"Astonishing" is one word for Andy Goldsworthy's latest book, but its images are so vital and rare that it deserves a more original epithet. Like his previous books, this collection by the Scotland-based artist includes photographs of his recent work accompanied by excerpts from his project journals. You may gasp at some of the new pieces, and want to bend your knee to others. But for all the immediacy of the response Goldsworthy art can evoke, the nature of his genius eludes easy definition.
For one thing, it is hard to know what kind of artist Goldsworthy is. He fashions pieces using leaves, sticks, rocks, ice, shadows, air, and, as indicated by the book's title, time. Many of his works are ephemeral, lasting no longer than it takes the tide or wind to scatter them. Some require the artist to stand for hours in a freezing river, stacking sheets of ice into an egg-shaped cairn. Others demand of him almost surgical patience and precision to suspend a hypnotically delicate curtain of twigs from an archway.
One stunning piece included in the book consists of a patch of frost-covered grass formed as the artist stood stationary in an autumnal field as the sun rose behind him. The result throws the world into reverse, and the image feels like nature's photograph of the human figure, with frost acting as the light-sensitive emulsion. Also included are pieces that could be called "raingraphs," consisting of rain-soaked sidewalks or roadways and a dry silhouette where Goldsworthy lay as a brief shower came and went.
Is the creator of these works a sculptor, a photographer, or a performance artist? Is he also a writer, given that some of his pieces can only be experienced through his accounts of them? It's worth wondering about this, not for the sake of restricting Goldsworthy's creativity (which hardly seems possible), but to better discern what provokes the responses we have to his art.
The title of this collection does tip off some of the ways in which these pieces work. There's often a correlation between how long it took Goldsworthy to make a specific piece and the duration and depth of the viewer's response to it. I was instantly taken by a rainbow "sculpted" by the artist in a splash of river water, and felt a more gradual dawning of pleasure at a line of stone arches built on sand exposed by the receding tide, and later obliterated by its return. Quick works elicited quick delight; works of hours and weeks roused more patient fascination.
While Goldsworthy's diverse artworks can consistently impress us with his intensity of purpose and inspiration, their varying degrees of impermanence mirror nature's ever-fleeting forms and our own passing responses. Seeing rocks "painted" with red leaves or a wall frieze of cracked and drying mud, the viewer's mind re-creates the labor involved in their creation, both Goldsworthy's and nature's. We may not know what sort of work this is, or even whose it is, but its transient beauty is unmistakable.