Richard Long retrospective at Tate Britain

    The artist who decided walking was art is on dazzling form in an impressive show that does everything well

    I owe Richard Long an apology. Over the many years I have been writing about his work, I have, on several occasions, been snippy about him, and even rude.

    In particular, I have complained about the frequency of his exhibitions. After the ninth or 10th attempt to say something new about his challenging fusions of walking and art, even the most inventive critic would find himself at a loss for enthusiasm. But that was back in the 1980s and 1990s. More recently, he has become a much rarer presence. Partly, I suppose, because fashion has taken against him, and his thoroughly moral approach to landscape art is not exciting enough for the thrill-seeking times we live in.

    But the old boy is also getting on a bit. Time has slipped a pebble into his rambling boots. A couple of years ago, he broke his leg on a walking trip, and those ambitious conceptual stomps of his, depositing choice bits of minimalism in faraway places, had to be curtailed. Watching him splashing the Avon mud around Tate Britain last week, however, assembling his long-overdue retrospective, I am pleased to report he looks in good shape: whippet-thin, hatchet-stern, as cantankerous as a rusty rake. It’s good to have you back, Richard, and in such dazzling form.

    Long emerged in the late 1960s, at a time when loudly saying something was art turned it into art. Gilbert & George, his fellow students at Saint Martins, called themselves “living sculptures”, and although anyone with eyes in their head could see that they were actually two fruity gays in suits, if G&G said they were “living sculptures”, we other living sculptures went along with it. In a comparable effort of will – but with much more gravitas and grace – Long decided walking was art. The crucial work in his oeuvre, A Line Made by Walking, dates from 1967. In the catalogue, he describes how he caught a train from Waterloo and alighted at the first suitable field he saw from the window. Walking backward and forward across this field, trampling down the dan­delions and daisies, he created a straight line in the grass that became visible when the light was just so. Then he photographed the results in grainy black-and-white. It’s still weirdly haunting and thought-provoking.

    Part of the appeal is a simple matter of surrealism. The sudden appearance of some strict geometry in the grass, where you least expect to see it, tickles your surprise nodes. More important, though, is the sense of a cosmic redesign. Look at any of Long’s magnificent series of lines through nature from the 1970s, or the giant circles that began appearing soon after, and all of them feel as if a great big finger has come down from heaven and decided to play noughts and crosses in the landscape. The fact that one little man has had to scuttle backwards and forwards countless times to make these imposing marks is visually irrelevant. What counts is the final effect: a rousing romantic minimalism visited on the landscape.

    Long hates being called a romantic. Or, worse, a mystic. In the few interviews he has ever given, and again in the wall texts appended to this show, he insists on the unromantic nature of his calling. In his own eyes, he’s a conceptual, a Carl Andre of the moors, whose ambitions are precise and intellectual. When you work with landscape, however, you work with emotional stuff: the thrill of a momentous mountain or the loneliness of a harsh expanse of desert are unstoppable effects.

    The biggest giveaway here that Long is precisely what he says he is not – a soppy English romantic, engaged in a solitary love affair with the land while disguised as an outdoor mini malist – is a small work from 1970 produced in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, in which a kiss-kiss cross made of pebbles has been added to a shallow pool of water, next to the words: “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine / I keep my eyes wide open all the time . . . Because you’re mine / I walk the line.” I’m sorry. Richard, but you don’t quote Johnny Cash while gazing longingly into a pool of water if you are not a romantic.

    The first third of the display is given over to the various cunning ways Long has set about recording his global walks. What he actually did in the landscape – tracing a perfect circle on a map; walking 100 miles across Japan; collecting the biggest pebbles on a beach in Somerset and making a perfect square – was a series of private performances that nobody witnessed. So he needed to come up with inventive ways to record them in the gallery and evoke them for the spectator. His first set of attempts featured Ordnance Survey maps, on which he would record his routes with those supremely anal pencil marks that became his trademark. No matter how old Long grows, he maintains the charmingly youthful mood of a schoolboy in a geography class, brandishing his ruler and compass as he prepares diligently for his Duke of Edinburgh’s Award: A 294-Mile Walk from Land’s End to Bristol, Walking Nine Straight Miles Along the Way; A Hundred Tors in a Hundred Hours; Ten Mile Walk, England, 1968. A determined outdoor mind is pitting itself against the elements.

    The maps and route plans are soon joined by sweet little word poems in which Long lists the things he saw or did on the journey, in a whimsical effort to evoke the experience for us: White Butterfly – Crossing a Stream – Animal Droppings. The terri tory is Ted Hughes, the tone is Erik Satie. But the most direct and effective method Long has found of evoking his walks is photo graphy. I won’t be the only visitor to this show who is happy occasionally to ignore the hard conceptual groundwork and to enjoy these images on their most basic, Ansel Adams level, as superb views of superb landscapes.

    Long was brought up near Dartmoor – he describes it as his “default” landscape – and the taste for huge, treeless expanses, dominated by the most basic of divides, between land and sky, has never left him. Put him somewhere low, empty and flat – the Sahara, the Australian outback, the dusty plains of Peru – and he’s at home. The urge to trace lines and circles in the earth’s surface seems to connect him with every ancient civilisation that has scrawled a spiral in the sand or followed a ley line along a rock. The first image in the exhibition shows a primi tive huntsman scraped out of the English chalk, whose shape rhymes perfectly with a photo graph of Long about to climb Kilimanjaro.

    One of the things I admire most about him is the hardcore nature of his resolve.

    If it takes 100 miles, he will walk 100 miles. If it means lugging endless rocks up a hill, he will lug the rocks. Yet the immense effort involved – the private performance – is never allowed to leave a drop of sweat on the resulting artwork. He may have spent weeks trudging through Nepal to scrape his line in the Himalayas, but the resulting photograph is so perfect, so right, so graceful.

    This is an impressive event. One of the most important careers in recent art is recounted in a show that does everything well.