On ViewSperone Westwater and Lisson Gallery
For many, Richard Long stands as one of the truly visionary artists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In this case, I use “visionary” to refer to an artist who reads the present by way of a semi-conscious ability to combine the past together with the future—this comfort in liminal spaces is characteristic of Long’s practice. Much of the praise given to his work comes from European critics, such as Rudi Fuchs, Clarrie Wallis, and Teresa Gleadowe, who understand the artist’s achievements as compatible with other major figures, such as John Cage and Robert Smithson. Long’s activities range from stone installations and calligraphies in mud to photographs of wilderness landscapes accompanied by poetic, numerical inscriptions, both derived from his walks in the Sahara, the Adirondacks, or elsewhere. To recall—indeed, to experience—these works is to comprehend an artist with vast mental and physical resources that perpetually equivocate on the razor’s edge separating the systemic from the intuitive. This precarious combination is sometimes identified with Eastern thought, yet it applies just as readily to Long, known over the years as “the walking artist.”
The varied responses to his 1986 Guggenheim retrospective confirmed Long as a uniquely unpredictable presence, an artist who operated outside the conventional spaces of the art world, irrevocably focused on walking to, from, and within deeply intense rural and wilderness environments. Unlike the Europeans, American critics (Ann-Sargent Wooster, Roberta Smith) were more likely to position Long’s work between nature and “conceptual” art—despite the fact that the artist himself has tended to disagree. In a more up-to-date essay, authored by Long in 2014, he countered such claims with the following: “I am not a conceptual artist, meaning I use real stones. I walk my walks, and they are made in real time. Nevertheless, ideas are very important, especially in the landscape works.”
A great deal of time has passed since the Guggenheim exhibition nearly 35 years ago, and Long has consistently developed the lexicon of ideas he explores. It is insightfully ironic that his two concurrent, large-scale, and extraordinary installations at Sperone Westwater and Lisson Gallery have been made inaccessible to the public at the time of this writing due to the unfortunate pandemic that has reshaped our living reality. As events have unfolded since I saw the installations, it has occurred to me that Richard Long is an artist whose relationship to nature is largely about healing, which involves opening the mind in relation to the body. From a Taoist or Zen Buddhist perspective, the mind and body are essentially one: a mind-body, each inextricably bound to the other. Long found these ideas, largely conveyed through the work of Cage, a significant influence in his early career, and they have stayed with him over the years.
There are five basic mediums in which the artist works, all of which are either physically present or directly referenced in the Lisson and Sperone Westwater installations. Long’s fundamental medium is walking, associated with being in wilderness territories where he walks for several consecutive days on end. He walks in many divergent locations, such as the Dartmoor uplands in Devon, England and the vast mountainous spectrum of the Himalayas in Asia. Secondly, the artist’s photographs are related to both the landscapes where he has chosen to walk and the linear and circular forms he constructs there. These forms, representations of time and space, are built from natural materials found on the site that may include grass, sand, snow, sticks, and stones. Thirdly, Long’s popular mud works were done initially on rocks before finding their way onto interior walls in multiple variations. Fourth, his deftly organized stone works, again both lines and circles, are often read as sculpture, both in indoor and exterior environments. And fifth, the artist’s text works range from poetic accounts related to walks either performed or conceived, or to numerals he has organized so that they take on their own formal, non-objective meaning.
In placing these various medium combinations at Sperone Westwater and the Lisson Gallery, Long examined each space in terms of its architectural construction. The former gallery—for which his 16th exhibition opened on March 5th—emphasizes its verticality with a series of stacked spaces that visitors can move through, from one floor to the next, mostly by elevator. Long’s large-scale mud work, titled Heaven (2020), takes advantage of this vertical structure: it could be seen both from the ground floor and from the mezzanine. Based on the Chinese ideogram for “heaven” taken from the I Ching, the piece begins at the level of the floor and moves upward in six parallel bands until a total height of 29 feet is reached. According to Long, it took three hours to complete the piece, applying mud from the River Avon. Some calligraphers might find this speed extraordinary, particularly if one observes the finger gestures that negotiate with one another throughout the work.
In contrast to the verticality of Muddy Heaven at Sperone Westwater, the large open exhibition space at the Lisson Gallery offered a more horizontal perspective whereby three large-scale works are seen together, each in conversation with the other two. These include a large, horizontal mud work, approximately 862” long, titled River Avon Mud Line (2020), a slate sculpture, Virginia Line (2020), that runs down the middle of the floor, and a horizontally extended text work on the west wall, titled A Day’s Walk Across Dartmoor (2000/2015). The fourth work included here is an earlier photograph and text, A Rolling Stone, Oregon (2001), that was conceived in Oregon, and provides the title for the Lisson installation: FROM A ROLLING STONE TO NOW.
Richard Long’s choice to bring the outside inside through, in particular, each of his mud works, does not only match the architectural dimensions of each given space. Long also constructs what some might understand as a paradoxical synergy, in which nature itself brings focus to the deliberations of architectural necessity. Put another way, Richard Long’s visionary role is keenly suited to bringing the constitutive operations of nature into accord with the role of architecture. Rather than pulling against one another, each is given a purposeful relationship that allows for correspondence. In Long’s ambulatory practice, ideas are never entirely lost or buried within a technical process. Instead, they go forth with their own agency, illuminating the interaction of time and space and confirming art as a phenomenon that moves in the presence of stillness. The Mandarin phrase wu wei refers directly to this concept—motion and stillness share the same moment. Here, then, is the essential ingredient for the walking artist: the place where a formless form can come into its own, finally removed from the weight or necessity of any exterior intention.