Making Sense of the Hills: Andy Goldsworthy at Cleveland Museum of Art

Road, Ohio, 2016. Andy Goldsworthy (British, b. 1956) © Andy Goldsworthy. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Road, Ohio, 2016. Andy Goldsworthy (British, b. 1956) © Andy Goldsworthy. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Andy Goldsworthy was taking questions from the audience after his talk Sunday afternoon at the Cleveland Museum of Art, when this one came up: What was he like as a child?

After noting that you’d have to have asked his late mother to really know the answer, the acclaimed artist downplayed the idea that there was anything unusual about his childhood, or his youthful interests. Goldsworthy was born in Cheshire, England, and grew up working on farms in Yorkshire.

“I think it was normal,” he said. “I think I’m normal now.”

There was, of course, some dry humor in the answer. During his talk, Goldsworthy had shown and described a range of work he has famously made on landscapes, especially around his longtime home in rural Scotland. These include, for example, “snow shadows” made by laying on his back on a country road on a snowy day, and staying there long enough for the accumulation to make a man-shaped, dark and dry spot, in contrast to the pure white pavement all around.

Similarly “normal” behavior then would include covering the entirety of his naked body with wet, red poppy petals. And hours spent placing vivid yellow leaves around a splintered crack in the trunk of a fallen tree, adhering them with moisture to trace the violent shape with burning color. And then continuing to explore the same crack by packing it with pure white snow, like a jagged lightening bolt splitting the trunk open.

Of course these are small examples of his prodigious output. But the kind of curiosity and experimentation they show is inherent in the full spectrum of Goldsworthy’s work. And you have to give this to him: there is in fact something entirely normal about this interest in the sensual nature of the world, and the way its materials behave. It’s like playing with mud: You touch it, it’s wet, you can mold it, and that by itself is joyful. Or like collecting colorful leaves: Who hasn’t been dazzled by shades of red and yellow, and collected some? And who hasn’t realized that the temporal nature of this sensuality is a part of its appeal? These are some of the ways we know we’re alive.

Indeed, Goldsworthy’s play with sticks and stones, leaves, and snow are just like what a normal kid might do–except that there aren’t many kids who ever worked with the patience and attention to detail, the appreciation for color and line, or the inspired vision, or the prodigious amount of patience that are required to make these simply, overtly beautiful works using the landscape as a canvas, and things that grow or fall on it as paint.

Goldsworthy’s talk at the Museum was occasioned by a series of private commissions here. He’s making work on a landscape owned by collector, patron, and CMA trustee Scott Mueller. As is his usual practice, when the commission was in the discussion phase, the artist looked at the landscape and came up with several ideas for it—seven, in fact.

And Mueller decided that he wanted them all.

The result is not only that Mueller’s property will be marked by a series of significant works by Andrew Goldsworthy, but that with a concentration of seven “projects” –the term Goldsworthy uses to refer to his larger, enduring installations — it takes a somewhat unusual place on the map.

And if sustaining an artist’s interest over time is a reflection of the power of an artwork, consider his “Red Hill,” which will be a symmetrically, consistently tapered mound coming to a point (imagine the proportions of a pyramid), covered with Virginia Creeper, a vine which turns bright red in the fall, and is native to this part of the country. Besides its colorful impact in autumn, Red Hill is noteworthy because, as Goldsworthy said, he first proposed it in Holland in 1984, and has proposed it ten times since. It’s clearly something he has wanted to do for a long time–a piece whose appeal to the artist himself has endured across more than three decades.

Among the other works that will dot and wind through that landscape are a stretch of road lined with stone dug from a foundation nearby on the property (the image featured above); Apple House, which adds to an aging apple orchard, complete with dying trees, rows of new trees, and an earthen storage facility that will preserve apples at a consistent temperature as the weather changes, making the whole a kind of documentary on the life cycle of apples; a stone covering that will seem to flow over a concrete dam (which besides being beautiful on its own, will conceal the crumbling concrete of the aging dam); and Contour 950 – a level path that winds two perfectly flat miles around the contours of the hilly Ohio landscape.

Contour 950, seen from above, would look like a single line on a topographical map of the rolling landscape east of Cleveland—a line of bare earth, winding through woods, perfectly flat, making sense of the hills.

The work on Contour 950 began by surveying the land. He found just one route winding through the property on which it was possible that a walking trail could remain completely level. “I don’t think I’ve ever made anything that has taught me more about a place than this work,” the artist said.

In part due to the obvious, and in part due to the 2001 documentary Rivers and Tides, Goldsworthy’s work is largely understood to be about the passing of all things. The weather changes, the wind blows, the art goes away. This is certainly true for his “ephemeral” works, and as he notes, people tend to focus on those.

But he distinguishes between those, and his “projects”–generally larger, more durable landscape sculpture. One distinction is their size. Another is that for the ephemeral works, the labor is done when the piece is complete. The works themselves may vanish quickly, but are preserved in photographs. For those, it’s as if artist and audience accept that they will go away. For the larger, more permanent works, though, completion means the work is just beginning. They can stay, but you’ve got to keep them up.

Speaking of Contour 950, he noted “There will be washouts. It will need to be maintained. It will need to be walked.”

So maybe it’s more broadly accurate to say not that his work is about all things passing, but about life: All things do pass. We can work to maintain them, and we do. And we may succeed for a time.

Learning about and really experiencing the landscape seems to be just as important to Goldsworthy’s art as this idea of time and life passing. Among the slides he showed was a series of four photos of a waterfall. The rush of white water in the photos was heavy enough that the audience couldn’t see until he pointed it out, that his human figure was present in all four photographs, climbing up through the falls.

It was either right before or right after that that he noted, “The best works do feel as if I have entered the landscape.”

As he got to know the Northeast Ohio landscape, Goldsworthy had great things to say about it.

“I’ve never worked in a place as great as this,” he said. “Things get done here.”

And you could easily toss that off as flattery of the local crowd. But given that he had his crew of British “wallers” working alongside Amish stonemasons, and with Tom Eddy of Eddy’s Orchard to manage the apple trees, and given that he just had a northeast Ohio patron say “Yes” to all seven of his ideas, it sure sounded like he was speaking the truth.

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.