New York

Richard Long

Because Richard Long’s work is more a consistent, ongoing activity than a collection of objects, mounting an exhibition of that work is necessarily problematic. The gallery context turns Long’s art into merely another formal exercise with another set of signature materials, just as it does any site-specific work inspired by nature. How can such work make sense plucked from the environment on which it completely depends? The horns of this dilemma impale Long’s art and leave it looking nostalgic and postured. In the gallery, it seems to lose its critical power and become another pawn in a familiar art-historical stylistic game as well as a victim of the market place; it is abandoned to secular history when it wants to be sacred.

Long takes long—very long—walks in various parts of the world, reporting the sights and sounds along his path. Thus a sound a day on the way from the north to the south of Spain—622 miles coast to coast, walked in 21 days—becomes the text piece Sound Line, 1990. Sometimes he builds simple geometrical monuments at auspicious sites, using more durable natural materials than animal sounds. At the center of Mount Whitney Stone Circle, 1992, he placed a stone from the mountain’s summit. The flat plain on which the piece was built, the triangular peaks rising above it, and the circle itself form a presumably cabalistic geometry. Although Long’s works do have a certain ecological resonance, his wanderings, despite their charm, do not exactly make him a peripatetic philosopher.

The gallery is hardly one of the dramatically wide open spaces that give birth to Long’s pieces. It has to be an afterthought, and must be inhibiting; it is self-contradictory—even self-defeating—for him to show his work there. He loses his precious solitude in it, he can’t walk very far, and the sounds heard are certainly not natural. The two contrasting lines of muddy, gestural strokes in Muddy Wall, 1994, that run the length of a gallery wall are nowhere near as extensive as one of Long’s outdoor walks. Another wall piece, Red Mud Circle, 1994, a circle within a circle, is hardly as striking as Mount Whitney Stone Circle. Long depends heavily on the expanded field of his natural environment, and the black acrylic paint that forms the ground of both these geometrical figures is hardly that.

To end with my beginning: Long in a gallery is Long in a procrustean bed, far from the eternal verities of nature and solitude that he loves, just another post-Minimalist artist whose novel signature material happens to be mud, and, more esoterically, walks. There is, no doubt, a certain mysticism in this, in D. W. Winnicott’s sense of the term: withdrawal from and transcendence of the everyday world in favor of the inner world of sophisticated introjects. The simple, redundant geometrical forms that result from Long’s rambles are, however, hardly the stuff of sophistication. In fact, they are, somewhat primitive, unless abortively quoting archaic sites can be seen to be sophisticated. One is, of course, supposed to keep introjects to oneself (they are part of one’s silence), but by exhibiting testimony of his silence, Long invites us to accompany him on his walks. Thus the testimony may be less transcendental and more banally artistic than it initially seems.

While Long’s walks are, like all good long walks, conducive to mystical introspection (particularly because Long is alone in nature), genuine mysticism would have left a more innovative trail. The self-contradictory character of Long’s work—its narcissistic romanticism and conceptual formalism—may redeem it, as it does Robert Smithson’s art, which is not unrelated, but these works seem more like elegant artistic whimpers than big mystical bangs. In other words, I admire the idea of them, and the effort that went into them, but am not sure that much of consequence occurs, and I distrust their physical by-products.

Donald Kuspit