Art with respect for nature; new works at the Whitney

In all probability, ours is the only culture that considers a walk in the countryside a work of art. Or at least that's true of a walk as it is conceived, executed, and recorded by contemporary British artist Richard Long. It all began in 1967, when Long, a student at St. Martin's School of Art in London, walked up and down in a field until the flattened grass caught the sunlight from a different angle and became visible as a line. With that accomplished and photographed, he set out on a series of walks of various lengths that took him throughout the world and earned him a unique international reputation.

He began close to his home with ``A Hundred Mile Walk Along a Line in County Mayo'' and ``A Thousand Stones Moved One Step Forward Along a 74 Mile Walk in County Clare,'' and then moved further afield with ``A 25 Day Walk in Nepal,'' ``A 5 Day Walk on Dirt Roads and Bush Paths in Eastern Province, Zambia,'' ``A 12 Day Walk in the Zanskar Mountains of Ladakh,'' and other walks in Japan, Africa, North and South Africa, and the Himalayas. All were photographed. Many became the sites of outdoor sculptures made out of local materials such as stones, sticks, and mud. And still others were succinctly described in large, clearly lettered texts.

Over 40 of these photographs and texts, as well as several stone sculptures and a huge mud work have been brought together by the Guggenheim Museum here to form a most unusual and handsome exhibition devoted to Long's work. Four of the sculptures relate to the museum's space: Two are slate lines curving down a portion of the ramp; another, a ring of red slate centered on the Rotunda floor; and the fourth, a ring of chalk on the floor of the High Gallery. The mud work is a perfect circle ``finger-painted'' directly onto a wall with mud that will remain for the duration of the show.

Quite surprisingly -- considering the nature and the utter simplicity of everything on view -- this 20-year retrospective is both effective and moving. Unlike several other conceptual and earthwork artists, Long possesses -- and communicates -- a deep affection and respect for nature. He feels no need to violate it, to gouge or scar it, in order to imprint evidence of his presence or existence. He is content if his ``marks'' upon it fade after a few days or disappear entirely -- as happens when he ``draws'' with water upon an outcropping of rock or on gravel.

But that is only half the story, for his ability to transmit the quality of his experiences and his feelings for nature to an urban audience in a museum context is quite uncanny. Everything is presented with tact and taste. The photographs are illuminating and beautiful in a haunting, primal sort of way; the texts make their point with the utmost clarity; and the sculptures -- each consisting of hundreds of rocks evenly distributed to form simple lines, circles, or spirals -- underscore Long's involvement with nature in a gently understated manner.

It all adds up to a very special kind of experience -- one not unlike that received from reading Thoreau's ``Walden'' or the accounts of some of America's early naturalists.

At the Guggenheim Museum through Nov. 30. Recent acquisitions at the Whitney Museums survive and grow on the basis of their acquisitions. And the Whitney here is no exception. Although it owns the world's most definitive collection of 20th-century American art -- roughly 2,800 paintings and sculptures and more than 5,700 works on paper -- the dynamic nature of today's art is such that any museum claiming to present it must continually hustle for good, new examples and for outstanding pieces from the very recent past.

The Whitney's success can be gauged by the fact that it has acquired some 450 paintings and sculptures during the past six years. Of these, 54 were chosen by Patterson Sims, associate curator of the permament collection, for a celebratory exhibition held in conjunction with the publication of the Whitney's ``Painting and Sculpture Acquisitions, 1973-1986,'' a catalog that supplements and brings up to date the previously issued listing of acquisitions from 1931 to 1973.

The works on view span 70 years of American art, from Morton Schamberg's ``Painting V-(Mechanical Abstraction)'' of 1916 to Judy Pfaff's ``Supermercado'' of 1986, and they include major examples by Thomas Hart Benton, Philip Guston, Reginald Marsh, Mark Rothko, and John Marin. Other outstanding pieces are by Gregory Amenoff, Alexander Calder, Caroll Dunham, Nancy Graves, Elizabeth Murray, and Joseph Stella. Eric Fischl is represented by his huge ``A Visit to/A Visit From/the Island,'' which holds up quite well in this company, and Saul Steinberg amuses with his ``Giant Table III,'' which comes complete with several sketch books, pens, pencils, brushes, rulers, etc.

I also like Terry Winters's ``Good Government'' and Bill Jensen's ``The Meadow,'' but felt that Jasper Johns's ``Racing Thoughts'' was way below par for him, and that Willem de Kooning's ``Untitled VII'' was an embarrassment at best. On view through Nov. 30.

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