On a typical autumn day, Andy Goldsworthy can be found in the woods near his home in Penpont, Scotland, maybe cloaking a fallen tree branch with a tapestry of yellow and brown elm leaves, or, in a rainstorm, lying on a rock until the dry outline of his body materializes as a pale shadow on the moist surface. Come winter, he might be soldering icicles into glittering loops or star bursts with his bare fingers. Because he works outdoors with natural materials, Goldsworthy is sometimes portrayed as a modern Druid; really, he is much closer to a latter-day Impressionist. Like those 19th-century painters, he is obsessed with the way sunlight falls and flickers, especially on stone, water and leaves. Monet—whose painting of a sunrise gave the Impressionist movement its name—used oil paint to reveal light's transformative power in his series of canvases of haystacks, the Rouen Cathedral and the Houses of Parliament. Goldsworthy is equally transfixed with the magical effect of natural light. Only he has discovered another, more elemental way to explore it.
As a fine arts student at Preston Polytechnic in northern England, Goldsworthy, now 49, disliked working indoors. He found escape nearby at Morecambe Bay, where he began constructing temporary structures that the incoming tide would collapse. Before long, he realized that his artistic interests were tied more closely to his youthful agricultural labors in Yorkshire than to life classes and studio work. The balanced boulders, snow arches and leaf-rimmed holes that he crafted were his versions of the plein-air sketches of landscape artists. Instead of representing the landscape, however, he was drawing on the landscape itself.
Throughout the 20th century, artists struggled with the dilemma of Modernism: how to convey an experience of the real world while acknowledging the immediate physical reality of the materials—the two-dimensional canvas, the viscous paint—being used in the representation. Goldsworthy has cut his way clear. By using the landscape as his material, he can illustrate aspects of the natural world—its color, mutability, energy—without resorting to mimicry. Although he usually works in rural settings, his definition of the natural world is expansive. "Nature for me isn't the bit that stops in the national parks," he says. "It's in a city, in a gallery, in a building. It's everywhere we are."
Goldsworthy's principal artistic debt is to "Land Art," an American movement of the 1960s that took Pollock's and de Kooning's macho Abstract Expressionism out of the studio to create giant earthworks such as Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake of Utah or Michael Heizer's Double Negative in Nevada. Unlike Smithson and Heizer, however, Goldsworthy specializes in the ephemeral. A seven-foot-long ribbon of red poppy petals that he stuck together with saliva lasted just long enough to be photographed before the wind carried it off. His leaves molder, his ice arabesques melt. One work in which he took special joy, a sort of bird's nest of sticks, was intended to evoke a tidal whirlpool; when the actual tide carried it into the water, its creator marveled as it gyrated toward destruction. The moment was captured in Rivers and Tides, a documentary film by Thomas Riedelsheimer that portrayed Goldsworthy at work and underscored the centrality of time to his art.
Even those stone stacks and walls that he intends to last for a long time are conceived in a very different spirit from the bulldozing Land Art of the American West. An endearing humility complements his vast ambition. "There are occasions when I have moved boulders, but I'm reluctant to, especially ones that have been rooted in a place for many years," he says, noting that when he must do so, he looks "for ones on the edge of a field that had been pulled out of the ground by farming. The struggle of agriculture, of getting nourishment from the earth, becomes part of the story of the boulder and of my work."
The modesty in his method is matched by a realism in his demands. He knows that nothing can or should last forever. Once a piece has been illuminated by the perfect light or been borne away by the serendipitous wave, he gratefully bids it a fond farewell.