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Stanford Report, January 23, 2002

Andy Goldsworthy's Stone River joins outdoor art collection


Last Wednesday afternoon, university administrators, curators and guests gathered outside the Cantor Center for Visual Arts to inaugurate the newest addition to its outdoor sculpture collection, Stone River, by British environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy. Thomas Seligman, the John and Jill Freidenrich Director of the Cantor Arts Center, called the sculpture one of the most important gifts to the center's collection. It was a gala occasion, with many laudatory remarks made about Goldsworthy and his work during the official dedication and afterward, as guests sipped wine and admired the flowing, 320-foot-long sandstone sculpture.

Earlier in the afternoon, the artist admitted in a near-whisper that he was "really annoyed" at the prospect of taking time out to be guest of honor. Goldsworthy had been on campus since before sunrise photographing Stone River as the light changed. The colossal serpentine sculpture, created with 128 tons of sandstone, is as much about light as it is about stone, the artist said. "I've stayed here watching it the whole day. I've seen incredible changes." By taking time away, he said, glancing at a clock on the wall in a conference room at the arts center, "there's a gap in my understanding of the piece."

Goldsworthy first gained attention for the photographs he made of his works, created outside and meant to last for just a moment or an afternoon -- icicles frozen together to spiral around a tree trunk, for instance, or the path of leaves stitched together with grass and floated down a stream. (Photographs of three of his works hang in the Cantor Center's Freidenrich Family Gallery.)

In Stone River, the stacked stones in the sculpture, set in a nearly 3 1/2-foot trough dug in the earth, rise from a 4-foot wide base to an almost impossibly precise undulating line. "I call it a river, but it's not a river," Goldsworthy said. The sculpture is "about the flow. There's a sense of movement in the material, through the individual stones, so you just see this line."

The extraordinary quality of light in Northern California -- last Wednesday, there was "the clearest, brightest and most intense light" -- is part of what drew him to the area, the artist said. Much of his work is created on the farms around his home in rural Scotland, but he also has worked in France, Japan, Australia and the North Pole, as well as in the United States, including New Mexico, the Napa Valley, Hollister and the Haines Art Galley in San Francisco.

The Robert and Ruth Halperin Foundation commissioned Stone River in honor of the presidency of Gerhard Casper. It is one of the first works in a long time that has been created specifically for Stanford, said Hilarie Faberman, the Robert M. and Ruth L. Halperin Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.

The artist came to Stanford more than a year ago to consider the project, Faberman said, and chose the site himself. Goldsworthy proposed a serpentine form -- a form that has appeared in his work for two decades in materials including ice, leaf fronds, sand and earth -- for the light and the sense of movement, he said.

When he heard about the campus "boneyard" -- a repository of salvaged historic materials including sandstone from buildings toppled in the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes -- he knew he'd found the right material. "The idea of stone that was once a building returned to the ground, back into the earth, for a work that is about flow, movement and change, it was perfect. It was really perfect.

"The reason why I put it into the ground is to weld it, and to give it the feeling that you've just scraped away one small portion of something that may be much, much larger. While we were making it, it felt like an archeological dig -- some people came along and thought it was an archeological dig," he said. "I had the idea that I was just revealing something that was already there."

The human element to the stone -- the fact that it already had been worked -- was important to the artist, he said. In rural Scotland, "I have become aware that the place I that work in has been made rich by the presence of people who have worked there -- layers upon layers of people. At the moment, I am the next layer."

Goldsworthy created Stone River last summer with eight professional English and Scottish dry-stone wallers, experts at building agricultural stone walls, who worked for 11 hours a day, six days a week for three-and-a-half weeks on the project. Though Goldsworthy's palms and fingers are callused and his fingernails are discolored from years of working outside, he didn't lay any stones himself, he said. His role was to achieve "the ridiculous edge" he was after. "I had never made a work like this until I came here, which was unnerving -- which is always good."

While working on Stone River, Goldsworthy also created "a whole heap of pieces with grasses and leaves" just a few yards away from the sculpture.

He liked the process of working on both works at the same time. "The ephemeral work is the soul of my art. That is the food. All these other things that I do -- the permanent pieces, the installations in museums -- are like breathing out.

"When I first began working it was about the moment, the moment I made something. But to try and understand time fully, I also have to try and deal with the future. Not to control it, but to make works that will have a life in the future.

"If you had to describe my work in one word, it would be 'time.'"

The Robert and Ruth Halperin Foundation commissioned Stone River in honor of Gerhard Casper's presidency. Photo: L.A. Cicero