Richard Long: Walks on the wild side

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Richard Long's photographs are evocative records of his journeys, but sometimes they can be more like postcards than art, says Tom Lubbock

What went wrong with Richard Long? He started so well. In 1967, when he was 22, he took a train out of London, got off where open country began, found an empty field, walked up and down in a straight line till a trodden-down trace appeared in the grass, took a photo of this mark, then went back to town.

A black-and-white photo, A Line Made by Walking (1967), was the resulting work. It's a classic piece of conceptual art, severe, economical, dense. A human presence is represented by a straight man-made line. A stretch of space marks a length of time. A transient footprint is preserved by a photographic trace. The picture shows a defined event, a contained place, and a distance is set up between the walker's there and then, and the viewer's here and now.

And he could have stopped, then and there. A Long retrospective opens at Tate Britain tomorrow, and as it demonstrates, this single, beginning work holds everything that his later works reiterate. What went wrong was that Long went on – and what he had to do in order to go on, was making walks and making them into something that looked like art. Long's work has became habitual, with no major changes in his practice from then to now. From the off, his artistic solutions were formulaic.

This isn't quite how Long himself sees it. "I often think, if I had just made A Line Made by Walking it would have been a good work in its own right. But the fact that I've repeated or continued that idea for many years... that's part of the life of that work... Walking has enabled me to be an artist potentially anywhere, and in a very free and simple way." It certainly has. But then Long's long career has not been exactly free. It has depended on an art world which has certain values – a world that has equated repetition and simplicity, not with dullness or vacancy, but with dedication and rigour.

Over the past 40 years, Long has made a series of walks – goodness knows how many – sometimes in his native land of Dartmoor, sometimes in the remotest parts of the world. But in whatever continent, his walks are always made according to some scheme – a geometrical plan, a length of miles, a number of days, or something more elaborate: A Six-Day Walk over All the Roads, Lanes and Double Tracks inside a Six-mile-wide Circle Centred on the Giant of Cerne Abbas (1975); or A Cloudless Walk: From the Mouth of the Loire to the First Cloud (1995). Sometimes Long marks his passage by making an alteration to the landscape on the way – a pile or pattern of stones, say.

And then he brings back evidence of his walks into the gallery. It might be a marked map. It might be a photo, usually black and white, incorporated into a poster. It might be a quasi-poetic text piece, lettered on to the wall, describing the plan of the walk and in very brief notations a sequence of his experiences along the way. Forest, White Butterflies, Crossing a Stream, Animal Droppings, Slippery Boulders, Peat Bog...

Or it might be a load of rocks, carried home (never mentioned how) and arranged on the gallery floor, normally in a circle or a long rectangle, though sometimes in another regular formation. Or a mud-drawing made on the floor or the wall, with mud brought back, perhaps to make concentric rings of handprints, or with flinging hand marks forming a geometrical shape with a fringe of spatters.

Well, as everyone says, Long has revolutionised landscape art. He has transferred its focus from the static eye to the walking body. And he has set the subject at a remove. His laconic text pieces, rock sculptures and mud drawings don't communicate his travels, they only memorialise them. Even his photos are functional and unatmospheric. His works aren't transporting. They introduce another leg of journey – between the walker's experience and ours. And this sense of distance surely has its kick. But how often can you go on getting the same kick?

Most of Long's artistic devices are means of evacuating content. For example, what's the point of those arbitrary schemes, by which a walk is given its shape or length? Their very arbitrariness. His rules remove any historical associations from his paths. Long isn't walking along pilgrim ways. He isn't walking ley lines. He's walking geometry. The rules also keep his choices to the minimum, so the walks don't become a personal response to or expression of the landscape. And they give a walk a structure, that makes it into a self-contained composition, an empty ritual. Of course, this is the charm of them. It's a way of walking without getting involved, and making art without trouble. It confers pure order and meaninglessness.

Or turn to the text pieces through which so many of Long's walks are recorded. They're stencilled on to the wall, normally in a plain sans serif font, in capitals. They are set centred in the space. They are in some combination of black, red and white – black and red words on white wall; white and red walls on black wall. Again, the object is a kind of purism. This letter-face is as free of connotations as a letter-face can be. A centred layout is the neutral option. The colour schemes are the most basic.

If you want to see how wall texts can be used in a creative way, both verbally and typographically, there's a room elsewhere in Tate Britain devoted to work by Ian Hamilton Finlay. The Long wall text takes the safest way. Its preferred "poetic" form is, as you'd expect, repetition. And when it departs from its norms, it departs in the most literal-minded manner. The text of Waterlines is printed in blue.

Long never plays it safer than in his rock sculptures and mud drawings. Pretty minimalism is the rule of the game, sometimes on a grand and spectacular scale. The centrepiece of the Tate Britain show is an enormous open space, occupied by five rock floor works: three rounds, an oblong and an oval. Slate, flint, basalt: a mass of irregular elements are arranged into a regular geometrical form. Roughness within neatness: it's the rag-roll aesthetic. The mud drawings, with their graceful spatterings, are exactly that.

It makes superb decor. It's all in the best of taste. If they weren't quite so big, you can imagine these simple stone patterns adorning some gleaming plutocrat's apartment; and Long makes smaller versions that do just that. Like his arbitrary walk-schemes, but even more so, this is art without tears. Do you remember when Tate Modern opened, and they had a landscape room in which two Longs were juxtaposed with a Monet? How tame, how inoffensive, Long looked, compared with wild Monet.

And why does he go all over the planet, to desert, to mountain, to river, to arctic? For the traditional reason, it seems: to get away from it all. Wherever Long travels, the messy human world is strangely absent. Whatever might be going on in that part of world, he manages not to notice. Apart from his own interventions, the Earth might be the Moon. His photos show bare nature, uninterrupted even by animals. The Animal Droppings dropped into that text are a surprise. The kangaroo that appears in A Straight Hundred-mile Walk in Australia is a real rarity.

In other words, his work is a very pure form of tourism. His view of the world is narrowed to the sublime and the picturesque. It is a postcard vision, from which everything else is removed. We've been here before. The early critics of Romantic landscape art saw the way it was going. William Blake said: "Where man is not, nature is barren." William Hazlitt: "Landscape painting is the obvious resource of misanthropy." Richard Long only takes it further. His radical revision of Romantic landscape – the solitary wanderer confronting the unpeopled view – consists of an even more extreme version of its traditional exclusions.

Tate Britain, London SW1 (020-7887 8888) 3 June to 6 September

See more of Richard Long's work at

Exclusive 2 for 1 ticket offer for Independent readers. Call 020 7887 8998 and quote "Independent Ticket Offer" until 8 July. Offer is available on full-price tickets and is subject to a £1.50 booking fee per transaction. Cannot be redeemed in conjunction with any other offer

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
Crime watch: Cara Delevingne and Daniel Brühl in ‘The Face of an Angel’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
‘The Late Late Show’ presenter James Corden is joined by Mila Kunis and Tom Hanks for his first night as host
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss