Andy Goldsworthy : an artist of substance

by Jayarava

Published in Urthona Issue 21, 2004-5.

"What is important to me is that at the heart of whatever I do are a growing understanding and a sharpening perception of the land" [1]

Andy Goldsworthy OBE is one of the UK's best known, and loved, artists. Now based in Dumfriesshire, he grew up in Yorkshire, and studied art at Bradford Art College and Preston Polytechnic. His experiences at art college, including having his application rejected by several of them, led him towards solitary expeditions to the seaside where he began his lifelong exploration of nature through art. Andy stands out amongst contemporary artists. In an age were media stars are elected to public office, and their opinions are sought on every important issue of the day: here is a man who genuinely has something to say. Although he tends to be quietly spoken. In an age when mastery of technique is frequently abandoned, with awful results, here is an artist who largely eschews the traditional techniques of sculpture without embracing banality or chaos.

Most people come to know Andy's work through the large coffee table books that he produces. Every work he makes, and he tries to make something everyday, is documented in photographs. The work is of beguiling simplicity and extraordinary beauty. However the fact that we know his work through photography tends to obscure an important aspect of much of his oeuvre – change. "Movement, change, light, growth and decay are the lifeblood of nature, the energies that I try to tap through my work". [2] The very briefest of works are the "throws" which last only a few seconds, but even his large scale works in stone, or earthworks, will change albeit over much longer periods. This aspect is brought out more clearly in the film Rivers and Tides by Thomas Riedelsheimer. With luck the DVD of Rivers and Tides will be available by the time you read this. And of course we can travel to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, or the Storm King Art Centre in New York State, USA, or any number of other places which have 'permanent' installations of Andy's work. Most of Andy's work no longer exists in the form in which it was photographed – although he says that all of his works exist somewhere in some form or another. Andy's interest in change, is not a rejection of the value of other forms of art. He says: "Transience in my work reflects what I find in nature and should not be confused with an attitude towards art generally. I have never been against the well-made or long-lasting". [3]

Andy's sculpture is characterised by simplicity of form, in fact a few simple forms make up the bulk of his work – holes, cones, ovoids, balls, arches, nets, spires, and sinuous lines. "All forms are to be found in nature, and there are many qualities within any material. By exploring them I hope to understand the whole". [4] The idea of these simple recurrent forms in nature is explored in depth in a book called Metapatterns by Tyler Volk. [5] A metapattern is an archetypal form that nature use as a building block in creating other forms, often through repetition. It is these underlying elements that seem to attract Andy's attention. The approach of looking at the detail in order to understand the whole has been critiqued in recent times – specialisation in the sciences for instance is said to have resulted in a loss of understanding of the whole. But Andy's approach is clearly fruitful, and I think it relates to the nature of metapatterns. Since nature is made up of these recurring elements, there is something to be gained in trying to understand the microcosm.

Some of the most interesting works involve sinuous curving lines. This form first appeared as early as 1977 in student works, and has been manifested as carved sand, water on stone and trees, leaves on stone, stacked tree branches, stripped bracken fronds, snow on ice, clay walls left to dry and crack, as a dry stone wall, and even as massive earthworks. Andy returns to this form again and again. In Time he comments after making yet another serpentine form: "I have to stop making this form. It is becoming an obsession." [6] Two days later we find him recreating an earlier line that was in leaves on stone, this time painting water onto the stone.

This line, sweeping one way and then another, is of course common in nature especially where there is water. My favourite image of it comes from a memory of flying over the state of Kansas in the USA. Looking down from 30,000ft one sees the earth spread out – the scale is very different. Kansas is flat. And it is covered everywhere with farms and crops. From the air one can see the squares and rectangles of fields, with roads creating a Mondrian like grid. Here and there are the circle patterns made by irrigation, so that the whole thing looks like some severely formal modernist painting, in earthy colours. However the formalism of the image is broken in places. The landscape is shot through with small rivers and streams which meander with no thought for property rights or boundaries. They make their own way across the land, and create the very same sinuous lines that fascinate Andy Goldsworthy. One sees that the geometric shapes are superimposed upon, imposed upon even, an earlier natural landscape that has not entirely capitulated to domestication.

Andy has said that the sinuous lines are 'snakelike' but that they are not snakes, and that: "The form is shaped through a similar response to the environment. The snake has evolved through a need to move close to the ground, sometimes below and sometimes above, an expression of the space it occupies". [7] So we could see the obsession with the sinuous line as an expression of Andy's own need to "move close to the ground". This is not intended as psychoanalysis, but more as an expression of something archetypal in the way nature is experienced. If we are to have an experience of the land, we must go out and get dirty. We must get of the roads, and pavements, must take off our shoes and walk barefoot on the grass, on the land. Without contact there is no perception. Andy's lines are very often made with his bare hands straight into the earth, indeed even when working with icicles in the cold of the predawn, Andy prefers to work without gloves.

The Lambert Earthworks are the largest of Andy's sinuous lines, but the 'Wall that went for a walk' at the Storm King Art Centre is probably the most spectacular. In this case the route of the wall is to some extent determined by the trees growing in it's path. In this work Andy remakes an old dry stone wall, built as a boundary between field and forest, the stones having being first ploughed out of the cleared ground. However the wall itself has provided shelter for saplings growing close to it, and as they have grown into maturity the trees have helped to topple the wall. In remaking it, Andy pays attention to the lie of the land, the trees, and allows the wall to find it's own path, and naturally enough the line snakes like a meandering stream. "At the same time, I made ephemeral works in the river that runs through Storm King. There was an important link between the river of water and the river of stone…". [8] The new wall encloses, and enfolds the trees, and bring to mind another of Andy's stone works, the sheep fold on his land in Dumfriesshire. This cross referencing is another feature of Andy's works: forms are reproduced on different continents, or in different materials. At Storm King one feels that Andy has guided some natural process rather than imposed his will on the environment. He has allowed the land to speak, rather than asserting his own will. He has purposefully removed features from the wall, such as the Cumbria style top stones, which might have drawn any special attention to the wall, trying to make it blend in.

The sinuous line, the serpentine dance of the edge across the surface, is not Andy Goldsworthy's invention. Nor does he simply draw our attention to the true inventor, nature. Because in a way Andy's lines are anything but natural – stones do not pile themselves up in this way. The wall at Storm King is very obviously "man made". What he does is to celebrate the form in nature, to abstract it and thereby bring it into focus. Andy Goldsworthy frequently speaks about trying understand the material, and to thereby understand a little more of the world. By returning again and again to the same forms in different places, in different media, Goldsworthy recapitulates the process by which nature employs the same forms, the metapatterns which make up our world. He urges us to look again at our environment, and to experience it anew.


Goldsworthy, A.
---- 1999 Andy Goldsworthy. London, Viking. (un-numbered pages)
---- 2000 Time. New York : Harry N. Abrams.
---- 2001 Midsummer snowballs. London, Thames and Hudson.
---- 2001 Wall : at Storm King. London, Thames and Hudson.



Andy Goldsworthy.








Volk, Tyler. Metapatterns : across space, time and mind. Columbia University Press, 1995.


Time , p.167.


Andy Goldsworthy.


Wall p.88