Rock Walls as Art? Why You Need to See These Andy Goldsworthy Pieces Around the U.S.

To appreciate Andy Goldsworthy’s art, you need to experience it in person.

British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy is known for his larger than life pieces that demonstrate the beauty—and power—of nature.

British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy is known for his larger than life pieces that demonstrate the beauty—and power—of nature.

Photo by Frankie WO/Shutterstock

Just as Monet had his haystacks and water lilies, sculptural artist Andy Goldsworthy—whose work features prominently from the Presidio in San Francisco to Storm King in New York—has cairns and walls. A Scottish word (recently made global thanks to Outlander), cairns have been used since prehistoric times from South America to Europe to denote a landmark, designate a memorial, or to mark a grave. And we all know what a wall is, but one of Goldsworthy’s most recent works, Walking Wall (2019), added something unexpected to a stone wall: movement.

Born in the U.K. in 1956, Goldsworthy began by working alone in nature and making ephemeral sculptures out of the material at hand: sticks, ice, leaves. The documentary Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time (2001) showcases some of his early work. He has since moved on to commissioned, permanent works worldwide, often using small teams of skilled craftsmen to handle the rocks used in his art.

Goldsworthy’s work is distinctive, sculptural, and site specific. He frequently composes his pieces on a large scale using local materials, in an intriguing combination of the natural and the man-made. According to the artist, “If you had to describe my work in one word, it would be ‘time.’” But content and context are equally important. Unlike a painting or photograph, you need to walk around these sculptures to understand them. Time, place, material, and weather all play roles in his artwork. And you may find yourself appreciating how a wall can be joyful, instead of divisive, and the majesty of old trees.

During his more than 50-year career, Goldsworthy has created numerous memorable public works around the world, including in the United States. It’s not surprising that New York and California have several of his artworks, but you might not expect to come across his work in Des Moines, Iowa, or Kansas City, Missouri. An added plus of visiting the following sites: Most are located near art museums. Here are six U.S. locations where you can view Goldsworthy sculptures.

Spanning 500 acres, Storm King Art Center is home to the country's largest collection of contemporary outdoor sculpture.

Spanning 500 acres, Storm King Art Center is home to the country’s largest collection of contemporary outdoor sculpture.

Photo by Christian Purple/Shutterstock

1. Storm King Wall

  • Where: New Windsor, New York
  • When: Open daily, 10 a.m. to 5:30 pm (to 7:30 p.m. Fridays & Saturdays); closed Tuesdays
  • Visit: Tickets for Storm King Art Center start at $23, includes parking

Goldsworthy’s first U.S. museum-commissioned permanent work was Storm King Wall (1997), located at the Storm King Art Center, which is about a one-hour drive north of New York City. Initially planned to be 750 feet, the serpentine wall was extended through woods and across a pond—it now clocks in at more than 2,200 feet, using 1,500 tons of fieldstone. A practical wall features straight lines. This playful wall defers to the setting it traverses—a meandering wall and forerunner of the “walking” wall that Goldsworthy would later create. As is usual in his works of stacked stones, no mortar was used. In 2010, Goldsworthy and his team of British stone masons returned to build a second, shorter wall incorporating 15 boulders.

A three-hour drive west of Storm King, you can see an early Goldsworthy cairn at Cornell University. Also on campus at the Cornell Botanic Gardens is the Goldsworthy Holocaust Memorial, originally created as part of his Garden of Stones, in New York City, for the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Both works feature trees growing out of boulders.

Goldsworthy's <i>Three Cairns</i> is ambitious in its scale: it spans the entire country.

Goldsworthy’s Three Cairns is ambitious in its scale: it spans the entire country.

Photo by Jonathan P.Ellgen/Flickr

2. Three Cairns

  • Where: Des Moines, Iowa
  • When: Open daily, except Monday; Tuesday & Wednesday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursday & Friday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday & Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Visit: Des Moines Art Center and adjacent sculpture park are free

Goldsworthy’s Des Moines work is the middle section of the widely dispersed Three Cairns, the largest project undertaken by him in the Western Hemisphere. The East Coast cairn was built first, beginning in late 2001, outside the Neuberger Museum of Art on the SUNY Purchase campus. You’ll find the West Coast cairn near the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla, California. But the Midwest was the initial inspiration for the work, specifically its ancient geological relationship with the East and West Coasts. The Iowa limestone used in the piece is so old that it contains oceanic creatures—all three cairns use this roughly cut Iowa limestone—shaped into an egg-like structure with hand-laid dry stone. Unlike the coastal cairns, this one features three stone walls with an egg-shaped indentation, an echo of its origin.

This middle cairn is near the Des Moines Art Center’s first building (1948) designed by architect Eliel Saarinen (father of Eero Saarinen). Clad in rough-cut limestone, Saarinen’s design makes the most of its setting, indoors and out. (The other two buildings at the art center are by Pritzker Prize winners I.M. Pei and Richard Meier.)

<i>Walking Wall</i> can be found at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City and is one of the artist's most recent works.

Walking Wall can be found at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City and is one of the artist’s most recent works.

Photo courtesy of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

3. Walking Wall

  • Where: Kansas City, Missouri
  • When: Open Monday, Thursday, Saturday & Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (until 9 p.m. Fridays)
  • Visit: Free, but visitors need to reserve timed entry tickets in advance

One of Goldsworthy’s most recent works is Walking Wall at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. Built and deliberately dismantled and rebuilt during 2019, it moved along, month by month, traveling one third of a mile, crossing and blocking a four-lane city road in the process. In an interview with PBS, he explained that he hoped viewers would see “how [things] decay and how they change.” The New York Times heralded it “a slow-motion performance piece.” It now resides, static, in the sculpture garden of the museum. Among the four dry-stone wallers involved in the construction/deconstruction was 72-year old Gordon Wilton from Derbyshire, who helped build Goldsworthy’s initial U.S. wall in 1997, two of about five dozen projects he’s done with Goldsworthy. Many members of Goldsworthy’s teams of builders have worked on numerous projects with him.

This 320-foot-long sculpture can be found on Standford University's campus.

This 320-foot-long sculpture is on Standford University’s campus.

Photo by Pat Tompkins

4. Stone River

  • Where: Stanford, California
  • When: Anytime for Stone River; Cantor is open Wednesday–Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Visit: Free

Another striking Goldsworthy wall-like work snakes along the Stanford University campus outside the Cantor Art Museum. According to Goldsworthy, the 320-foot-long sculpture of sandstone is about light as much as it is about stone, with its appearance changing throughout the day, as the sun crosses the sky. It’s situated in a trough, suggesting an archeological excavation, and undulates from a four-foot-wide base that narrows as it rises. Triangular coping stones that top the wandering “river” weigh up to 50 pounds. Stone River features the same golden sandstone, some 6,500 stones, employed in many of the university’s original buildings—literally. He used sandstone blocks that were stockpiled from campus buildings damaged during the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes. The serpentine work may remind you of another “natural” problem in California: a shortage of water.

The domed shapes of the figures that comprise <i>Roof</i> are meant to provide a contrast to other famous domed buildings in the D.C. area.

The domed shapes of the figures that comprise Roof provide a contrast to other famous domes in the D.C. area.

Photo by anarchivist/Flickr

5. Roof

  • Where: Washington, D.C.
  • When: Open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Visit: Free

At the National Gallery of Art in 2005, Goldsworthy installed Roof, which consists of nine slate domes. These hollow stacks are 27 feet in diameter with a 2-foot opening in the center: The gallery describes them as black holes. It’s an intriguing contrast in a city with such famous domed rooftops as the U.S. Capitol and the Jefferson Memorial. Despite its name, Roof is on the ground-level garden area of the gallery’s East Wing. This roof—with holes in it on the ground—is one of the largest sculptures the National Gallery has commissioned, stretching 139 feet. As with many of his sculptures, it’s hard to miss. The slate it uses comes from the same Virginian mine used for the roofs of Ford’s Theater and the Smithsonian castle. The artist told NPR, “The underlying tension of a lot of my art is to try and look through the surface appearance of things. Inevitably, one way of getting beneath the surface is to introduce a hole, a window into what lies below.”

Andy Goldsworthy's <i>Wood Line</i> can be found on the Presidio's Lovers' Lane trail.

Andy Goldsworthy’s Wood Line wanders a trail in the Presidio.

Photo by Frankie WO/Shutterstock

6. Spire and Wood Line

  • Where: San Francisco, California
  • When: Outdoors (daylight hours are best)
  • Visit: Free

Since most of Goldsworthy’s work is situated outdoors, the way things change over time is a topic he’s interested in. He has said, “Movement, change, light, growth and decay are the life-blood of nature, the energies that I try to tap through my work.” Those qualities are especially evident when you walk around Spire and along Wood Line.

The Presidio in San Francisco, a former U.S. Army post now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, has the biggest collection of his work on public view in the country—four installations. Spire, constructed in 2008, was inspired by the Presidio’s forest and ongoing efforts to plant new trees there. It uses 37 cypress trunks and rises 100 feet. It underwent a dramatic change in June 2020 by a brush fire, possibly arson. Today, Spire still stands tall but charred, lending unintentional commentary on the plague of major wildfires that has ripped through California in recent years.

The site for Wood Line dates back to the 19th century, when the Army interspersed rows of eucalyptus trees with Monterey cypress near an old footpath known as Lovers’ Lane. The cypress, however, did not thrive and left gaps. Wood Line runs some 1,200 feet, zigzagging along the forest floor, turning one of those gaps into a walkable sculpture lined by towering trees. The layout encourages a leisurely pace between two “walls” of tall eucalyptus, an oasis in a densely populated city where land is so scarce that there is only a single cemetery (a military one, also in the Presidio).

His other two works in the Presidio, Earth Wall and Tree Fall, are indoors, much smaller, and less accessible but also free to visit. On a weekend walk along a three-mile loop of trails, you could visit all four works, accompanied by scenic views of the bay and Golden Gate Bridge.

Pat Tompkins has written for AFAR about books, art, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and other topics.
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