Art for Art’s Sake: a rambling riff upon a theme

I like a lot of different forms of art – painting, sculpture (to a lesser extent); art in the landscape; and ideas, concepts. And art in the broader sense – dance, music (always), books. It is all art, in my view, and just about anything goes.

Some of my favourite artists work in the environment. Richard Long uses a variety of media – there is stone circle of his outside the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh. At one show in London in the late eighties or nineties (perhaps at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery, though I could be wrong), Long had painted on the white wall of the gallery in an ochre mud, circles and circles of hands. It was a large work, perhaps five metres across; it was beautiful, and it was for sale. (I think it was priced at £3,000.) I was curious – I wanted to know how they would move the painting, how they would hang it; so I asked the assistant. She explained that Long would come and remake the painting in situ – on a new wall. A new painting then – or a copy?

Long also makes art from walks. (I walk a lot; perhaps it was this that first attracted me to Long’s work.) The walk is the art – and he documents this in a variety of ways; he makes maps, he makes word-patterns (word pictures, perhaps: is it poetry or painting?), he takes photographs – so which is the art, the walk (the idea) or the photograph (a document only; without the idea, just a print)?

Long’s larger environmental works are interesting. He makes broad stone shapes – circles of slate, oblongs of granite, lines of sticks. They have a depth and texture that is greater than the objects themselves. The stones are laid out in a specific pattern; when the works tour around the world, each curator has a plan showing how the stones should be placed in relation to each other. So is the work the formation of the stones – or the plan showing how they should be set?

Another art whose work I love is Andy Goldsworthy. I first came across his work at a lecture he gave at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh – they have many pieces by him in the garden. (If you know the Botanics, the stone “bee-hive” on the south side of Inverleith House is by Goldsworthy.) At the start of his lecture, Goldsworthy was describing his work; and I thought it sounded incredibly pretentious. (If you have read this far, perhaps you know how I felt.) But then he showed some photographs of his art, and I was spellbound.

He made art of throwing pigments into running streams – the photographs capturing the splashes, and then the pigment being washed away, and then – just a stream, the absence of pigment.

He made art of ice, the art being the product of the melting ice. He carved great arches in ice – transient sculpture.

He made huge snowballs in the winter, mixing in pigments or objects – stones, feathers, twigs – into the snow. He stored these until summer (he was sponsored by a haulage company, who stored the snowballs – huge things – into their cold storage facilities); then he let them melt on to paper, the dribbles of water creating patterns of pigment, or feathers, or – and they are beautiful patterns.

A few years ago, I saw an exhibition of Goldsworthy’s work at the Barbican. In one piece, he had placed giant snowballs in different parts of London. In July. He filmed the melting snow, the puddles formed, and the responses of passers-by. (Which bit is the art – the snowball, the puddle, the people who chanced on the snowball on a summer’s day; or the film?)

One of my favourite pieces by Goldsworthy is a permanent installation in the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh. He lined an Edinburgh press – a kind of cupboard built into a wall – with damp clay; as the clay dried, it cracked and split. Most of the time, the piece is hidden by the door of the cupboard; unless you know, you wouldn’t suspect that the cupboard contained a work of art; and, on opening the door, the fact that it is full of clay is just bizarre, and beautiful.

James Turrell is an American artist; he works in light, bathing spaces in pure light; indeed, the last time I saw his work was in the room containing the Goldsworthy cupboard piece. The room was suffused with a deep blue, without a source – eerily beautiful, like a blue sunrise. His major work, though, is wholly environmental: he is (I think it remains a work in progress, at least) building a laboratory to work with light; and this involves – well, buying a volcanic crater in the Arizona desert, and sculpting it – re-working it – as a work of art itself.

The first I became aware of this madcap scheme – and let’s face it, it sounds pretty crazy – was the first time I saw any of Turrell’s work, when there was a retrospective at the Hayward in London; I had gone to see another exhibition – Howard Hodgkin, say (and there is a genius), or maybe it was Lucien Freud show (I know better now) – and since it got me into the Turrell free, I thought I might as well have a look. I spellbound. There was a whole room (as I recall it) of his architectural drawing for his crater, the whole aim being to create a space where he could work with light as it came through various tunnels and channels. The crater itself is the experience for the observer, looking at the spaces that Turrell has (will?) create.

This bit of writing started out, earlier, as something completely different. This is a bit of a disappointment, because I had the original germ of thought a while ago, and I had been waiting to write it; and then what comes out is completely different. But it has also been exciting too – I hadn’t really thought about my views on this art before, other than I knew I thought it was great.

A weird kind of exploration in the landscape; a walk through art.

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