In all the lists of Britain’s best museums and art galleries that are drawn up, you never seem to find the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The Tate is always in there, the British Museum, the National Gallery – but not the YSP. I can’t think why. In my experience, you get things from visiting these 500 acres of rolling rural north that are rarely available at other art locations. Solitude, for example, and its finest preamble: adventure. The reward here for a good walk is the best reward there is in art: one-on-one communion with an artwork of rare intensity. Providing, of course, you are wearing wellies. And that the artist you are searching for is an effective one. Such as Andy Goldsworthy.
Goldsworthy is a superb name for a man who achieves what he achieves, don’t you think? He is a rural alchemist who gathers a few autumn leaves off the floor of a forest in Scotland, sticks them to some rocks with his own spit, photographs the results and creates a startling image of a patch of red hovering impossibly on an expanse of grey. It’s magic.
People love it. And only miserable metropolitan art-watchers infected with the deadly cool virus can fail to enjoy the delightful tamperings of Andy worth-his-weight-in-gold.
Unfortunately, most people in my profession carry the illness. Goldsworthy’s reputation has suffered from the same metropolitan neglect as the YSP. He has never been nominated for the Turner prize, and never will be. He doesn’t get asked to biennali . Elton John doesn’t invite him to his birthday parties (at least, I didn’t see him there), and a perception reigns that in the big box of British art, he is one of the soft centres. People compare him regularly with his fellow long-distance walker Richard Long, who does similar things in the landscape, but who is definitely a hard centre. Which is why Long’s books gather dust elegantly in Tate Modern’s bookshop while Goldsworthy’s books tumble off the shelves of every WHSmith in the land, particularly at Christmas.
There is a section in the YSP’s Goldsworthy show – it is mutilocational, scattered about the entire park – devoted to his outdoor photographs, and a quick perusal of these delightful recordings of the things he did in the landscape makes immediately clear how good he is at plucking our rural chord. A rainbow, artificially induced with a stick in the water, rises above a Scottish burn. Magic cracks appear in unbreakable stones. Impossible zigzags cross the forest floor. It has all been achieved with the materials at hand – leaves, sticks, rocks – usually with great patience, often with great skill. God came up with the water lily. Andy came up with the pentagon of rowan berries floating in a haiku of iris leaves. God invented the sudden field of flowering rape, Andy the sudden circular hole in an expanse of dandelions.
We enjoy these striking sights, and buy them by the shelf-load, because they are simultaneously artificial and natural: new wonders achieved by following nature’s oldest rules. I don’t know the figures, but I suspect that country folk don’t buy Andy’s books in the same numbers as city folk, because country folk don’t need the antidote to prose as desperately as city folk do. They can drive down a lane and see a hare; we need to fly to Kenya and find some hippos.
Anyway, the YSP is 30 years old, and to mark this unlikely birthday – I remember vividly when all it consisted of was a damp field with a couple of Henry Moores in it – the park has mounted its largest-ever event, devoting it to the many aspects of Andy Goldsworthy. The ambition is to present him as much more than the creator of charming outdoor picture books. He appears here as a hard-core sculptural minimalist, too, who works in stone, and a powerful rural romantic who deals in full-size twisted oaks. Big things by him rear up all round the grounds. There are also smaller pavilions crammed with photos and mini-sculptures. And, best of all, a suite of new indoor pieces arranged in a mysterious row in the YSP’s remarkable underground gallery – the one that looks like a hill from the back.
Goldsworthy’s show is presented as an adventure, and traipsing around the YSP looking for it is half the fun. On the day I visited, the various spaces were humming like beehives, with real people on a real day out. They rambled, they munched, they discovered. And, when they encountered a piece, they encountered it excitedly and properly. So, that’s the good news. The bad news is that Goldsworthy is less reliable as a maker of ambitious outdoor sculptures than he is as a photographer of tiny natural moments in the landscape.
In several of the show’s biggest efforts, you can sense him straining mightily for profundity, and watch him wasting heavyweight rural man hours on the creation of laborious attempts at deepness. In that category, I would place the muddy sheep drawings gathered at the top of a hill in a semi-industrial hangar that feels as if it might once have housed a fleet of tractors. By placing a circular salt lick onto raw canvas and encouraging a herd of sheep with muddy feet to use it, he has created expanses of scruffy cosmic geometry in which circles of cleanness are surrounded by furious stampings of pooey brown. An adjacent set of works features abstract blobs made by blood dripping from the mouths of road-killed hares. Rarely in art does the splashing of blood result in profundity. This is not one of those occasions.
Also disappointing is a circular stone wall that looms up suddenly inside a ring of trees. It is beautifully made, and some small frisson is achieved by the absence of doors in it, making you wonder mildly what the circular stone keep might contain. But excessive blankness, like excessive blood, is easy to reach for and difficult to work with. Only the greatest artists can conjure up a sense of the momentous from next to nothing, and Goldsworthy is not one of those. What he is good at is surprising you. The best of his outdoor pieces features three dry-stone rectangles embedded in the perimeter wall of the park. Weathered, moss-covered, the mysterious enclosures look as if they have been there for centuries. It’s only when you lean over and peer inside that you discover the twisted skeletons of fallen trees buried within the spooky open graves.
Dry-stone walling is a typical Goldsworthy skill: traditional, difficult, time-consuming. Making art with it singles you out as a hard-core worker-artist who doesn’t take short cuts. To my eyes, however, he is at his best when he is at his most delicate. His finest pieces have a lyrical beauty to them, a fetching intricacy. They refer not to the hulking nature of the giant cliff face, but to the fragile complexity of a leaf skeleton.
This event moves up a gear when it moves indoors to the YSP’s spectacular suite of underground galleries, in which our rural alchemist has created a mansion of many chambers, each devoted to a different set of typical Goldsworthy effects. To enter, you need to squeeze past a towering wooden pine cone, constructed, brilliantly, without nails from a pile of interlocking oak branches. A set of domes, punctured by the pitch-black holes he is so fond of, deepens the sense of ancient mystery. Then there’s a room entirely plastered with wildly cracking clay. And, most miraculously of all, a floor-to-ceiling spider’s web made only of sycamore stems held together with long black thorns.
What a marvellous piece of poetic rural engineering. How it stays up is beyond me. It evokes some of the sensations of gossamer, but also the abrupt switches of direction you get from a dragonfly. Terrifying quantities of precision and determination must have gone into creating this artificial natural wonder. If ants were artists, they would work in this style.