His books are hugely popular, but can a new show persuade the art world to give Andy Goldsworthy the credit he deserves, asks Waldemar Januszczak
Being either of these without being the other is relatively easy. The world is full to overflowing with serious artists who will never claim any degree of public love because whatever it is they seek to express so seriously means nothing much to anyone else. Solipsism is the abiding weakness of contemporary art. In the other corner, however, any old makeweight can achieve some sort of recognisable popularity if they know how to press the right buttons. Witness the career of Jack Vettriano. Since he changed his name from the dull but honest Jack Hoggan to the self-consciously “interesting” Jack Vettriano, his work has become as ubiquitous on the great British wall as Tretchikoff’s Green Lady used to be, or the three flying ducks, though the Green Lady and the flying ducks were of a higher artistic standard. Vettriano’s moronic cocktail-hour porn appeals to anyone who seeks from an oil painting what they find on the cover of a bestselling paperback at the airport. I mention him in the same breath as Goldsworthy merely to signpost the latter’s unusual popularity as crudely as I can.
Goldsworthy has now produced four utterly delightful and thoroughly life-enhancing picture books for Thames & Hudson, the biggest publisher of art books in the country. Each book has sold out, making them, by a long way, Thames & Hudson’s most popular product. A Goldsworthy picture book takes you on an outdoor adventure to see things you never thought you’d see. A cluster of icicles in a river defy the laws of nature by pointing upstream. Wow. Four glorious slashes of yellow, made by sticking autumn leaves to pieces of bark, hover above a waterfall, as if by magic. These unusually vivid sights reconnect you to the visual excitements of childhood, restore your faith in human ingenuity and act as an antidote to the toxins of city life. They’re precious. I give them for Christmas. You give them for Christmas.
Unfortunately, the bookshop success of Goldsworthy’s eco-tomes is also, I reckon, the chief reason that he has been the victim of such evident snobbery from the modern-art establishment. I have never seen a work of his at Tate Modern. As far as I know, it does not own one. Goldsworthy has never been included in any signi- ficant international biennale. When he did have a show at a big museum in New York, it was not at Moma, which would have been cool, but at the Metropolitan, which is cool only if you are a Byzantine relic or some rare medieval church silver. His role in the contemporary-art firmament is to occupy an uncomfortable limbo halfway between the tastes of the public and those of the contemporary-art world.
It isn’t his terrain that disqualifies Goldsworthy from proper art-world respect, but his perceived softness. The courtiers have him down as a peddler of easy coffee-table pleasures. They imagine his work to be involved in a display of crowd-pleasing outdoor ingratiation, of the sort you find in the postcard racks of Provence. In fact, his sculptures are the result of complex and difficult feats of endurance, mounted as a tribute to nature’s beauty and poetry, yes, but also because he is a very serious artist, and a very tough one. Goldsworthy takes no short cuts. While others employ teams of assistants to screw in their rivets and paint their dots, he does it all himself: whatever it takes, wherever it takes, for however long it takes. He’s hard-core.
Upon entering the Albion gallery in Battersea, south London, where some mighty indoor versions of some of his mightiest outdoor sculptures have been ambitiously assembled, you see before you an immodestly long branch, the thickness of a champion anaconda, covered in reddish clay and snaking into the distance for 50ft or so. Is it the world’s longest branch? Or is it many branches joined sneakily at their ends? The latter, of course, but you are not immediately sure and some modest investigation of natural possibilities is required for the answer. We have here a branch that keeps going and going, a timber Paula Radcliffe, a branch on a marathon. It is certainly not a great piece of Goldsworthy, because it fails to startle. But in its effort to fuse hard-core minimalism with the delicate poetics of Scottish timber, it is entirely typical.
Goldsworthy’s sculpture is unusual in being so damned photogenic. Indeed, it often looks better in photographs than it does in the flesh. Which isn’t really a useful trait if your true ambitions are those of a sculptor, not a photo-grapher. His latest book, Passage, has just come out, and it is more solemn than its predecessors.
Having done the obviously uplifting seasons — summer, spring — and having dealt frequently with times of the day that glow gorgeously, Goldsworthy has now become a champion of glum Scottish greynesses, a deeper and older appreciator of nature’s less obvious moods. Much of the book is spent in the twilight. I hope this is because he is growing old. It could be because he wants his seriousness to be more obvious.
The Albion show includes a small selection of photographs from Passage, and in a curious reversal, they don’t work as well in the gallery as they do in the book. At Petworth in 2002, across a rural parkland made famous by Turner, Goldsworthy built a two-mile path of chalk through the woods that needed a full moon to complete its effect. The ghostly white path could only be visited on three days of the month. Searching deep into my own memory, I can just about envisage what magical delight this spectral amble may have provided in real life. But the photographs of it are dull. Unlike most of Goldsworthy’s photographic records of a piece, which seem usually to enhance it, and even complete it, the midnight walk fails in its photographic life to live again.
Goldsworthy is nearly 50. His Andy days are over. There’s a grumpy Andrew at work in many of the new pieces, traipsing glumly around the Scottish murk, searching for elusive moonlit poetry and setting himself imposs-ible tasks of natural construction.
I couldn’t help feeling that the unusually circular and inherently awkward Albion gallery has concentrated on this suite of massive sculptures in a deliberate effort to add some pounds to his reputation. If so, it has succeeded.
I visited the gallery in the early evening. At the end of the snaking branch, a twilight beckoned. I wasn’t sure what I would find there, and even on the inside it wasn’t clear. I am used to darknesses in modern-art galleries. So many shows today are set up for video art and film projection.
But those gallery darknesses are hard, flat and artificial. Goldsworthy’s isn’t. It has light in it, and feels unsolid. When your eyes get used to it, you see that you are inside a huge wooden cave or igloo constructed from 28 tons of sweet chestnut branches. No nails or screws have been used. It all supports itself. Gulp.
I’m not at all interested in the Celtic significance of these sorts of structures, or any guff about pagan power sources and the like. What matters here is the conquest of impossibility. This is an extraordinary feat of bare-handed building. Rising up in the middle is a tower of beach boulders, with each huge stone resting on the one below, growing smaller as they rise, and again staying up on balance alone.
Of all the Goldsworthy sculptures I have seen, this is perhaps the first that feels genuinely transportative. As I stood in here wondering why — finally — a Goldsworthy sculpture had succeeded in bringing the outdoors so effectively indoors, I realised I was being convinced by my nose. The sweet chestnut has a fresh and woody tang to it. It was dark. My nose fell for it.