The simple act of walking lies at the heart of Richard Long’s sculpture. It is a simplicity that extends to all aspects of the artist’s work: simple forms in simple materials, simple words in simple typefaces. The artist himself has used children’s verse to characterize what he does: “Five six pick up sticks/Seven eight, lay them straight”— a not so tongue-in-cheek introduction to his love of “the simplicity of walking, the simplicity of stones.”1 But this surface simplicity is deceptive. By combining and recombining a limited array of forms and actions, Long achieves a wonderfully subtle complexity through which he expresses ideas about landscape in particular and the place of the individual in nature in general.
Long’s walks have taken him all over the world and can entail anything from an hour to weeks of effort. The shorter walks are often determined by an abstract shape—a squared-off spiral, a circle—drawn onto a detailed survey map. In these cases the walk is the work itself; the only lasting evidence of it being the map, which, with a straightforwardly descriptive title—Twelve hours twelve summits, for example—permits the viewer to mentally reconstruct the artist’s work. More often than not, the viewer comes away with the distinct notion that this would be “easier said than done.” Maps are themselves an abstraction intended to allow individuals (or armies!) to negotiate around difficulties.2 By imposing a further level of abstraction on the landscape, Long forces himself to confront and engage these difficulties. For longer walks, the artist usually follows established paths and along the way makes sculpture from nearby materials, which he then records with a photograph.3
Where the remote “walk sculptures” tend to blend in with their surroundings, their immediate offspring, the gallery sculptures, rely on contrast. By bringing rough-edged pieces of stone and wood—often secured locally—into pristine gallery spaces, simple, even mundane materials such as flint are suddenly imbued with qualities of extreme eloquence and elegance. Initially, each work is tailored for a specific place and, upon completion, the artist creates, on a single sheet of paper, an outline drawing, followed by a single paragraph written in simple block letters giving instructions on how to re-create it. Contingent factors, such as breakage and proportions, are recognized and accommodated. The instructions for Minneapolis Circle (1982) specify an exact twenty-two-foot diameter but allow “about ten spare stones left over at the end [to] make the selection of the last pieces to go in easier.”4 The drawing for A Line of Flint (1983), by contrast, permits a two-foot variance in length (“depending on the particular placing”) and, anticipating the friability of flint, stipulates that “any broken fragments less than 2 inches long should be thrown away.” Both sheets end with this admonition: “N.B. This drawing shows procedure only; it cannot itself be ‘copied.’ It is not an artwork.”5 Such sentiments are in keeping with the artist’s arm’s-length relationship with the art world and the desire (now somewhat romantic-seeming) of many 1960s artists6 to create work that exists largely outside a commercial framework and that rearranges rather than adds to the material world, bringing awareness and beauty to the everyday, the incidental, and the spurned.
Richard Long, Five six pick up sticks/Seven eight lay them straight (London: Anthony d’Offay Gallery, 1980). ↩
By an irony not of the artist’s making, the very maps that Long uses for his walks in Britain owe their existence to the British Army’s determination to pacify the Scottish Highlands following the uprising of 1745. Hence the name: Ordnance Survey Maps. ↩
Long insists that the photographs are not works of art themselves, merely records of actual work, and deliberately inscribes them “in the public domain.” To see the work itself, the would-be viewer must, to some degree, reproduce the artist’s walk. In 1980, while discussing the possibility of the commission for Minneapolis Circle, the artist told the author that two long walks had been abruptly curtailed: one, by the Peruvian army, when Long was detained for his own safety to protect him from the guerrilla group Sendero Luminoso; a second when an amiable rancher in Wyoming advised him that his neighbor was prone to shooting “trespassers” before asking questions. ↩
According to the author’s memory, Long declined to use granite from the nearby Cold Springs Quarry for Minneapolis Circle because of the stone’s particular decorative connotations. He had a favorite red slate shipped in from upstate New York. ↩
Artist’s statement, 1983 (Walker Art Center Archives). ↩
This motivation (and aesthetic), widespread in European art circles in the 1960s and 1970s, also underlies work by artists associated with Arte Povera, Zero, and Fluxus. ↩