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Walkabout (1967 Update)

In 1967, two artists, unbeknownst to one another, made a piece of pedestrian art. Somewhere between London and Bristol, Richard Long walked back and forth through a roadside field to create A Line Made by Walking. In New Jersey, Robert Smithson toured a swath of postindustrial terrain to create A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic. (Plenty more detail here.)

One photo of a line made through a field; six photos of industrial wastelands
Richard Long: A Line Made by Walking; Robert Smithson: A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey

Put Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking next to Robert Smithson’s Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, and you’d think the two lived on different planets. Where Smithson evokes science fiction tropes about a post-industrial dystopia, Long harkens back to an admittedly diluted Wordsworthian idyll of verdant meadows. It’s a stand-off: the metropolis vs. the pastoral, the sublime vs. the picturesque, the U.S. vs. the U.K.

The similarities seem, at first, less consequential: There’s the walking and the drugstore photographs both used to document their walks and, of course, the year 1967. But when you think about it, that year—smack dab in an era when the art world, along with just about everything else, was up for grabs—isn’t just a serendipitous detail.

The thought that counts

Dan Graham: Homes for America

In 1967, Andy Warhol hired Allen Midgette to impersonate him for a lecture at the Rochester Institute of Technology. (The subject was Pop Art in Action). In the pages of Arts magazine, Dan Graham published Homes for America, his twin critique of suburban New Jersey and Minimalist seriality. On Kawara was on the second year of his Today paintings, which consist of the day’s date painted on a monochrome field. Joseph Beuys made his first entry into the political realm with the founding of the German Student Party. In Arts Yearbook, Robert Smithson and Allan Kaprow sat down to discuss “What Is a Museum?”

Minimalism—abstract art minus the excesses of Abstract Expressionism—had already come into its own. Minimalist artists stripped out the emotion by turning to simple, often repetitive geometric forms and arrangements fabricated from industrial materials: “What you see is what you see,” Frank Stella said; Carl Andre explained, “Works of art don’t mean anything.”

The Minimalists may have disdained grand AbEx gestures, but they still wanted to produce actual objects. Not so, their Conceptualist colleagues. Taking their cue from Duchamp, these young artists revived his objective of art as an intellectual, “non-retinal” expression and began chipping away at the idea of “the precious art object.”

In 1968, Lawrence Weiner, a titan of the movement, wrote a Declaration of Intent:

1. The artist may construct the piece.

2. The piece may be fabricated.

3. The piece need not be built.

Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist, the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.

Joseph Kosuth: One and Three Chairs

The work was suitably non-retinal: Weiner’s work—which he defined as sculpture—is language-based. For One and Three Chairs, Joseph Kosuth brings together an actual chair, a photograph of the chair, and an enlarged definition of the word chair. John Latham’s Still and Chew is a phial containing the masticated remains of Clement Greenberg’s Art and Culture.

It was a heady time in both senses of the word—at once exhilarating and cerebral.

Creating an aura

Like Duchamp, Walter Benjamin took on the idea of the precious art object. In his 1935 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin argued that, in the pre-industrial world, a work of art was a unique, precious object that required the viewer’s presence to be comprehended: To get it, you had to be there. The it in question is what he dubbed the aura. But as technology spawned more and more copies of a given work—through photographs, moving pictures, audio recordings—the aura withered away. “The cathedral leaves its locale to be received in the studio of a lover of art; the choral production, performed in an auditorium or in the open air, resounds in the drawing room.” For Benjamin, this withering away is a welcome development, one that promises a revolutionary change in how we experience art. Liberated from a material place and time, art is no longer the purview of elites. It now circulates freely to all and sundry.

Both Long’s Line and Smithson’s Tour are objects, of course, but objects with an asterisk. Producing crappy drugstore snapshots that spit in the face of fine art photography, with its lush tonalities and elegant compositions, both young artists were, like so many of that era, in full rebellion against the precious object.

I’ve struggled with these two works and, for a long time, saw them largely as evidence of Long’s wit and Smithson’s irony—but in both cases, too aloof for anyone’s good. Over time, though, I’ve come to admire both: first Long’s with its faint whiff of pastoralism and then, after more heavy lifting on my part, Smithson’s strangely clear-eyed take on my home state.

One night, lying awake in bed, I had a glimpse of what it is about these works that, despite their determined banality, draws me in. They both set out on the quixotic quest of creating the aura without the precious object. In Long’s case, this idea of a dematerialized aura may be what lies behind his insistence that the walking is the art. What we are invited to take away from his practice is less the object on the gallery wall and more the sense of the walk itself.

Like all such quests, theirs was bound to fail. After all, we are ourselves material objects that, in making art, inevitably make material objects. And while we may want to think of Long’s photographs, maps, and text pieces as merely the residue of the work of art itself—the aftereffect, if you will—they are nonetheless material objects. And here in a material world, those objects will be perceived as precious: Long’s work is in the collections of the Tate, the Pompidou, the Getty, MoMA, the Metropolitan, and so on.

Photograph of Spiral Jetty
Robert Smithson: Spiral Jetty

As for Smithson, at the end of his short career, he took an entirely different path by creating The Spiral Jetty, one of the era’s the signature you-have-to-be-there works of art. Requiring a dedicated trek to the shores of Salt Lake, the Jetty is nothing if not a material object on a grand scale. One of the foundational works of the Land Art movement, it is also something of a throwback to the old school of auratic artworks: a precious object firmly rooted in time and place.

Two photographs of lines in a field
Richard Long: England, 1968; Daydreaming Line, 2020

Long, though, never stopped walking: In 2020, during the pandemic lockdown, he revisited a 1968 work for which he drew a hard-edged cross by picking flowers in a meadow. The new piece—called Daydreaming Line—also uses the medium of flowers-plucked-while-walking, but now the line drawn through the meadow marks a meandering path.

In comparison with Smithson’s epic monument in the Utah desert, Long’s work—particularly the snapshots and text pieces—may seem modest. Not so the quixotic dedication to the idea of walking as art. For there is spectacular ambition in the quest to forge art from the passage through space—to conjure the aura from the ephemeral.

Long’s Line is indeed an invitation: Ditch the precious object, put on your walking shoes, and head out to encounter the auratic world.

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