Summary of Richard Long
Using his walks as art, Richard Long's excursions into nature and his minimally invasive marks on the landscape have broadened the definitions of sculpture to include performance and conceptual art. While the work is often theoretical and hermetic, he contextualizes his actions in more universal and historical terms, however explaining, "if you undertake a walk, you are echoing the whole history of mankind." This primal quality runs throughout his art, even pieces designed for a gallery or museum setting are crafted from elemental materials of stone, sticks, muds, or else are simply photographic or textual records of his experiences. Yet through these unassuming gestures, Long's art has influenced generations of Land artists and has shifted the notion of art away from the object and the idea of permanence.
- Working with natural materials in their original setting and leaving his creations to be reclaimed by nature, Long has refused the notion of art as a permanent object. By refusing to create lasting or monumental structures, he has expanded the acceptable materials and techniques for sculpture and undermined the traditional ideals of that medium. Furthermore, in rejecting artistic media and techniques in favor of minimalist rearrangements of natural materials, he harnesses unassuming materials to create meaningful statements.
- With his simple forms of circles and lines, Long connects the viewer with lyrical and timeless elements of nature. His truthfulness to the natural state of his materials and his respect for the landscape results in works that emphasize the beauty of nature. He makes small gestures that carry deep meanings, suggesting the long history of man's relationship to the environment. Whether in the minimal footprint of his walks and interventions in the landscape, or his reverence for the unadorned beauty of elemental materials like mud, sticks, and stones, he encourages the viewer to appreciate the straightforward, primal beauty of nature.
- Moving stones between remote locations or treading a path through grass, Long's most iconic works leave minimal impact on their natural environment and are often erased by the progression of time. In repeating these understated gestures, Long legitimizes these quiet interventions as art. He understands that, because his works are often undetectable, viewers might not even know they are looking at work of art, but that his experience itself and his intentionality qualifies even the simplest actions as artistic expression. Long believes that it is not necessary for the artwork to be understood as art by the viewer, but that his presence and actions are sufficiently artistic without this external acknowledgment.
- In expanding the definitions of sculpture, Long has incorporated interdisciplinary elements from Performance art, Conceptual art, and photography. Where photography began as a way of documenting his performative actions or temporary interventions in remote locations, it has evolved to be a carefully considered component of his work. Long insists that "even though a lot of my work takes place in the landscape, the gallery is the conduit for bringing my work into the public domain" and therefore it is necessary to create artifacts or records of his experiences that can be shared with a viewer.
Important Art by Richard Long
Line Made by Walking
This piece is a straight line in the grass, a path-like impression made through the act of simply walking. Long transforms the landscape into his personal canvas, pacing repeatedly over an unremarkable patch of grass in a London park until a distinct line appeared. The artist then documented this alternation with a photograph, which he took at a perpendicular angle so his trace can be easily seen. The resulting work is part performance, part sculpture, and part photograph, transcending these categories to create a piece that exists in all these categories. Incorporating elements of performance into the sculpture and preserving the work through photography, his process was as much about the resulting photograph as the sculpture was about expressing the journey and the event of walking.
Made while still a student at St Martin's School of Art in London, Long broke with the expectations of sculpture and demonstrated that an impermanent mark in nature could be a meaningful gesture. Part of the emerging Conceptual art movement, the importance of the work shifted from the creation of an object to the fulfillment of an idea, or simply the ideation of an art action. The photograph creates a tangible marker of this action, but the piece itself was a temporary intervention in the landscape, quickly erased by the natural processes of growth and regeneration. In this simple act of walking, Long expands the definition of art to include ordinary, but mindful, interventions that may or may not result in any lasting visual object; this would be highly influential in the rejection of Pop art. Pop had broken from the traditional expectations of artistic originality and highbrow subject matter and technique; Long proposes another path for artistic exploration by highlighting the materials and processes of the natural world. Where Pop had focused on the consumable object, Long's work deemphasized the art object in favor of a performance or an idea.
Long's work returns to more mystical notions of artistic creation, although he conveys these ideas through minimalist means: here, the line shows an exertion of energy and human intentionality. In this sense, it serves as a highly conceptual exploration of the transience of time, distance, and place, but presents these ideas in a very grounded and physical landscape.
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper and graphite on board - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
River Avon Mud Circle
This work was executed directly onto the wall, painted with actual mud that Long transported from his hometown of Bristol to the museum in Ontario, Canada. Echoing his performances in the natural world, he then used his body to create the mud marks on the wall, applying the mud with his bare hands and preserving the smudges of his fingertips and handprints on the wall. The process of his painting remains highly visible, revealing a repeated motion that suggests patterning amongst the loose and splattered effects that extend beyond the sphere. Through simple, bare gestures, Long creates an intricate pattern; working with the humblest materials, he creates an object of nearly hypnotic beauty.
This piece balances order and disorder, containing chaotic and expressive mud painting within in a perfect circle. Expanding on the gestural chaos of Abstract Expressionism, Long moves his work further from traditional definitions of art by rejecting art materials or permanency. His process, working directly on the surface of the wall, creates a work that is site-specific and impossible to move or preserve indefinitely. When his mud circles are included in museum exhibitions, they are uniquely created by the artist, and are simply removed and painted over at the show's end. And yet, while temporary, this series of mud circles also have a timeless quality that connects them to the beginning of artistic creation; the application of mud onto the gallery wall recalls the earliest human impulse to create. The piece is reminiscent of early cave painting, bound to its surface, indelibly connected to the site of its creation and yet suggesting a cosmic or spiritual dimension. The desire to leave a mark is a basic part of our existence. Long creates a work that is very elemental in both material and shape.
National Gallery of Canada. Ottawa, Ontario
Red Slate Circle
Installed on the gallery floor, this sculpture is comprised of a ring of red rocks, arranged precisely to create a four-meter wide circle. Long collected the rocks from an area near the state border between Vermont and New York, bringing them into the space of the gallery to create his own landscape. He cut the rocks smoothly and flatly on the bottom while leaving the remainder of their structure untouched and jagged so that they point upwards in a jarring and irregular manner, recalling the rugged origins of the red slate being quarried from the earth. He retains the natural look of rocks split by organic processes, but accomplishes this through the painstaking work of leveling the unseen surfaces.
While Long's work with natural materials aligns him with the Land Art movement, his repetitive, reductive gestures and simple gestalt forms connect him to Post-Minimalism. The circle created here is easily understood as a whole, despite his insistence of retaining the distinct identity of each piece. Through Long's careful placement, the rocks fit carefully together, yet no two touch, highlighting not just the shape created, but the negative space between each component. The result is both one single unit and an assemblage of individual parts. We can also read this distinctness as a sign of respect to the material in its most natural state. Since the rocks do not touch, the viewer is asked to consider each individual rock as a sculpture unto itself.
Slate - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
60 Minute Walk
This lithograph and screen print, which measuring 189.50 cm high, stands roughly the size of a man and catalogues a series of experiences noted during a sixty-minute walk. The number 60 runs throughout the piece, which features 60 lines of texts and was then reproduced into 60 prints. With this repetition, Long draws our attention to the temporal quality of this walk, presenting us with one descriptive word or phrase for every minute of his journey, describing what he saw, heard, felt, and did.
The letters sit atop a black and gray background which Long created by applying ink onto the surface directly with his fingertips. Against this minimal background, each line contains only one to three words, making the text long and narrow as if the words are walking down the original path in Big Bend, Texas.
Long experiments here with a different process of recording his actions; rather than photograph the walk, he wrote a poem and then presented that poem in a way that recalls the physical experience of the original in simple terms. The words are concise and the background of the poem is a monochromatic, gestural expression. Yet, the artwork still remains conceptual, as the audience can never fully envision the actual event and is left with only the poetic fragments.
Lithograph and screen print - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
This site-specific wall painting was commissioned for the opening of the Tate Modern. Installed over a gallery wall, Long painted a large rectangular swath of black paint over which he slung a mixture of white china river mud and water, rubbing and wiping the material with fluid movements to create a swirling pattern. The application appears chaotic, yet patterns emerge, suggesting some underlying order or logic. The fervor and intensity in which he added the mud is suggested by streaks that run down the wall, leaving energetic lines that evoke the elements: leaves falling in the wind, or a strong rainstorm.
There is a meditative quality to Long's use of natural materials that connects him with the Land Art movement, but the relatively intimate scale of wall paintings such as this, and his continued interest in creating work for gallery or museums spaces differentiates him from some of the more physically ambitious monuments of Land Art. His use of delicate natural materials suggests nature's fragile beauty rather than what we can do to manipulate it.
River mud - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Waterlines is a line drawing made in nature. Long created two broad, snaking lines extending from a riverbank in the Warli Tribal Land of Maharashtra, India, reaching into the landscape towards fields and trees. He then photographed the result; the final photographic work includes the two lines and also two figures in the distant background. The inclusion of these figures emphasizes the composed nature of the photograph as a work of art, not simply evidence to document the performative event.
Long acted as a conduit, replicating the natural manner in which water creates lines upon the landscape. With this simple gesture, which leaves no permanent mark or trace, he questions the role of the artist and minimal boundaries of defining art. Here, the work is a gestural mark upon the landscape, an ephemeral sign of human existence left in the most unobtrusive way possible. The work is destined to vanish and the photograph alerts the viewer to this passage of time, as one can only imagine the short life of the two lines baking on the rock in the hot Indian sun.
Biography of Richard Long
Childhood and Education
Born in Clifton, a suburb of Bristol, England, as a young boy Richard Long played alone in the surrounding hillsides and lush nature of the Avon Gorge. He often returned home after miles-long walks, during which he immersed himself in the natural landscape. His liberal-minded mother and educator father fully supported Richard's desire to explore the outdoors and practice art.
Long's early artistic sensibilities were also encouraged by his school; he would often arrive before classes began to spend time painting and became known as the school artist. He created scenery for school plays and was allowed to create a mural in the dining hall at age 13. His parents similarly allowed him to create a large mural of snow-capped mountains in the family's living room.
Next, Long transferred to the rather conservative and provincial West of England College of Art, where his love of nature and sport was atypical. Here he began experimenting with the physicality that would become central to his artistic production. His refusal of more traditional forms of painting or sculpture, however, was problematic; he was ultimately expelled for an ephemeral, snow-based, school project. Creating a large snowball, Long carefully rolled it down a slope, tracing the existing contours in the landscape. The end result was a linear formation in the snow, which he photographed. At this point, the photograph was merely a document of the finished work of art, an indentation in the snow that would eventually disappear. In the context of the conservative profile of the college, this experimentation was inconceivable; Long was deemed "too precocious," and asked to leave. He later explained that the school considered his iconoclastic artwork a sign that he was "mad." This episode, however, was the beginning of a creative process that would eventually bring him to international attention.
Taking a break from schooling, Long briefly worked in a paper mill, where he continued to create art, frequently taking excess paper to make crumpled sculptures. Enrolling at Saint Martin's School of Art in London, he joined a tight-knit group of friends, becoming especially close to peer Hamish Fulton. While his professors included the acclaimed sculptors Anthony Caro and Philip King, Long continued his independent investigation of less traditional media for sculpture. Instead of working in metal or stone, he experimented with sand and water in the school's garden or on the rooftops, where he blocked the school's drains to leave water stains on the roof's surface. At a time when his colleagues were working on monumental forms in fiberglass and welded metal, his quiet, iconoclastic gestures broke with the legacies of both Abstract Expressionism and Pop art, abandoning the studio and the very notion of permanency in favor of understated, performative, and ephemeral works of art.
Straight from Saint Martin's, Long was recognized on the international art circuit, beginning with the influential German gallerist Konrad Fischer in 1968. As Long later recalled, he "sent some sticks in the post from a tiny post office [in Ireland]. On the strength of those sticks Konrad offered me a show in Düsseldorf. Everything came together fast." Although his work had not yet found an audience in England, it was enthusiastically accepted abroad, where it was seen alongside the performances of Josef Beuys, the minimalist works by Carl Andre or the conceptual art of Lawrence Weiner. Following the successful trip to Germany, he traveled to Italy, where he met Giovanni Anselmo and Marisa Merz and showed in the influential Arte Povera exhibition of 1968. Andre, an early admirer of Long's work who called him a "master artist of the earth taken as a living entity," introduced his work to dealers in New York. These connections and assistance propelled both his self-esteem and career.
Long marveled that he was able to support himself by selling this unconventional work, explaining, "I was amazed that someone bought that first show. It was a line of sticks on the floor. I knew what I doing was important but I had no idea it would be commercially viable." Using the small income from the sale of his work, he traveled to Africa in the summer of 1969, where he created a series of work atop Mt. Kilimanjaro. He also married his art school girlfriend Denise Johnston, in a ceremony in Kenya where they stood on either side of the equator. The couple later had two daughters, Betsy and Tamsin.
Long's environmental sculptures and walking-based works of the late 1960s and 1970s intersected with contemporary experiments in performance and conceptual art. Although many of his works were based on his actions and documented with sparse imagery and text, his focus on nature made him a pioneer in the emerging field of Land Art.
While Long's work has influenced Environmental artists, his approach to the natural world is more personal and experiential than activist. Since that first trip to Africa, Long has traveled extensively, performing walks and recording them for his artwork. These excursions can take on extreme dimensions, walking for weeks in harsh climates and courting the dangers of injury and wild animals, yet they are less about endurance than the complete immersion into nature and the independence of his solitary process.
In order to facilitate the exhibition of his work, Long has found ways to represent his walks in physical forms. In 1970 he performed a spiral walk with muddy boots in the Dwan Gallery in New York. For some projects, Long walks to collect natural materials, from which he forms drawings and sculptures. He has also incorporated photography as a meaningful, considered component of his artwork, rather than just a documentation of his often-inaccessible or ephemeral projects. He is celebrated internationally, including three nominations for the prestigious Turner Prize before his 1989 award, his 2001 election to the National Academy and appointment to knighthood in 2013.
Long has returned home, living today in a converted schoolhouse near Bristol with his current partner, the writer and art historian Denise Hooker. While his work is not dependent on his hometown, he argues that "every good artist is first and foremost a local artist ... whether I like it or not, I'm grounded in being a Bristol or West Country or even an English artist."
The Legacy of Richard Long
Rejecting both traditional and mid-century avant-garde techniques and materials, Long has expanded sculpture and painting by introducing natural elements and performance. A pioneer of the Land Art movement of the 1960s and 1970s, he is one of the most influential artists of his generation, drawing upon a network of Conceptual, Minimalist, and Performance artists to create a range of temporal and ephemeral work. He challenged the definitions of sculpture and conceptual art by proving that a pedestrian act such as walking can be the medium and the artwork. He additionally was subversive in regard to painting and its traditional gesture by applying mud directly to a gallery wall with his hand. His manipulations within nature have inspired artists such as Andy Goldsworthy and Roger Ackling, while his gallery installations of natural materials have impacted artists like Tony Cragg and Martin Creed.
Influences and Connections
- John Hilliard
- Andy Goldsworthy
- Tony Cragg
- Hamish Fulton