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Andy Goldsworthy
Sculpture; Installation
(Cheshire, England, 1956 - )

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For British artist Andy Goldsworthy, sculpture is not simply a finished product, but an ongoing conversation he has with the natural world. He concerns himself with the material substances of the earth—wood, stone, and water—and allows them to shape the processes of his work. “I’m not an artist born full of ideas I want to express,” he admits. “I’m empty, hungry, wanting to know more.”1 Goldsworthy embraces the unpredictable conditions of place, time, weather, and season, and views his projects as collaborations that he undertakes with the earth.

As a young boy, Goldsworthy frequented the woods near his home in the farming country of Lower Wharfedale, in West Yorkshire, England. There he explored the forested terrain that was home to sycamore, pine, and beech trees, among which he would later produce some of his earliest sculptures. As a student at the Bradford College of Art, he was intrigued by images of American sculptor Robert Smithson’s legendary earthwork Spiral Jetty. Later, he transferred to Preston Polytechnic, where he received a B.A. in 1978. At Preston, he chose to make his studio the outdoors, and he began his explorations of the natural world that continue to inform his art making to this day.

Burnt Patch is an example of Goldsworthy’s frequent use of wood in his sculptures and installations.2 It was initially installed in the upstairs, outdoor sculpture court at the San Jose Museum of Art in February 1995. The piece is composed of two truckloads of brittle pine branches that Goldsworthy gathered from a forest in the Sierra Nevada near Lake Tahoe. A portion of the sticks was burned in the foundry at San Jose State University by the artist and a team of assistants. They were then arranged in a single layer on the sculpture court’s granite floor so that the charred ends formed a radial pattern suggesting a dark circle or hole. Similar round shapes have appeared frequently in Goldsworthy’s sculptural installations, where they take on symbolic meaning. According to the artist, “The black hole is like the flame of fire. The flame makes the energy of fire visible. The black is the earth’s flame—its energy. I used to say I will make no more holes. Now I know I will always make them. I am drawn to them with the same urge I have to look over a cliff edge.”3 The darkened center of Burnt Patch is evidence of the ephemeral flames that helped to mark the many pieces of wood. While the fire in Goldsworthy’s installation is no longer present, the work pays homage to a natural force so powerful that it can completely transform the ecological landscape.

Goldsworthy also acknowledges that changing natural phenomena are fundamentally important to his works, and he invited them to play an integral role in Burnt Patch. Their impact was noticed most directly during the periods of rain that occurred while the installation was on display. As raindrops fell through the open ceiling of the sculpture court, the unburned wood darkened to match the color of the charred sticks. When the wood dried, the dark hole became visible once again. This ever-changing appearance echoed the cycles of nature, which Goldsworthy appreciates: “Movement, change, light, growth and decay are the life-blood of nature, the energies that I try to tap through my work. When I work with a leaf, rock, stick, it is not just that material in itself, it is an opening into the processes of life within it and around it.”4

These processes are also mirrored in the rhythms of growth and nature’s intrinsic geometries that Goldsworthy consciously integrates into his work. He has employed similar radial, sunburst patterns many times since he first began making sculpture in 1977. Recurring motifs and adaptations such as these remind us that, even after a lifetime of inquiry into the natural world, Goldsworthy may never uncover the mysteries of the earth. —A.W.

1. Hand to Earth: Andy Goldsworthy Sculpture, 1976–1990, exh. cat. (Leeds, England: The Henry Moore Centre for the Study of Sculpture, 1990), 161.
2. Wood: Andy Goldsworthy (New York: Henry N. Abrams, 1996).
3. Hand to Earth, 24.
4. Hand to Earth, 160.

(SJMA Selections publication, 2004)

Born in Cheshire, England. He lives and works in Scotland.

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