If you can’t see it, is it art?
Some version of this question was on the lips of dozens of art fans on Wednesday night after a sold-out talk delivered by the Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s auditorium.
In 2010, the gallery commissioned Goldsworthy to produce a piece of art for the gallery’s rapidly transforming campus. What he produced, after more than a few false starts and one of the longer trial-and-error periods in the history of Albright-Knox commissions, is what appears to be an unremarkable gravel path running along the southeastern edge of the campus.
In the right light, with the right weather and the right time of day – everything short of the proper alignment of Jupiter and Mars – a thick serpentine line will emerge from the dust and gravel only to dissipate minutes later. Its appearance is unpredictable, an elusive result of conditions that are unpredictable.
“It’s really a canny piece of work,” Goldsworthy said to laughs during Wednesday night’s talk. “It’s going to sneak around, and then come up at 2 in the morning, and then go away again.”
The piece, still technically in progress and temporarily titled “Path,” is one of the strangest, quietest and ultimately boldest pieces of artwork the gallery has ever purchased.
The path leading to “Path,” appropriately enough, was a winding one. Goldsworthy’s ambitious first idea was to create a “herd of stones” which would be heated by an array of solar panels and send up steam in the winter and after rain storms. That project, into which many dollars and hours were invested, was eventually scuttled because of the inordinate power necessary to make it work.
The gallery, Goldsworthy said, turned down ideas for a tree planted in the middle of the east steps and a line snaking its way through a marsh in Delaware Park. So, finally, he adapted an idea he tried for the roof of his home in Scotland for his successful “Path” proposal.
As artworks go, and even as Goldsworthy’s often understated and ephemeral work goes, “Path” is extraordinarily unconventional. It’s a little whisper compared with the sonic boom of Nancy Rubins’ violence of canoes on the west lawn. It avoids your glance, unlike the piercing eyes of Jaume Plensa’s 32-ton sculpture “Laura” on the north lawn.
Art lovers could be forgiven for asking whether the Albright-Knox got its money’s worth from Goldsworthy, whose other major sculptural commissions for museums around the world tend to be available around the clock.
That’s a valid point. It’s natural to wonder why an artwork that only occasionally exists should be worth buying. (The gallery did not disclose how much it paid, though other Goldsworthy commissions have run up to seven figures.)
But “Path” seems remarkable to me simply for its organic nature. It is a living, breathing piece of sculpture that has to be coaxed, like some kind of temperamental zoo animal, out of its cage. That strikes me as a unique and welcome idea in the clattering, clanging, high-decibel art world in which we now live.
The protracted process of finishing the work has no doubt been frustrating for the museum and for Goldsworthy, and some of that frustration was evident in his presentation Wednesday. The end result, however, is just about as beautifully strange, refreshing and unexpected as the artist or his patron could have hoped for.
“I just think it’s amazing that this institution is able to deal with these ideas,” he said. “You should be very proud of this museum.”