During coronavirus lockdown in cities around the world, the act of taking a walk outside has taken on new meaning. In some countries, like Spain, walking outside was banned altogether during the worst of the coronavirus. In other places, like New York, walking has become freighted with anxiety. Bristol, a city in southwestern England, has had its own share of social distancing and shutdowns. Nevertheless, the artist Richard Long, who has lived there his entire life, has continued taking the long walks that are part of how he makes his art.
When the coronavirus lockdown hit New York in late March, Long had not one but two gallery exhibitions shuttered shortly after they opened, one at Lisson in Chelsea and one downtown at Sperone Westwater. This after much time and expense was expended installing wall works (executed in situ), multi-part floor sculptures, text works, and photographs. Although he is “sad and disappointed,” Long wrote by email from Bristol, his shows are in “the same boat as many other venues, theatres, sports, etc.” Sperone Westwater has posted a 3-D tour of “Muddy Heaven” on their website. And Lisson, where “From a Rolling Stone to Now” debuted, has put online a short video in which the artist is seen placing a row of overlapping grey slate panels on the floor as well as applying tidal mud from England directly to a wall to create a bold horizontal work replete with drips.
Long, who turns 75 next month, has always been more open to improvisation than his Conceptualist contemporaries with whom he was grouped in the early- and mid-70s. Take his sculpture at Lisson, Virginia Line, which stretches the length of the commodious space, or the spectacular flint work resembling a riverbed that meanders along Sperone Westwater’s third floor. Despite both having, as Long puts it, “certain parameters of placement,” the works also embody, he says, “variation and spontaneity.”
“Every time [Virginia Line at Lisson] is made,” he recently explained, “each slate will be in a different place, yet it is the ‘same’ work each time.”
Then there are his wall works to consider. According to Long, “even though they could be made in the ‘same’ way, they are all cosmically different, one from another, both in the macro and micro scale. Like live music, they are unrepeatable.” While aspects can be replicated, the initial outings are subject to the specifications of the spaces in which they are first realized.
A continuity of themes runs throughout the body of work Long has executed during a career that spans more than five decades. Various tweaks he’s made along the way have allowed him to mature from attracting the limelight while still a student enrolled at St. Martins to his stature today as a major figure in the international art community. If he ever seemed like a Johnny Appleseed–like character, he now is closer in spirit to an Auguste Rodin, albeit he’s more engaged with time and space than with writhing men and women or fragments of bodies. Anyone who doubts his bearing and achievement has only to walk into Sir Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower in New York and look up at Riverlands, a wall work made with mud in 2006 that’s 70-feet-high and 40-feet-wide. It’s a stunner.
Sir Richard Julian Long—he was knighted two years ago—was born in Bristol on June 2, 1945. World War II had ended a few weeks earlier, and England would never again be the same. And it’s against a backdrop of myriad upheavals—computers that fit in your back pocket, cameras that don’t need film, newly synthesized oil and acrylic paints, space modules that fly to the moon—that his art should be viewed. After all, many aspects of his art are rooted in solitary walks he’s taken through all sorts of landscapes, near and far. Sometimes, he’ll make a sculpture on site with stones and twigs placed in basic geometric shapes such as circles and crosses; other times, he’ll take a photograph that becomes a shared memory. With mud, he’ll cover walls of museums and galleries around the globe. And, in the country that gave us William Shakespeare, he will string nouns together with different fonts and color that evoke places to which he’s travelled.
By relying on sticks and stones, much less mud, to execute different categories of his body of work, Long could not be using more elemental materials. Since he hasn’t gone digital, even his camera is old fashioned. And, his photographs clearly establish his credentials as a landscape artist, historically a rarity for sculptors. His work is influenced by the weather, the seasons of the year, all kinds of terrain, the condition of roads on which he bicycles, geography, and even geology.
Asked if the nature of his walks has changed much over the years, Long indicated that was a “big question, yes and no.” “The walking,” he said, “could stay the ‘same,’ but the ideas change and the places and locations will change. And by now, there’s more of them, so that changes things…more experience, more of my own history, more opportunities for richness or complexity, more freedom of form, etc.”
The highly regarded curator Rudi Fuchs once suggested that Long allows all of us to share “a contemplation of nature.” The artist himself has referred to “the music of stones, paths of shared footmarks, sleeping by the river’s roar.” Or, as Shakespeare put it in As You Like It, “And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brook, sermons in stones, and good in everything.”
Since we’ve all been in lockdown, Long has taken a walk near his home that revisits one of his earliest, most lauded works. Instead of forming a large cross in a field of flowers by removing lots of petals as he did in 1968, he executed in Bristol only a few weeks ago, Daydreaming Line, an extended path of topless blooms that wends its way through yet another field of flowers. X no longer marks the spot. And Long just made a new text work called Daydreaming. Appended to each letter of the evocative word is an additional noun or participle: Drifting, Argentina, Yangtze, Doubt, Roads, Erotica, Aimless, Mowing, Illusions, Nonsense, Grandpa. Pithily, Sir Richard has summed up, at this historic moment, a life he’s led.