Somerset Willow Line is a sculpture made of short thin willow sticks placed directly on the floor in a rectangular arrangement measuring approximately five metres in length and one and a half metres in width. Each stick is a reddish brown colour and is stripped of its bark to reveal a smooth surface. The sticks are randomly arranged within the neat perimeter edges of the rectangle and are widely spaced so that none of the sticks touch each other and the floor is clearly visible between them. Each stick measures approximately thirty-seven centimetres in length and all are of similar widths.
Long collected willow sticks for earlier sculptures, such as Circle of Sticks 1973 (Tate T01783), from Leigh Woods near his home in Bristol, and it is likely that he also gathered the material for Somerset Willow Line from there too. Leigh Woods is located south of the River Avon on the border between Bristol and Somerset, which is most probably why Long named the sculpture after the county.
Each time the work is displayed it must be created anew. The sculpture is installed by the artist where possible, although it can also be made by art handlers following the artist’s instructions. The first stage of this process is to mark out the rectangular shape using masking tape (which is removed after completing the installation). The willow sticks are then placed at various angles within the rectangle, starting at one end of the piece and working to the other. Once all the sticks are laid, adjustments can be made to the spacing so that the sticks are evenly arranged. When in storage the piece consists of 621 sticks, but not all of these have to be used to construct the sculpture. Having more sticks than is required allows the installer to choose which ones to use and to vary their placement.
Long began making floor sculptures early in his career and cites a pivotal moment in 1964 as inspiration for his floor work: ‘I would say the seminal moment when I was a student in Bristol was the Gulbenkian show at the Tate in 1964. There was a piece by Isamu Noguchi that really impressed me. It was a very minimal work, just a pure convex shape on the floor. It really knocked me out.’ (Cited in Wallis 2009, p.172.) One of Long’s earliest floor sculptures, Untitled 1967 (reproduced in Wallis 2009, p.48), was made from sticks laid in a circular outline bisected by a straight line. It was exhibited in the main hall at St Martin’s School of Art in London where Long was studying at the time. Following this, other early stick sculptures were exhibited in galleries in the late 1960s, partly because it was easy to transport the sticks (either by post or by hand) and then assemble the work at the chosen venue. In 1967 Long posted a bundle of willow sticks collected from Leigh Woods to an exhibition at Galerie Dorothea Loehr in Frankfurt with the instructions that ‘they should be laid end to end in a straight line on the floor around the perimeter of the gallery, 15 cm in from each wall and parallel with it’ (cited in Wallis 2009, p.53). In 1968 Long showed another work made out of sticks at Konrad Fischer Galerie in Düsseldorf (see Wallis 2009, p.54).
It was due to these exhibitions that Long’s work became widely known to his international peers. In 1968 Long’s work was noticed by the American sculptor Carl Andre, who saw Long as a ‘genius at ordering nooks and crannies of the natural world into works of art’ (cited in Wallis 2009, p.55). Andre made Untitled (Portrait of Richard Long) 1969 in admiration of the English artist, using sticks given to him by Long (see http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/arm-full-twigs, accessed 19 June 2013). Long’s ability to order the ‘nooks and crannies of the natural world’ is central to Somerset Willow Line, which, as critic William Malpas has noted, ‘re-order[s] the irregularity of nature, shaping the odd lengths and volumes of the branches into a humanmade, geometric structure’ (Malpas 2011, p.274).
In a discussion of Long’s early stick sculptures (those shown in Frankfurt and Düsseldorf), art historian Rudi Fuchs has observed:
The lines of sticks touch the floor very gently, without intruding; their presence is like a whisper. The sculpture hardly disturbs the space, just as the Line Made by Walking [Tate AR00142] hardly disturbed the grass. Neither of the works seems to possess the place; nor, in their state of physical fragility (but visual strength) do they set out to do so.
(Fuchs 1986, p.70.)
The same could be said about Somerset Willow Line, with its widely spaced sticks giving the work a light, airy quality in stark contrast to the density of Long’s stone floor sculptures such as Cornish Slate Ellipse 2009 (Tate AR00703).
R.H. Fuchs, Richard Long, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1986, reproduced p.66.
Clarrie Wallis (ed.), Richard Long: Heaven and Earth, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2009.
William Malpas, The Art of Richard Long, Maidstone 2011, pp.273–4.
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