Updated: Aug 23
Growing up, I spent hours in a patch of woods across the street from our very ordinary suburban New Jersey house. Set back from the street by a full building lot, the site was reached by a path that had been created by hundreds of kids making their way into a proxy for wildness.
A stand of oaks and swamp maples, beeches and tulip poplars towering above a mess of undergrowth, the woods were—and still are—a miniscule swath of the deciduous forest that extends up and down the East Coast. It was that tiny plot of land—no more than a couple of acres—that formed my imagination. To this day, it is that kind of landscape where I feel most at home.
Richard Long's line is of the same order as the path that led into that wood. It is so simple, so ordinary: A path leads straight through a field toward a modest stand of trees.
What lies at the end?
1. A Line Made by Walking
One afternoon in 1967, Richard Long boarded a train from London to his hometown of Bristol. The trip was his routine commute home but, this time, somewhere along the 108-mile trip, he disembarked, walked back and forth through a field, and took a picture of the resulting path.
The field, the trees, the path, the photograph are all commonplace. The field could be anywhere—Long no longer remembers exactly where he was—and the photograph banal.
The site is one of those anonymous, side-of-the road places that modern transportation—railroads, automobiles, airplanes—has created in abundance. The site itself seems to say, There is nothing to see here. Long concurs: “My first work made by walking, in 1967, was a straight line in a grass field, which was also my own path, going ‘nowhere.’”
The photograph, too, begs to be ignored. Documenting a tossed-aside place, it has a tossed-off air far from the exquisite attention to print quality we had come to expect from landscape photographs back then. And, indeed no photographer, Long was in the sculpture program at St. Martins School of Art at the time. He had the photograph developed at the local drugstore.
Line was not the first step in a career centered around walking. Long made his first foray in 1964, when a student at the local art college. Out for a walk in the country outside Bristol, he pushed a snowball through a field and took a photograph of the meandering trace it had left behind. (Soon after, the college invited him to leave.) His work received a warmer reception from the more adventuresome atmosphere at St. Martin’s and from the experimentally minded precincts of the contemporary art scene. Within a year of graduating, he had landed a solo exhibition in Düsseldorf, caught the attention of Donald Judd and Carl Andre, and hung out with the Arte Povera crowd in Italy.
From the beginning, Long’s repertoire extended beyond the format used in A Line Made by Walking to include full-on interventions in the landscape (1966’s Turf Circle, made by incising a circle in a neighbor’s lawn), stone circles created on site (Connemara Sculpture, Ireland, 1971), and text works. Later, he moved into the gallery, creating floor sculptures from stones and paintings from mud.
But A Line Made by Walking is Long’s iconic piece, the one that’s made it into all the history books. As humble as it all was—field, path, photograph—it was, in its way, momentous. It was among a chorus of artworks from the era that raised fundamental questions about the nature of art, work by the Minimalists Judd and Andre but also Lawrence Weiner and Carolee Schneeman and Robert Smithson. Where, after all, is the art here? In the act of walking? In the line? Or in the photograph? Is it Conceptual art? Performance art? Land art? All of the above?
For Long, the answer is simple: “Journeys are common to all people and cultures and yet it interests me to make walks that follow or realize original ideas,” he explained in the accompanying text for his 2015 exhibition at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol. “Walking as art, in fact.”
People who write about and analyze art might want to think a little harder on the answer. To see walking—a time-based activity—as an art form positions Long’s work in the domain of performance art. To see it as the expression of an idea lands it in the Conceptual realm. Think of it as an intervention in the landscape and you’ve got Land art.
My own understanding of this photograph is more idiosyncratic. Which is to say that it doesn’t have much to do with art critical theories. What I admire is how it manages to be both laconic and expressive, rigorously unsentimental and wildly Romantic: Long’s marginal, suburban landscape evokes a memory of wanderlust.
I love this picture because it is, first and foremost for me, an invitation to take a hike.
Growing up in New Jersey, I lived in the shadow of New York. When I was a kid, my parents would drive us into the city. When we hit the Meadowlands, my father would point out Snake Hill, the 200-year-old outcropping that towers over the highway, but I was fascinated by the industrial no man’s land surrounding it.
That landscape has never disappointed me. In Kearny, the world looks blasted, a network of exhausted roads linking nothing but warehouses and trucking companies. In the marshes, heron and ring-necked pheasants manage to survive among the Phragmites. Outside Newark, the oil refinery’s gas flare looks like the flame of the Pentacost, a visitation of the Holy Spirit to the Gateway City.
Robert Smithson's tour covers that same charred territory. It is irremediable: An industrial wasteland exhausts a landscape of meadows.
How does it end?
2. A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey
One Saturday in 1967, Robert Smithson boarded a bus from Manhattan to Passaic, New Jersey. When he disembarked, he set out on a tour of the city, his hometown.
The tour he mapped out took in industrial sites, a parking lot, and forlorn sandbox—all of which he identified as “monuments.” Like Long, Smithson used a camera to document his walk. Also like Long, the photographs he made are determinedly banal—Instamatic snapshots that make no effort at high art.
Unlike Long, Smithson made a detailed record of his journey and each site he photographed. He relates how he set out from the Port Authority Midtown Bus Terminal, where he picked up a copy of that day’s New York Times and Earthworks, a dystopian sci-fi novel by Brian Aldiss. In the Times, he read John Canaday’s column and noted the “subtle newsprint grey” sky of the Samuel F.B. Morse painting reproduced there. In Earthworks, the sky appears as “a great black and brown shield.” Outside the bus window, the sky was a “clear cobalt blue.”
At the bridge that spanned the Passaic River, Smithson pulled the buzzer cord to begin his Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey.
“Photographing it with my Instamatic 400 was like photographing a photograph,” he wrote. “When I walked on the bridge, it was as though I was walking on an enormous photograph that was made of wood and steel, and underneath the river existed as an enormous movie film that showed nothing but a continuous blank.”
Continuing along the riverbank, Smithson walked through a “prehistoric Machine Age” landscape, where he identified more monuments: the Pumping Derrick; the Great Pipes; the Fountain—all in service to the new highway then under construction. “That zero panorama seemed to contain ruins in reverse,” he wrote, “that is, all the new construction that would eventually be built.”
After a quick lunch at the Gold Coach Diner, Smithson resumed the tour at the Parking Lot Monument, which divided the city of Passaic in half, “turning it into a mirror and a reflection—but the mirror kept changing places with the reflection. … There was nothing interesting or even strange about that flat monument, yet it echoed a kind of cliché idea of infinity: perhaps the ‘secrets of the universe’ are just as pedestrian—not to say dreary.”
The last and final stop: The Sandbox Monument, described as a “monument of minute particles [that] blazed under a bleakly glowing sun, and suggested the sullen dissolution of entire continents, the drying up of oceans—no longer were there green forests and high mountains—all that existed were millions of grains of sand, a vast deposit of bones and stones pulverized into dust.”
Again like Long’s subject, Smithson’s was about as humble as you can get—a ramshackle bridge, a construction site, a parking lot. Not so, his intentions.
Within a year of making Tour, Smithson would create the first of his Nonsites. Traveling to New Jersey wastelands—Franklin Zinc Mine, a Bayonne fill site—he gathered post-industrial rubble (broken concrete, rocks) that he then placed, along with photographs and maps, in a gallery setting. He described his Nonsites as “maps that point to a specific site”: What was on display in the gallery (the Nonsite) formed a dialectic with the place out there in the wilds of New Jersey (the Site).
A few months after his grand tour, the Monuments of Passaic would get their own quasi-nonsite treatment in an essay Smithson wrote for the December 1967 issue of Artforum. It was subtitled, “Has Passaic replaced Rome as the eternal city?
It’s a long walk from a roadside field in Britain to New Jersey’s postindustrial wasteland, and to be honest, the Tour is less seductive to me than Long’s Line. Yet I have a similar, personal attachment to Smithson’s shots. They interest me, certainly, as a milestone in the history of contemporary American art.
But they call to the part of me that’s always been drawn to edgelands and those landscapes that are all around us but that we cannot see.