Richard Long has been a major presence in contemporary art for 30 years, following a decade in which he originated and developed the central themes, methods and visual forms that define his work. A member of the "New Art" generation who in the 1960s broke away from the Pop Art of Peter Blake and David Hockney and the abstract metal sculpture of Anthony Caro and William Tucker, Long reintroduced natural landscape as a central theme of art, also making it both the location and the material of his sculpture.
Long matured as an artist very early on, and his vision and aesthetic soon secured admirers. He was exhibiting internationally in his early twenties, and his first show in a national gallery was here in Scotland in 1974. Three decades, and some 200 solo exhibitions later, he is back in the first British retrospective since a major exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in 1991, with a show called Walking and Marking at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. The present exhibition contains a link to the earlier one in the form of a white clay ziggurat wall drawing which repeats the form of a campfire ash drawing used on the cover of the 1974 catalogue. It also includes a slate line floor sculpture purchased by the gallery in 1980, the first such piece Long ever made.
Long's earliest work exhibited a rare combination of experimentation, simplicity and strength that has remained a distinctive virtue. Asked about other artists he admires, he mentions the conceptualist Lawrence Weiner, whose work consists of short poetic statements or aphorisms, printed on a gallery wall or in a book, and Sol LeWitt (who died in April this year), considered the founding figure of conceptual art and who also made wall-drawings.
"Sol's work had the rare combination of being extreme and quiet," says Long, adding, "like Weiner's, there is a sense in which my work is almost nothing." Purity, simplicity, directness, immediacy and strength are recurrent themes in Long's art and in his conversation.
For him, drawing has always been plain and functional, without expression or adornment, and in the service of ideas that integrated geometry and pattern with travelling through the landscape. From the mid-1960s, lines, circles and spirals began to appear, walked in grass or dust, inscribed in the earth or "drawn" upon it with sticks or stones. Then there were indoor arrangements of driftwood, pine needles and ever more stones. At first he worked near his childhood home in Bristol, an area in which he has remained interested, then in Ireland and Scotland, Europe, North and South America, Africa, Australia and Asia. For 40 years he has walked and worked, his whole body becoming an instrument for drawing upon the Earth.
Walking around the exhibition as the final touches were being added, I was struck both by the undiminished power of Long's imagination and the vigour of his work. The show is arranged thematically in several interconnected ways. First there are the themes of the title, Walking and Marking: walks made and recorded in framed texts, walks that inspired markings along the way now shown in photographs, or markings made later in the gallery. Then there are the elements earth and water, compacted and combined - earth as stone; earth and water as mud, poured, splashed and smeared. Finally, there is space and time as principles of nature and as measures for work: walking for so far, or for so long, measured by sun, moon and tides.
Long is by nature solitary, by temperament quiet, and by character modest, yet he is proud "of having introduced space and time into art in a certain way for the first time".
"I wanted to revolutionise art," he says, "because I felt it had more potential than had been realised. I also liked the idea of using my body directly in my sculpture to extend the scale of art-making. I was quite proud of creating a work that was ten miles long."
During the period in which he was developing his distinctive forms, there were others beginning to work directly on the land. The use of nature in sculpture has since become very familiar through the work of artists such as Andy Goldsworthy. Long respects his British contemporary Hamish Fulton, with whom he has made occasional walks since they were students together in London, but he sees Fulton as different in his restricting of his work to walks and to texts arising from them - there is no sculpting or drawing in the landscape. Long also sees no connection with the monumental earthworks of Americans Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, and perceives his own work as quite different from that of Goldsworthy.
All Long says about the relationship between his own innovations and later "nature art" is: "If one person opens the door, others can walk through." In fact, there is a wide gulf between the unsentimental visionary realism of Long, who is happiest with wilderness and intimations of infinity, and the more rural, intimate and decorative craftwork of Goldsworthy. Long has no desire for his art to shock, unsettle, disturb or even puzzle viewers. But nor is it meant to be a source of comfort or nostalgia for city dwellers. "My sensibility is loyal to the art of the 1960s," he says. Given his lifelong themes of land and nature and his love of wilderness, how does Long relate his art to environmentalism and conservation? One recent work featured a phrase heard in Ireland, "this global warming seems to be doing us some good". Was he quoting this ironically? His answer is interesting and will surprise and perhaps even disappoint some.
"I started making my work in the 1960s for completely different reasons than green politics. It is not part of an environmental manifesto; it's not evangelical or political; it's about art. I do care about nature and the environment. In specific cases if we can do something we should and I have supported particular projects and campaigns. But that doesn't mean that we should think that all change is a bad thing. There will always be change. It is part of the very nature and life of the planet."
What about interests and inspiration beyond landscape? "I take a lot of imaginative inspiration from music and from other cultures; country and folk - Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Irish and African traditional music. I like the way that around the world people use the same material as in my work - water, mud, earth, and stones - to make and shape their environments. There is something universal and direct using your hands and fingers to make a form or image."
When I ask about whether he takes much interest in contemporary art, he replies: "I don't spend a lot of time in galleries. For one thing I am generally out making my own work. But I admire the German choreographer Pina Bausch, and the work of the Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima." The first choice is unexpected given Bausch's rather bleak themes of human struggle and her surreal stage settings; but there are clear points of contact with Miyajima. He constructs dark environments of small LED number counters that run between one and nine. Counting at different rates and in different directions, the assemblage suggests the recombination of the finite towards the infinite. This sets Long off on a philosophical reflection about themes in his own work.
"I like the random chaos of nature, and working with and sometimes against that. In a sense, the geometry and measurement that feature in my work are like Platonic forms imposed on formless matter."
That suggests that Long might be interested in theorising at length about his work. But quite the contrary, he says. It's about the act of making and about other people's experience and appreciation of the results.
"People need art," he says, "it raises the spirits. It's also a big part of what makes us human; it's part of our fundamental identity: people need to make art and people want to see it. I want to do all of these things but I also want to communicate through what I make, so that years later the ideas will still be there for others to see and understand.
"For me, communicating is the second half of my work, and I want people to appreciate it in the spirit in which it was made. The best I can do is to make the work and hope people enjoy and understand it. Making it is easier for me than explaining it but I hope the art speaks for itself. Again, it's like music. What I have to say is in the work, not in the explanation of it."
The depth and strength of Long as an artist, and his creative originality, are everywhere on show in this exhibition. It is important also for spanning both a range of forms and methods, and for taking the viewer from the earliest pieces that helped define the "New Art" such as a line walked in the grass or in the desert, to mud drawings and a large outdoor slate sculpture made for the show.
"Solitude brings me peace and contentment," says Long, "and I am happy when I am making my art. It is a great pleasure."
Visitors to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art this summer will be able to see the products of his solitary making and share in that pleasure. If you only see one contemporary art exhibition this year, it should be this one.
- John Haldane