July 21, 2016
Andy Goldsworthy is a British artist who’s best known for the fleeting outdoor sculptures he creates from natural materials, including petals, leaves, snow, ice, rocks and twigs. His work is often fleeting and ephemeral, lasting only as long as it takes for it to melt, erode or decompose, but he photographs each piece right after he makes it. He’s frozen icicles in spirals around trees, woven leaves and grass together in streams, covered rocks in leaves, and then left his art to the elements.
Unconventional as it seems, Goldsworthy’s work is firmly within the tradition of conceptual art as it developed in the course of the 1970s in Britain, and other places. It is set apart from the “happenings” and video pieces of the period by its lack of cynicism, as well as by Goldsworthy’s talent for arranging his “found” materials in surprising ways, but it shares the former’s intrinsic assumption that this type of activity constitutes the creation of art.
“When I’m working with materials it’s not just the leaf or the stone, it’s the processes that are behind them that are important. That’s what I’m trying to understand, not a single isolated object but nature as a whole.” – Andy Goldsworthy
Goldsworthy struggles to overcome this by going out of his way, whether consciously or not, to create art that literally can’t be owned, but only experienced—and even at that, only partially—through the medium of photographs or film. To own a book or even an original print of his photographs is not to own a Goldsworthy, and the pieces that find themselves displayed in galleries are patently dry and lifeless out of their natural context.
One can admire the unique bargain Goldsworthy has struck. He has found a way to pursue his largely solitary and ephemeral researches, while still functioning within an art world of markets and commissions. But there is a deep loneliness at the heart of the work, and the solution that he has found applies only for himself. It allows little way forward for other artists, because it does not challenge the art world so much as circumvent it. The most progressive aspect of his work is the use of film, which can reach beyond the monopoly of galleries and exhibits; in Goldsworthy’s case, ironically, this does not compromise what he is doing, the way a digital reproduction of a painting does.
“Stone River,” a colossal serpentine sculpture made from 128 tons of sandstone, is one of Goldsworthy’s permanent works, and can be seen at Stanford University. The stone is all salvaged material that toppled from buildings in the 1906 and 1989 San Francisco earthquakes.
Check out his personal website.