How many serious artists spend time thinking about snow? Andy Goldsworthy, the 49-year-old Englishman renowned for making art from nature, has been pondering snow for decades. For him it stands for the way nature inevitably changes, as cherry blossoms summarize life's brevity in Japanese culture. Snow can be firm and unyielding, then soft and malleable, then a puddle, then nothing.
In 1989, studying snow on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic, he watched the killing of a seal. He combined snow and seal blood into red snowballs, making a drawing by letting the melting snow flow red through his fingers onto paper.
At midsummer, June 21, 2000, from midnight to 6 a.m., in London's financial district, Goldsworthy and his helpers unloaded 13 gigantic snowballs from refrigerated trucks. People arrived at work to find a huge sphere of snow outside their office windows. Goldsworthy had prepared these objects as packages. Each of them, at the core, contained something that represented the countryside far from London -- ears of barley in one, chalk taken from a distant cliff in another, ancient agricultural tools. The snowballs melted and revealed their contents, messages from country to city.
That project left nothing behind except a lovely little book by Goldsworthy, Summer Snowballs (Abrams, 2001). Passage (Thames & Hudson), a recent book on Goldsworthy by several authors, introduces him in detail. The endpapers condense much of his work into a single image, "Seagull feathers laid over river of stone before incoming tide." Goldsworthy gathered a few dozen exquisite feathers, ar-ranged them in a elegant pattern on gleaming black stone, then photographed them while waiting for the tide to take them away. That day's art now exists only as a two-dimensional image.
But sometimes he makes art to last. Recently I saw for the first time two of his most impressive and most straightforward works, a major piece at the National Gallery in Washington D.C., and the 694-metre-long wall that snakes through a section of the Storm King sculpture park in Mountainville, N.Y.
Most of the sculptures at Storm King (by the likes of Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, David Smith, etc.) seem to be placed in the landscape. Goldsworthy's contribution, typically, becomes part of the landscape. His wall meanders quietly around the property, dodging among the trees.
It's made in the drystone tradition, which British farmers used for centuries to mark property lines and enclose livestock. Drystone walls last because they don't depend on mortar, which can rot and flake off, destabilizing the structure. The builders find appropriate stones and then break and chip them until they fit together snugly.
In Britain drystone walling has in modern times become a competitive sport. For Storm King, Goldsworthy brought four wallers from Britain, including a winner of the Grand Prix of the Drystone Walling Association of Great Britain. Last winter and spring the same men worked on Roof, a handsome, 400-ton slate piece at the National Gallery.
To make a Holocaust memorial for the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City, New York, Goldsworthy burnt the cores out of 18 huge boulders (the number 18 refers to the symbol for life), filled them with earth, and had Holocaust survivors plant in each of them a chestnut-oak sapling, making a Garden of Stones. As Goldsworthy acknowledges, eventually roots will crack some of the stones from within, perhaps all of them. That's as it should be: the garden exists in time as well as space. "Each work grows, stays, decays. Process and decay are implicit. Transience in my work reflects what I find in nature."
Goldsworthy wouldn't claim to be entirely original. His shapes recall Constantin Brancusi's, which he's closely studied. He lacks the profound authority of Richard Serra and the wild originality of Smith. His sculptures have none of the wit of Picasso's. But over a quarter of a century he's demonstrated an intimate feel for natural forms and a unique ability to manipulate them, heightening their visual power.
He synthesizes what he soaked up as a student -- earth art, land art, Happenings (which were designed to be ephemeral). He absorbed the idea of making new art by finding new (to art) materials. American earthwork artists such as Walter de Maria and Michael Heizer left a mark on him. So did Richard Long, the British artist whose sculptures emphasize circular arrangements of stones. The insights of these artists can look fatuous when simply copied. I remember a depressing visit in 1987 to a Tokyo art gallery where an artist obviously thought that an exhibit consisted of assembling a few hundred twigs in stunningly tiresome patterns on the gallery floor. Goldsworthy avoided blind alleys like that by constantly returning to his natural sources for inspiration.
He has a peculiar kind of reputation. His admirers love his work and seek it out, either the actual work or (more often) in books and in Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time, a superb DVD directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer. But a large part of the art world barely knows he exists, despite his major commissions and despite big shows in cities from Osaka to Toulouse.
A mystical quality, a belief in the magic of natural objects and their moral power, lies behind much of his thinking: "Every stone that I place on a sculpture contains some of my own energy: the lifting, the cutting, the placing. Part of me stays with the stone, just as part of the stone stays with me." Jason Edward Kaufman, in the course of an admiring piece about Goldsworthy in the Wall Street Journal, called him the "priest of his own nature cult." Another Goldsworthy admirer, William Malpas, in a book on him called Touching Nature, noted his relationship to "the eco-neo-pseudo-pagan view articulated by the land artists."
Goldsworthy keeps a careful diary and often publishes chunks of it in his books. He writes more about his work than any other artist I know and always with a sense of wonder and even shock at what he learns about nature. He likes to insert a touch of melodrama into his art.
That's part of his character, and part of his charm. Simon Schama called him "a dramaturge of nature's temper." In his hands nature becomes a performance, a show that never ends and never ceases to impress those who attend to it.