Kidnappings, Train Crashes, and Vanishing Art: Peripatetic Land Sculptor Richard Long on the Joys of an Artistic Life on the Road
The veteran British artist on his return to Mexico, losing his Venice Biennale sculpture, and why Donald Judd was a "teddy bear."
Architecture purists might want to look away. Mexican architect Luis Barragán’s brightly colored Modernist masterpiece, Cuadra San Cristóbal, has an unexpected visitor: the peripatetic Land Art pioneer Richard Long.
The veteran British sculptor, whose extraordinary interventions into the natural and built environment take him to all points of the globe, has materialized in in the suburbs of Mexico City to create four massive works at Barragán’s oft-Instagrammed stable yard and home. Long has taken the commission in his rangy stride, unfazed by the pressure or baggage that intervening in such a famous spot might present. In fact, Long had never heard of the architect—a legendary figure in architectural circles—or seen images of the famous building before accepting the gig.
“I’m an opportunist,” the artist said. “They told me that he’s an amazing architect and it’s a beautiful location.” The opportunity in question was a solo exhibition at the space, organized by Lisson gallery, and timed to coincide with the flood of visitors heading to Mexico City to the week of art fairs and openings earlier this month.
The artist (now technically known as Sir Richard Long, following a 2018 knighthood) is no stranger to working in unique locations around the globe. The Turner-Prize-winning Royal Academician has undertaken epic journeys to make sculpture in the landscape, from Alaska to Mongolia. There have been some hairy moments along the way. “I’ve been slightly kidnapped,” he casually mentioned. It happened in Anatolia. He was put in the back of a Turkish farmer’s truck and held captive in village for two days before being released unharmed. On another daunting walk, this time across Sicily, he was stalked one night by a young gangster, he recalled. It was just outside the village of Corleone, of The Godfather fame.
The last time he was in Mexico, Long and his fellow artist and travel partner Hamish Fulton were involved in a train crash: “No one was hurt, but the carriages were concertinaed.” They put on their backpacks and walked to the nearest town. “[It] had a small airport. I used my American Express card for the first time, and the same day we were back in Mexico City,” Long said.
There were no such dramatic mishaps on his return to Mexico for “Orizaba to Uríque River Deep Mountain High,” the show at the Barragan property, and his first exhibition in the country. Road trips to quarries near Mexico City and Puebla went without mishap. Using the volcanic stone and slate he gathered, Long has created four signature works: a large circle, half circle, line, and cross, all composed of stone. They are classic forms given a new twist by being in such an unexpected and colorful setting. The dramatic lines of volcanic rock, hewn by hand by quarry workers and then placed by Long with the help of only one assistant, work especially well against Barragán’s Minimalist backdrop, with its black, wooden horse rails juxtaposed against hot pink walls.
“A lot of my work comes from really nice, dynamic, visual experiences,” Long explained. “It is not about working in the studio. It is about engaging with all this crazy stuff in real life.”
San Cristóbal is still owned by the Egerstrom family, which commissioned Barragán to create the property in 1968. Long first saw it in January when it looked very different from the tranquil, pristine images seen in architecture books, magazines, and social-media feeds. The stables were being used as a backdrop to a fashion shoot that day. To the owner’s dismay, there was a bit of a blow-up between an Italian model and the photographer. Far from being put out by the clutter and drama, Long was amused; the fashion shoot could be filed under the category of “crazy stuff in real life” that keeps his practice interesting.
“My Work Is About Freedom”
Long’s sculptures and mud murals, which he creates by hand, aren’t like Land Art in the mode of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty or Michael Heizer’s Double Negative. No bulldozers or rock-blasting is required. “My work is deliberately not monumental,” Long explained.
Often the sculptures are never intended to last, be they made of stone, wood, mud, a campfire, or simply a splash of water against a river bank. Most exist only as photographs. As he leafed through an artist’s book documenting a 1979 trip to Mexico, I wondered if Long ever feels like revisiting those sites to see if any trace of the work he made back then remains. (At 74, the keen walker and cyclist certainly looks fit enough to make the trek.) Long looked at me askance. “That’s not the point,” he said. “They are sculptures made as stopping places along the journey. They will probably disappear.”
The stone circle he made above the clouds on the volcanic Pico de Orizaba in 1979 probably only took him an hour to make, he revealed. Splashing water on the walls of the gorge of Uríque took less time. “Essentially my work is about freedom,” Long said.
The late German art dealer Konrad Fischer was one of the first to recognize the significance of Long’s light-touch interventions into the landscape. Fischer gave Long a solo show in his Düsseldorf gallery in 1968, the year the artist graduated in London. He was only 23. “With one bound I was free of the crazy London art world of Anthony Caro and all that welded metal stuff,” Long recalled.
Recognition in the US soon followed his European success. The artist and critic Donald Judd was one of Long’s biggest cheerleaders. Writing in 1986, Judd declared Long to be “Europe’s best artist.” Long downplays the high praise. “Judd seemed to like my work,” he recalled. “Don’t ask me why. He was always very friendly to me, although he made lots of enemies. If he liked you as an artist then he was like a teddy bear.”
Long and Judd exhibited together in a small gallery in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1988; the British sculptor’s work Sea Lava Circles is now permanently on view at Chinati in Marfa, the extraordinary art museum Judd created on the site of a former US army base. It seems odd that Long’s work is sited on what was the officer’s tennis court, rather than out in the natural environment of the West Texan prairie. “I had nothing to do with that,” Long explained. “[Judd] put it there.” It is a good example of how an artist cannot control the display of their work by a collector, curator, or fellow artist. “Years later it could be in a different context. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad,” Long said, stoical.
He sounds just as unflappable when asked how he would feel if an unauthorized or fake Long sculpture cropped up somewhere one day. “I often say, there are hundreds of circles in the world. Most of them aren’t mine. In other words, I only have to do a few circles,” he said.
It may be surprising to learn that the original version of Long’s 1976 Venice Biennale sculpture has long since vanished. Called A Line of 682 Stones, it was a square spiral that snaked through the British pavilion. Judd’s nemesis—the Italian collector Giuseppe Panza, who went on to sell his collection to the Guggenheim and MOCA LA—is to blame. He borrowed Long’s work for a show and never returned it. “[Panza] didn’t steal it, he just lost it,” Long clarified. His attitude is the opposite of Judd’s, who raged against the collector for making unauthorized versions of his work on the cheap. Long seems less preoccupied with all of that: with legacy, with ownership, with fame.
“There are plenty of other stones in the world,” Long said. “If I really wanted to make that work again, I could make the same work by just getting some more stones.”
Richard Long “Orizaba to Urique River Deep Mountain High,” February 7 through March 7, Cuadra San Cristóbal, Mexico City.
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