Just what makes Andy Goldsworthy's art so refreshing? At the top of the list: its lack of pretense, the humility of its transiency, its unmediated beauty. The simplicity of the work shocks us back into accord with -- or at least recognition of -- long-neglected rhythms. Organic rhythms. The natural pulse of the tide, the flow of the river, the shift in wind.
His work, though, is no ecological diatribe. Goldsworthy is not "playing the primitive," as he puts it. He's a schooled artist whose work has purposeful formal elegance. It has whimsy. And for all of its heft (sometimes) and the physical intensity of its construction (always), it has a gentleness that is utterly affirming.
Consider "Midwest Passage," one of the site-specific sculptures in Goldsworthy's terrific show at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. (Goldsworthy is also the subject of a popular documentary "Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time" showing in San Diego starting Thursday and in other cities in Southern California and around the country.) A floor-to-ceiling screen made of cattail stalks fastened by thorns, the piece is both wall and window, a drawing-in space that divides a large gallery in two. Its lines join at jaunty angles like spears thrown in the air and suspended there according to a geometry of raw energy. A slim vertical opening at the screen's center implies passage but is too narrow to allow it.
"Tree Line," another spare and eloquent work, consists of a thick, meandering tube that rises from the floor, descends a small flight of stairs, traverses a gallery and exits through the far wall. The eucalyptus branches that give the line its core, its shape, have been sheathed in clay, which will crack and discolor over the course of the show.
Echoing this earthbound line, there's another above, a snaking river drawn in ferns on the ceiling. As heavy and gradual as the form is below, so is the one above fluid and quick, light and delicate. Goldsworthy has stripped the leaves from one side of the stems to make the river's outline, which reads as smooth and continuous, while its interior, with leaves pointing inward, appears striated with feathery cilia. Two kinds of arteries moving at two different paces.
All of Goldsworthy's work is in motion, though little of that is visible to the naked eye. Much of it traces lines in space. All of it incorporates some aspect of change. While the notion of a sculpture as ongoing is more immediately evident in Goldsworthy's outdoor work using ice, leaves, flowers, wood and stones, these pieces have change and motion at their essence as well.
Journey is the organizing principle of "Andy Goldsworthy: Three Cairns." The show was initiated by the Des Moines Art Center in partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, N.Y. San Diego is its final stop. In each place, Goldsworthy built a permanent limestone cairn inspired by the stone markers traditionally piled by the side of a path to mark a point in a journey or to serve as memorial.
The 8-foot-tall cairn outside the museum in La Jolla sits in the expansive shade of a Moreton Bay fig tree, a lone swollen teardrop, a dropped acorn.
Goldsworthy, British born and living for nearly two decades in rural Scotland, also created temporary cairns on each coast and one in the Midwest to trace his own journey and the journey of the show across the U.S. Those on the shore he built in a day, between high tides, and both were duly subsumed by the sea. The cairn on the Iowa prairie still stands. Sequences of panoramic color photographs show each temporary cairn, stoic as a Monet haystack, as the light changed around it, grasses stretched to hide it, or the surf rose to swallow it.
The local cairn and documentation of the others are elegant enough, but they end up being the least of what makes this show a stirring experience. Working outdoors, mostly near his home but also for commissions around the world, Goldsworthy sculpts from the resources of the site. His gestures -- spirals crafted of icicles, ribbons sewn of leaves -- are concise, adding emphasis to nature's own expression.
In the neutral zone of the museum interior, that connection to place is less explicit. He's brought thorns and rushes from Scotland, gathered cattails in Iowa, and collected clay and stones locally, but the sculptures aren't in active dialogue with their locale -- with one exception. A few years ago, Goldsworthy experimented with firing stones in a ceramics kiln. Thirty of these cocoa-brown "Rock Pools" are scattered like droppings from some primordial beast on the floor of a passageway and in a small gallery with a breathtaking view of the Pacific.
Some stones remained smooth except for deep fissures that cracked their crust like overbaked bread. Others collapsedinto yeasty-looking puddles.