Untitled is one of a series of seven large works on paper made together at the same time and in the same manner. Long dipped the paper in wet mud and suspended it vertically so that the water ran off in rivulets, leaving long streaks of white as the mud dried. He has commented:
The mud works are another aspect of the physicality of my work, like the walking. I always have a precise idea of the overall form of the work, which is balanced by the spontaneity of the execution. The speed of the hand gestures is important because that’s what makes the splashes, which shows the wateriness of the mud, and water is the main subject and content of these works, they show its nature. (Quoted in Friis-Hansen, p.27.)
Long’s earliest use of mud in his work consisted of series of bootprint marks on the floor. In such works as Line the Length of a Straight Walk from the Bottom to the Top of Silbury Hill 1970 (made at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, in 1971), a solid circular spiral of the artist’s bootprints represents the distance described in the title. His subsequent series of spirals, circles and lines made of muddy hand and foot prints on floors and walls are site specific and are washed away at the end of an exhibition. Other temporary mud works are created by pouring a thin stream of mud (often white mud is used) across the floor. In some works the pouring results in a carefully defined, jagged serpentine line; in others a more free and expressive effect is created through a messy scribble. Wall mud works usually take the form of circles, rings and solid lines filled in with mud slung at the wall and then scrubbed and wiped by the artist’s gloved hand to create swirling marks and a surrounding splatter of muddy drips. Long’s primary source of mud is the River Avon, near his birthplace and home in Bristol, but he also uses mud from other sources, such as the Mississippi River mud used in Untitled.
Mud, as a mixture of earth (formerly stone) and water, is a basic elemental material, laden with universal mythological resonances of primordial creation as the material source of life. All of Long’s work is based on his physical encounter with the natural world, frequently expressed as a combination of the traditionally oppositional forces of nature and culture. While his sculptures take the form of carefully placed natural elements in geometric configurations, many of his mud works are created through ‘spontaneous’ gesture. They bring the elemental simplicity of mud’s ‘primitive’ associations to the performative mark-making of action painting. Made on paper, the series of drawings to which Untitled belongs provides an unusually permanent record of the relationship between the artist’s hand and his material with an additional conceptual twist. In this instance Long has simply provided the conditions for the natural elements of air, water, earth and gravity to interact on paper. The striped pattern resulting from the downward flow of water and its accompanying evaporation constitutes the documentation of an action staged by the artist but enacted by physics. Evoking movement and stillness, permanence and fragility, control and accident, Untitled appropriates nature’s processes of earth and elements for man-made artistic expression.
Richard R. Brettell, Dana Friis-Hansen, Richard Long: Circles Cycles Mud Stones, exhibition catalogue, Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston 1996
Richard Long: Walking in Circles, exhibition catalogue, South Bank Centre, London 1991
Sculptors’ Drawings Presented by the Weltkunst Foundation, exhibition brochure, Tate Gallery, London 1994, reproduced [p.4]
November 2000/November 2001