Description‘My materials are elemental: stone, water, mud, days, nights, rivers, sunrises. And our bodies are elemental: we are animals, we make marks, we leave traces, we leave footprints.’
One of the leading figures in the Land Art movement which emerged in the mid-late 1960s, Richard Long’s conceptually driven practice has since spanned a broad range of media, existing as poetic text pieces, bookworks, colour and black and white photographic documents, site specific interventions in the landscape, sculptures within galleries, commissioned wall drawings and works on paper. Encompassing elements of various artistic disciplines - performance, photography, sculpture and painting – Long’s art has its origins in walking, a practice has led him to make walks all over the world. Sometimes ‘the work’ remains in the landscape, existing only as a document, at other times the material of the landscape is brought back to the gallery.
Untitled, 2013, is an example of Long’s works on canvas made from mud sourced from the River Avon in Bristol – a city where the artist was born, brought up and still lives to this day. His works incorporating this particular mud are thus inherently autobiographical and he has taken this medium all over the world to make wall paintings in other countries – ‘In the old days I would do a show in New York and have a handful of mud in my luggage.’
The artist describes River Avon mud as ‘squidgy clay’ and he clearly enjoys the tactile and immediate nature of his process - working directly with the materials in his hands. Long is also keenly aware of the geological history of the clay which has been formed by the movement of water over millions of years. In the introduction to his solo exhibition Richard Long: Walking and Marking at the National Galleries of Scotland in 2007, the artist explains to curator Patrick Elliott the evolution of his mud works:
‘The first things I ever made were mud pies on the front path of my parent’s home in Bristol where we lived. Apart from the childhood mud pies, there was a model of the River Avon I made when I was about eleven, with the tide going in and out of these little creeks. Then fast forwarding to my professional career, in 1969, when the tide was out in the river, I made a rainbow across a mudbank using powder-paint colours. The photo shows the rainbow and also the deep footprints from making it. The first time I made an actual mud work was on the floor with my boots, it was my second show at the Konrad Fischer Gallery in Dusseldorf in 1969; it was a mud spiral. Even though it was made by footprints, I considered that work to be a sculpture, it just happened to be two-dimensional. So the first mud works were actually flat sculptures made on the floor. Then after that the next one I did was in 1971 in the Sperone Gallery in Turin, which was one with my hands on the floor. It was only much later that I realised I could do the same kind of mark making on a wall. That day was maybe 10 years later in the late 1970s. Then one day, in the early 1980s, I went to an apartment in New York to install a work - the collector wanted a mud circle on the wall. By chance she had dark brown wallpaper, so I had no choice and I made it anyway, and it was magical, the mud dried beautifully silvery, so that gave me the idea that I could do them not just on white walls but on dark walls.’
In preparation for making his mud paintings, Long typically dilutes mud in a bucket with water, which he mixes by hand to create a slip-like substance, before sieving it to remove debris. From studying videos of the artist working on wall paintings, it appears that he has made the present work by propping up the canvas vertically, scooping out the contents of the bucket with his right, rubber-gloved hand and, using his outstretched fingers, painted the top third of the composition. Meanwhile the flicking gesture of his wrist, as it moves from the bucket across the canvas, has simultaneously created a series of explosive marks, which with gravity have dripped down the canvas. Long appears to have then rotated the canvas 180 degrees and repeated the same actions. Finally, he has turned the work again, presenting it horizontally. The nature of working on canvas has allowed the artist to further experiment with marks made under gravity in a way that would not be possible when working on a wall.
The tension between the hand-painted marks and the drips (which were created without the physical touch of the artist’s hand), is something which interests the artist. Although Long claims always to have a ‘precise idea of the overall form of the work’ in mind before he begins a work, his paintings are executed spontaneously and intuitively. Indeed, the fluidity of the medium gives him the freedom to alter the appearance of the surface as he is working, although gravity and chance mean he is never fully in control of its final outcome, as he explains:
‘It’s about different types of energy. It is also to show the nature of natural forces. So there is the energy of the force of gravity and then there is the wateriness of water, which is demonstrated by the speed of my hand. So it is my energy that makes the splashes.’
These works recall the ‘action paintings’ of Jackson Pollock, and in Untitled, 2013 one gets a real sense of the physicality inherent in the creation of the work. Here we can quite literally see the trace of the artist’s hand at work. Long has spoken of the real pleasure he finds in using his hands to create paintings and, speaking of all his works across all mediums, has commented: ‘Everything is mediated through my body.’
Long’s first dealer was the German gallerist Konrad Fischer in Dusseldorf and he was awarded numerous exhibitions overseas before he began showing with the London dealers Lisson Gallery in 1973, and later with Anthony D’Offay in the 1980s. Long’s place within the British art scene was cemented by his solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1971 and his selection for the Venice Biennale in 1976. In the 1980s, Long became the most frequently nominated artist in the newly created Turner Prize - he was short-listed for the first ever prize in 1984, then again in 1987 and 1988, finally winning in 1989. In the past decade he has been the subject of four major museum retrospectives at the San Francisco Museum of Art (2006), Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh (2007), Tate Britain, London (2009) and Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin (2010). In March 2015, Long was awarded the Whitechapel Gallery Art Icon award, in recognition of his ground-breaking, international career.
To watch rare video footage and photographs of artist making River Avon Mud Circle at M-Shed Bristol, please visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JD2Ai_BECbg
1 Interview with Patrick Elliott, Richard Long, Walking and Marking, National Galleries of Scotland, 2007, p53
2 Ibid, p56
3 Ibid, p51
4 Richard R. Brettell, Dana Friis-Hansen, Richard Long: Circles Cycles Mud Stones, exh. cat., Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, 1996, p27
5 The artist in conversation with Greg Hilty, Curatorial Director of Lisson Gallery, at Frieze Masters 2013, seen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJ_TLCJ6vG4
6 Richard Long in conversation with Stephen Snoddy, Director of The New Art Gallery, Walsall, seen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVCEku5SAWo