Richard Long - Biography and Legacy
British Sculptor and Land Artist
Biography of Richard Long
Childhood and Education
Born in Clifton, a suburb of Bristol, England, as a young boy Richard Long played alone in the surrounding hillsides and lush nature of the Avon Gorge. He often returned home after miles-long walks, during which he immersed himself in the natural landscape. His liberal-minded mother and educator father fully supported Richard's desire to explore the outdoors and practice art.
Long's early artistic sensibilities were also encouraged by his school; he would often arrive before classes began to spend time painting and became known as the school artist. He created scenery for school plays and was allowed to create a mural in the dining hall at age 13. His parents similarly allowed him to create a large mural of snow-capped mountains in the family's living room.
Next, Long transferred to the rather conservative and provincial West of England College of Art, where his love of nature and sport was atypical. Here he began experimenting with the physicality that would become central to his artistic production. His refusal of more traditional forms of painting or sculpture, however, was problematic; he was ultimately expelled for an ephemeral, snow-based, school project. Creating a large snowball, Long carefully rolled it down a slope, tracing the existing contours in the landscape. The end result was a linear formation in the snow, which he photographed. At this point, the photograph was merely a document of the finished work of art, an indentation in the snow that would eventually disappear. In the context of the conservative profile of the college, this experimentation was inconceivable; Long was deemed "too precocious," and asked to leave. He later explained that the school considered his iconoclastic artwork a sign that he was "mad." This episode, however, was the beginning of a creative process that would eventually bring him to international attention.
Taking a break from schooling, Long briefly worked in a paper mill, where he continued to create art, frequently taking excess paper to make crumpled sculptures. Enrolling at Saint Martin's School of Art in London, he joined a tight-knit group of friends, becoming especially close to peer Hamish Fulton. While his professors included the acclaimed sculptors Anthony Caro and Philip King, Long continued his independent investigation of less traditional media for sculpture. Instead of working in metal or stone, he experimented with sand and water in the school's garden or on the rooftops, where he blocked the school's drains to leave water stains on the roof's surface. At a time when his colleagues were working on monumental forms in fiberglass and welded metal, his quiet, iconoclastic gestures broke with the legacies of both Abstract Expressionism and Pop art, abandoning the studio and the very notion of permanency in favor of understated, performative, and ephemeral works of art.
Straight from Saint Martin's, Long was recognized on the international art circuit, beginning with the influential German gallerist Konrad Fischer in 1968. As Long later recalled, he "sent some sticks in the post from a tiny post office [in Ireland]. On the strength of those sticks Konrad offered me a show in Düsseldorf. Everything came together fast." Although his work had not yet found an audience in England, it was enthusiastically accepted abroad, where it was seen alongside the performances of Josef Beuys, the minimalist works by Carl Andre or the conceptual art of Lawrence Weiner. Following the successful trip to Germany, he traveled to Italy, where he met Giovanni Anselmo and Marisa Merz and showed in the influential Arte Povera exhibition of 1968. Andre, an early admirer of Long's work who called him a "master artist of the earth taken as a living entity," introduced his work to dealers in New York. These connections and assistance propelled both his self-esteem and career.
Long marveled that he was able to support himself by selling this unconventional work, explaining, "I was amazed that someone bought that first show. It was a line of sticks on the floor. I knew what I doing was important but I had no idea it would be commercially viable." Using the small income from the sale of his work, he traveled to Africa in the summer of 1969, where he created a series of work atop Mt. Kilimanjaro. He also married his art school girlfriend Denise Johnston, in a ceremony in Kenya where they stood on either side of the equator. The couple later had two daughters, Betsy and Tamsin.
Long's environmental sculptures and walking-based works of the late 1960s and 1970s intersected with contemporary experiments in performance and conceptual art. Although many of his works were based on his actions and documented with sparse imagery and text, his focus on nature made him a pioneer in the emerging field of Land Art.
While Long's work has influenced Environmental artists, his approach to the natural world is more personal and experiential than activist. Since that first trip to Africa, Long has traveled extensively, performing walks and recording them for his artwork. These excursions can take on extreme dimensions, walking for weeks in harsh climates and courting the dangers of injury and wild animals, yet they are less about endurance than the complete immersion into nature and the independence of his solitary process.
In order to facilitate the exhibition of his work, Long has found ways to represent his walks in physical forms. In 1970 he performed a spiral walk with muddy boots in the Dwan Gallery in New York. For some projects, Long walks to collect natural materials, from which he forms drawings and sculptures. He has also incorporated photography as a meaningful, considered component of his artwork, rather than just a documentation of his often-inaccessible or ephemeral projects. He is celebrated internationally, including three nominations for the prestigious Turner Prize before his 1989 award, his 2001 election to the National Academy and appointment to knighthood in 2013.
Long has returned home, living today in a converted schoolhouse near Bristol with his current partner, the writer and art historian Denise Hooker. While his work is not dependent on his hometown, he argues that "every good artist is first and foremost a local artist ... whether I like it or not, I'm grounded in being a Bristol or West Country or even an English artist."
The Legacy of Richard Long
Rejecting both traditional and mid-century avant-garde techniques and materials, Long has expanded sculpture and painting by introducing natural elements and performance. A pioneer of the Land Art movement of the 1960s and 1970s, he is one of the most influential artists of his generation, drawing upon a network of Conceptual, Minimalist, and Performance artists to create a range of temporal and ephemeral work. He challenged the definitions of sculpture and conceptual art by proving that a pedestrian act such as walking can be the medium and the artwork. He additionally was subversive in regard to painting and its traditional gesture by applying mud directly to a gallery wall with his hand. His manipulations within nature have inspired artists such as Andy Goldsworthy and Roger Ackling, while his gallery installations of natural materials have impacted artists like Tony Cragg and Martin Creed.