Andy Goldsworthy Sculpture

Report Written by Matthew Roderick for Art History at Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan.

The artistic works of Andy Goldsworthy yield a highly sophisticated, post-modern strategy using natural elements found at the scene such as sticks, stones, leaves, ice, soil, and clay. Sculpted ephemeral works ascend the landscape with assistance from the patient hands of the artist, and inevitably left to the elements, demand its total destruction. Goldsworthy photographs on-site, transient works to offer a visual entrance for his viewers by revealing what lies below the surface. The conglomeration of natural materials and primitive methods translate a history of location and resonance with realities of the past. “Growth, time, change and the idea of flow in nature” are all themes investigated throughout his work. Andy Goldsworthy represents the realization of a post-modern Impressionist intuitively operating within the constructs of earth and its cyclical process.

Andy Goldsworthy embraces Modernism through the use of natural materials in a landscape of possibility, while at the same time revealing dimensions of time, earth cycles and cultural references more consistent with the referring aspects of Post-Modernism. Goldsworthy demonstrates a connection to an underlying theme of constant change in a dialogue with nature’s inherent energy. Tension is created through the construction of the artificial from the natural world referring to energy and aesthetics of place. Sensory impressions gathered from the environment translate a new reality for the artist reflecting the importance of physical surroundings and the transitory effects of light. Goldsworthy has divided his work into 3 categories, I will discuss the site-specific pieces created in isolation and recorded in photographs, executed outdoors and capturing the spatial essence of place.

Goldsworthy has stated he works intuitively with his environment after surveying the landscape (often for hours) to capture a sense of place. By Goldsworthy embracing the impressions of site, he aligns himself with the the reaction of Impressionists, while at the same time taking it to extreme post-modernism by removing himself from the limitations of the 2 dimensional canvas. I mention extreme because Goldsworthy penetrates multiple levels of consciousness through the sensitivity and impressions of medium materials (e.g. mud, leaves, snow, ice, water). The strategy for my modern argument is grounded in the use of natural materials, even dissecting what they are, and post-modern in the revelation that his works refer to a dialog between the natural and artificial, ephemeral and enduring.

Inextricable from its site, it represents a moment of ingenious, sometimes labor-intensive improvisation that transforms humble, readily available materials – leaves, twigs, stones, even snow or ice – into momentary feats of illusion.[1]

Goldsworthy’s art projects begin with an examination of nature and a search for natural materials. He laboriously creates beautiful sculptures that mimic the natural shapes and patterns preexisting in the area in which he is working. One sculpture is formed with broken icicles that melt soon after they become almost magically illuminated by the light of the rising sun; another uses driftwood that disperses with the evening tide.[2]

On numerous visits to Storm King, the Scotland-based sculptor made many of his amazing ephemeral works, here documented by photographs. Orange and yellow leaves held to rock with water made for the morning sun, Oct. 30 and 31, 1998 includes two photos, each a large rectangle (one yellow, the other orange) of wet fall foliage stuck to the side of a lichen-covered boulder. Many of the photographs show Goldsworthy’s water drawings, for which he uses water like paint, creating bold shapes on large stones in creeks.[3]

The outdoors is Goldsworthy’s canvas. He’s always stopping in the woods to organize a colorful array of leaves on the ground or at the beach to fashion a sand sculpture near the water.[4]

Goldsworthy basically embraces the traditional goal of art – that is, he wants to add interesting objects to the world. His sculptures are consistently well crafted, richly colored and visually striking. He favors curvy lines and geometric shapes, particularly circles, and in a typical sculpture he might stack driftwood or icicles he collected in the woods into a perfectly balanced dome that stands taller than he does and has the formal complexity of museum-quality abstract art. Even his most casual pieces are composed in a superorderly way, and they hark back to the smooth forms of a modernist like Brancusi, whom Goldsworthy describes as one of his heroes.[5]

Andy Goldsworthy’s work receives accolades for its lack of manufacture. Each piece features nature unadulterated: branches, stones, leaves, and snow. His art consists not in uncovering nature but in his ability to make artifice appear naturalized. Goldsworthy’s work tends to be seen as a visionary transmission direct from nature itself. His ephemeral sculptures rely on an abstraction that has become so acclimated that it no longer requires any effort of vision, and the viewer does not notice it as art. Yet while nature is messy, sloppy, dirty, random, arbitrary, and overabundant, Goldsworthy creates order: meticulously selecting materials, sequence, and ultimate form. His ephemeral pieces raise the possibility that nature alone produced these remarkable spectacles.

Goldsworthy selects elements of nature and arranges them until they just exceed the limit possible for natural organization and enter into an irrefutable human ordering. But by erasing traces of his own hand he heightens the affinity between the constructions and their setting and conceals the history of his intervention. Lines of bright pink that drip down from shrubbery, as in the line of licked poppy petals (1984), or the beech trunk with its shock of green moss (1999) seem heightened extensions of a natural intensity, as if centrifugal force pulled them together for that instant, and we glimpse them just before they drip, collapse, or tumble over.

Through his photographs of sycamore leaves pinned together with pine needles hung from a tree (1988) we voyeuristically participate in the fragile line of light and lilting leaves before they are blown apart, upsetting the entire scheme. Goldsworthy’s photographs allow us to sustain that privileged moment of suspension; a tension, an eternal hesitation, a step outside linear time. His work satisfies our expectation that such a perfect moment can be found and lived, endorsing our myth of direct and unmediated communication between nature and culture.

Goldsworthy’s art appears to restore some kind of clairvoyance, allowing us to see clearly what has always been there. In this narrative, art becomes less a creative product and more an uncovering of nature; the artist serves as a handmaiden to nature. But further explorations become more discursive, proportional to Goldsworthy’s familiarity with the material. We see this in his succession of leaf sculptures. In the earliest ones, overlapping leaves emphasize their contrasting elements through a color change (Sycamore, 1979), a pattern formed by zigzag edges (Elm, 1978), or through the thin raised line of the stem (Sycamore, 1984); essentially two-dimensional patterns placed on the ground. The jagged edge in Horse Chestnut (Yorkshire, 1982) can be seen as leading Goldsworthy to his interest in a serpentine pathway, which appears first in his pieces using leaves only and then in works in which coils of leaves unravel as they float on water (Hazel leaves in a rock pool floating downstream, Dumfriesshire, 1991).

Like safari photographs that appear to capture rare phenomena, these photographs are complicit in fostering the belief that we have discovered a found natural object, as opposed to viewing a photograph of a work of art. Artists strive to experience ideas physically, to give tangibility to ideas. Absorbed in the process of creation, they describe a sensation of uncovering what existed, of materializing what was invisible. Throughout the last century, modern art’s agenda has been to call attention to the process of its making, emphasizing its fabrication and banishing a view of art that mistakes it for nature. Goldsworthy’s art disguises its seams and persuades the viewer to disregards is artifice, effortlessly undoing the past 100 years of art.[6]

Mr. Goldsworthy’s is a paradoxical enterprise. He is almost puritanical in his insistence on using materials like sticks, stones, leaves, or water found on site to create often ephemeral works that minimally affect the environment. He produces works of magical artificiality in which there is almost always a play of opposites: between the natural and the unnatural, inside and outside, order and disorder, reality and illusion.[7]

The “craft” argument seems to me ill-founded: Goldsworthy’s supremely skillful manipulation of materials—as when he stitches together sycamore leaves with stalks or builds a delicate spiral of icicles—is rooted in his overall commitment to testing the possibilities of naturally occurring materials.[8]

Goldsworthy is sometimes portrayed as a modern Druid; really, he is much closer to a latter-day Impressionist. Like those 19th-century painters, he is obsessed with the way sunlight falls and flickers, especially on stone, water and leaves. Monet—whose painting of a sunrise gave the Impressionist movement its name—used oil paint to reveal light’s transformative power in his series of canvases of haystacks, the Rouen Cathedral and the Houses of Parliament. Goldsworthy is equally transfixed with the magical effect of natural light. Only he has discovered another, more elemental way to explore it.

Throughout the 20th century, artists struggled with the dilemma of Modernism: how to convey an experience of the real world while acknowledging the immediate physical reality of the materials—the two dimensional canvas, the viscous paint—being used in the representation. By using the landscape as his material, he can illustrate aspects of the natural world—its color, mutability, energy—without resorting to mimicry. One work which he took special joy, a sort of bird’s nest of sticks, was intended to evoke a tidal whirlpool; when the actual tide carried it into the water, its creator marveled as it gyrated toward destruction. The modesty in his method is matched by a realism in his demands. He knows that nothing can or should last forever. Once a piece has been illuminated by the perfect light or been borne away by the serendipitous wave, he gratefully bids it a fond farewell.[9]

To say that Goldsworthy eschews symbolism is not to imply that the work is intentionally without meaning, rather that this is something discovered in the course of its making, and then exploited. The holes in the ground are so constructed that no light falls on the inside walls: all that can be seen is perfect darkness, or sometimes a dim twilight, so that the depth of the cavity cannot be guessed: it could be infinite. This gives the artist a sense of the energy contained in the earth, and energy is one of his favourite concepts. It appears in the way he uses colours, manipulating them by re-arrangment to bring out unexpected brilliances; it is the intensity of a found colour, rather than its individual hue which fires his enthusiasm.[10] The black of a hold is like the flame of a fire. The flame makes the energy of fire visible. The black is the earth’s flame – its energy. I used to say I will make no more holes. Now I know I will always make them. I am drawn to them with the same urge I have to look over a cliff edge. It is possible that that last work I make will be a hole.[11] Another recurrent motif was the hole: made from leaves arranged in a circle on the ground, leaves hovering over a hole, leaves held together by thorns or twigs, floating on the water’s surface, a kind of peep hole into the earth down towards the energy that makes nature live and grow, the essence of our existence.[12] Your work is a wonderful and beautiful and admirable craft, it is also art because by its intervention in nature it creates new relationships between ourselves and nature.

[13] Goldsworthy relishes working with the spiral form in leaves because of its leading role in a process as natural as growth itself. A leaf is folded along its length so that the prominent central vein is uppermost, forming a backbone. This is then shaped into a tight spiral, loosened, and another leaf, similarly folded, is nestled into the fold of the previous one and pinned with thorns. As the process is repeated the spiral grows. A natural cone shape results and grows from the thin end downwards and outwards. Curves and twists are readily introduced by varying the degree of overlap with the layers of the spiral immediately above.[14]

The atmosphere of any place produces a specific work. When I say atmosphere I think I mean many things, but in talking about the space that a material occupies, that space is made visible by the weather, the light; and it is that space that I am trying to understand. I am not just trying to understand a rockas if it has been delivered to my studio. I have to understand why it is there and the time it has spent there, the way it has effected that place. It is a window into processes that have gone on and around that rock, or leaf or stick. Those are the things I am trying to learn about. That is why I work with the materials in the place where they have come from – at their source. When I work with a leaf I am working with the sun and the rain and the growth of the tree, the space of the tree, the shadow of the tree. It is not just three inches of leaf; it is the growth and process that I am interested in.[15]

My intention is not to improve on nature but to know it – not as a spectator but as a participant. I do not wish to mimic nature, but to draw on the energy that drives it so that it drives my work also. My art is unmistakably the work of a person – I would not want it otherwise – it celebrates my human nature and a need to be physically and spiritually bound to the earth.[16] I feel a deep insecurity in nature - a fragile, unpredictable and violent energy. The black holes and cracks are windows into that energy.[17]

A stone is passive, a witness to the place in which it sits; it is a focus, the core, the remains of something that was larger; its movement is one of erosion . . . A tree is an active part of its place, it makes that place richer and is an indication of the way something can change a place – in this respect it is a lesson to me about my own life as a sculptor.[18] Leaves are for Goldsworthy generated from the tree’s core. They are the tree’s senses, an expression of its vigour.[19]

Time and change are connected to place. Real change is best understood by staying in one place. I have found and worked with red in many countries and talked of it as the earth’s vein – a descriptive confirmed by the realization that the earth and stone are red because of their iron content which is also why our blood is red. The beauty of the red is its connection to life – underwritten by fragility, pain and violence – words that I would have to use in describing beauty itself. This sense of life draws me to nature, but with it also comes an equally strong sense of death. I cannot walk far before seeing something dead and decaying.[20] It would be wrong to describe it simply as decay – the work is changing and becoming something else.[21]

For me, looking, touching, material, place and form are all inseparable from the resulting work. It is difficult to say where one stops and another begins. Place is found by walking, direction determined by weather and season. I take the opportunities each day offers: if it is snowing, I work with snow, at leaf-fall it will be with leaves; a blown-over tree becomes a source of twigs and branches. Movement, change, light, growth and decay are the lifeblood of nature, the energies that I try to tap through my work. I need the shock of touch, the resistance of place, materials and weather, the earth as my source. I want to get under the surface.

When I work with a leaf, rock, stick, it is not just that material in itself, it is an opening into the processes of life within and around it. The energy and space around a material are as important as the energy and space within. The weather – rain, sun, snow, hail, mist, calm – is that external space made visible. When I touch a rock, I am touching and working the space around it. It is not independent of its surrounding and the way it sits tells how it came to be there. In an effort to understand why that rock is there and where it is going, I must work with it in the area in which I found it. I have become aware of how nature is in a state of change and how that change is the key to understanding. I want my art to be sensitive and alert to changes in material, season and weather.[22] Each work grows, stays, decays – integral parts of a cycle which the photograph shows at its height, marking the moment when the work is most alive. Transience in my work reflects what I find in nature.[23]

[1] Roberta Smith, “The Met and a Guest Step Off in Opposite Directions,” The New York Times 3 Sept. 2004: 24.

[2] Thomas Riedelsheimer, Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time, DVD-ROM, Mediopolis Films, 2004.

[3] Cathy Lebowitz, “Andy Goldsworthy at Storm King Art Center and Galerie Lelong,” Art in America 10 Oct. 2000: 175.

[4] James Pritchard, “Sculptor Andy Goldsworthy’s largest U.S. exhibit focuses on the arch,” The America’s Intelligence Wire 27 Jan. 2006: NA.

[5] Deborah Solomon, “Stone Diarist,” The New York Times 16 May 2004: 64.

[6] Lenore Metrick, “Disjunctions in Nature and Culture: Andy Goldsworthy,” Sculpture 22 June 2003: 5.

[7] Ken Johnson, “Indoor-Outdoor Relations Along the Hudson Valley,” The New York Times 21 July 2000: 33.

[8] Lynn Macritchie, “Residency on Earth,” Art in America Apr. 1995: 90.

[9] Arthur Lubow, “Andy Goldsworthy: Using nature as his canvas, the artist creates works of transcendent beauty,” Smithsonian Nov. 1995: 46.

[10] Terry Friedman and Andy Goldsworthy, Hand To Earth; Andy Goldsworthy Sculpture 1976-1990 (New York: Abrams, 1993) 19.

[11] Friedman and Goldsworthy, Hand To Earth 24.

[12] Friedman and Goldsworthy, Hand To Earth 54.

[13] Friedman and Goldsworthy, Hand To Earth 58.

[14] Friedman and Goldsworthy, Hand To Earth 104.

[15] Friedman and Goldsworthy, Hand To Earth 168.

[16] Jill Hollis and Ian Cameron, Stone: Andy Goldsworthy (New York: Abrams, 1994) 50.

[17] Jill Hollis and Ian Cameron, Stone: Andy Goldsworthy 64.

[18] Jill Hollis and Ian Cameron, Wood: Andy Goldsworthy (New York: Abrams, 1996) 6.

[19] Jill Hollis and Ian Cameron, Wood: Andy Goldsworthy 11.

[20] Jill Hollis and Ian Cameron, Time: Andy Goldsworthy (New York: Abrams, 2000) 25.

[21] Jill Hollis and Ian Cameron, Time: Andy Goldsworthy 169.

[22] Jill Hollis and Ian Cameron, Andy Goldsworthy: A Collaboration with Nature (New York: Abrams, 1990) 1.

[23] Jill Hollis and Ian Cameron, A Collaboration with Nature 3.

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