Thursday, July 9, 2009

Andy Goldsworthy

I've been a fan of Andy Goldsworthy's work for a long time. But I only knew it from books, photographs of his ephemeral works. I gave the book I had to a young friend who was beginning to make works out of sticks and rocks himself, at the tender age of ten or so. The impulse to make sculpture out of natural objects--sticks, rocks, leaves, flowers, and water--seems to happen sometimes in young men who grow up in the country. Goldsworthy grew up on the edge of Leeds, England, a landscape I remember myself from the time we lived in Leeds in the early sixties. Little did I know that Andy Goldsworthy was my neighbor then, sort of, although he was a few years younger than I.

On my recent trip to the Northeast, I got to see two works by Andy Goldsworthy in person. The first one was at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. It was called "Roof," built in 2005. It consisted of shiny black slate that had been stacked into domes, with a hole, or oculus, at the top. But I didn't know about the hole at the top until I got home and looked at an article about the work on the internet. You can't see the hole from the ground floor of the National Gallery's East building: you can only see the sides of the dome, and you can't tell that it's hollow. Most of the domes are in a sort of courtyard beside the museum, but two of them penetrate the glass separating the courtyard from the atrium. I think it's unfortunate that a large part--and point--of the structure of these domes is not discernible from the main space in the museum. Goldsworthy was interested in recreating the ancient structure of the cantilevered dome, a structure that was used in the beehive tombs of Greece, and to build homes in the British Isles in Neolithic times, but you wouldn't know that unless you are looking down on them. Maybe you can do that from another place in the museum that I didn't find.

My sister told me that when she and her children visited the National Gallery's East building, her son Jack desperately wanted to climb the sides of the dome that protrudes into the atrium, and a guard positioned himself between Jack and the dome!

The second Goldsworthy piece that I saw was at Storm King Art Center in New York state, "Storm King Wall." This piece is actually earlier than "Roofs"; it was build in 1997 and 1998, while Goldsworthy was working on a similar piece in England called "Sheepfolds." Both pieces are based on vernacular rural structures: stone walls. Stone walls are an important feature of the landscape in rural Yorkshire, and in rural New York state as it turns out. (My surname, Stoney, was allegedly adopted by our ancestors who built stone walls in Yorkshire, when the time came for everybody to get a last name.) "Sheepfolds" was started in 1996. Rather than build original structures from his own designs, Goldsworthy "fixed" sheepfolds that were already existing. (A sheepfold is a small pen for sheep, sometimes attached to a stone wall.) Of course, the "fixing" sometimes included new elements, such as stone arches, added to the four-square or round shape of the original sheepfold. Similarly, in New York state, he took the stone from a falling-down old stone wall and fixed it up and re-imagined it. The new wall starts out conventionally enough, straight down a hill, and interrupted by a space for a gate. But then it dives down into a pond and emerges on the other side! Now, it's not unheard of for farmers to fence across creeks here in TN. But a submerged fence makes you think: what is it for? In this case, it is art: it's not for anything except to look at.

Once the stone wall emerges from the water on the other side of the pond, it snakes and curves through the woods, around trees. It becomes serpentine. At this point, you could say that the wall is still functional: farm walls also snake through the woods to some extent. But this wall seems to exult in its curves and snaking, more so than a purely functional wall would. This makes it very beautiful and delightful. Its business seems to be to celebrate the trees that it snakes around, rather than to keep cows in.

This sculpture was my favorite thing at the Storm King Art Center, which is full of other wonderful things. (Storm King is there to provide exhibition space for monumental sculpture and earthworks.) I think I loved "Storm King Wall" the most because it was so humble, so ordinary, so rural, so vernacular, so respectful of the ordinary beauty that ordinary rural people have created for centuries, and yet it took that to the next level with a dash of exuberance that was pure art.

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