a total reversal of opinion about a contemporary artist—going from aversion to admiration—once. Interestingly, this conversion came not as a result of looking at art, but as I watched David Hockney, an artist I'd always considered a lightweight, deliver a dazzling analysis of a 17th-century Chinese scroll in Philip Haas's marvelous 1989 film, A Day on the Grand Canal With the Emperor of China. In 90 minutes my defenses melted. "Wow," I thought, "I underestimated this guy." Since then, although much of Hockney's work continues to irk me, and a lot of it still seems merely clever, I've relished some of it and take all of it seriously—except maybe his recent daffy leap into optics.

Just when I assumed the Hockney incident was anomalous, I went to see Rivers and Tides, Thomas Riedelsheimer's hypnotic film about another British artist who I have never cared for, Andy Goldsworthy. Goldsworthy's luxurious color photographs of his earthwork arrangements have always struck me as little more than photogenic post-minimalism. Caught between an older, more radical generation of earthworkers like Michael Heizer, Walter De Maria, and Robert Smithson (who even in the late 1960s scorned the "ecology thing" and bewailed earth art's lurking "religious, ethical undertones") and younger, more rigorous outdoorsmen like Mark Dion and Olafur Eliasson, Goldsworthy seemed less a sculptor than a kind of landscape artist.

Milestones on the road less traveled: Andy Goldsworthy's Passage—Three Cairns (detail) installed at Lelong
photo: Robin Holland
Milestones on the road less traveled: Andy Goldsworthy's Passage—Three Cairns (detail) installed at Lelong

A typical Goldsworthy photo might picture red leaves laid in a line on green grass, a pile of sticks piled lovingly into the bow of a tree, or a snowball "gathered from below an ash tree stained with dye extracted from ash seeds." To make matters worse, Goldsworthy has a tendency to say earnest, semi-shamanistic things like "These trees are so old they feel like stone," "Stone has shown me many things," or "I now realize the profound impact of rain."

Until, I saw Rivers and Tides, Goldsworthy's "profound impact" had eluded me. Within minutes of the film's opening shot—of an elegant snaking line of snow brushed into a frozen river—I felt my taste pulling me in an unfamiliar, if alarming, direction. Seeing Goldsworthy, his fingers numb from cold, working outdoors at dawn, suffering setbacks, repeatedly reaching for fleeting moments of sculptural grace, I began to pull for him.

On-screen, Goldsworthy is a modest, soft-spoken presence, a gentle teacher type who often gets tongue-tied. As Goldsworthy struggled to articulate what he was trying to do, admitted to knowing that he was "doomed to failure," pondered being at a remove from the mainstream art world, and professed his "boundless faith in process," and while the camera panned over carefully constructed icicle sculptures melting in the winter sun, a small tower of stones tumbling into the sea, and a pile of wood drifting lazily in the rising tide, people around me began to sigh audibly. Before I knew it I was sighing, too. (Perhaps this is the time to admit that I also once wept at the movie Beaches on a transatlantic flight.)

So I went to his current shows at Lelong and the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase with a changed heart and an open mind. Unfortunately, at both the old problems returned. At Lelong, Goldsworthy has created three conical towers or cairns in the gallery. One wraps around a pillar, another rests between two walls, a third seemingly penetrates a glass door. Each is constructed of red Scottish sandstone and resembles a monolithic beehive or prehistoric pinecone. Other than their sure sense of material and the wonderful dampness that permeates the air around them, these forms were the quasi-religious hollowness Smithson warned of all those years ago.

At the Neuberger, Goldsworthy created an installation consisting of two giant screens made out of "cattail stalks and Scottish thorns." The room is bisected by a twisting shape made of "hair, hay, and Hawthorne fire clay from High Hill, Missouri." There is also a small helical sculpture made of "sweet chestnut leaves," and three suites of photographs of cairns Goldsworthy has constructed around America.

Goldsworthy has an impeccable, rhythmic sense of form and a convincing sense of materials. His work exudes warmth, devotion, and simplicity, and fits somewhere between Martin Puryear, Wolfgang Laib, Anish Kapoor, Richard Long, and Meg Webster. But Goldsworthy lacks a big original idea. Without his unassuming, stoical filmic presence; the prolonged camera shots; the sound and music—when it's just the photos or sculpture—Goldsworthy reverts to what he's always been: a genuinely talented artist with a gift for manipulating the soft spot in taste known as sentimentality.

 
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