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Goldsworthy for Hire: How a Public Art Icon Became a Status Symbol for Private Art Collectors

Andy Goldsworthy’s site-specific works celebrate the Bay Area’s natural environment—but often the public can’t enjoy them.

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A Nevada City collector's Arch (2005).

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Falling Tree (2005), housed at Roger Evans's Napa estate.

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Yorkshire Oak Restacked (2010), from the collection of Roger Evans.

Says Evans of the piece, “It was shown at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and I asked if I could acquire it. It never occurred to me that I’d receive a stack of wood with no numbers. But he ended up coming with a crew of three people and rebuilding the piece from scratch.”

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Can an artist whose works transcend ownership and promote environmental awareness also be one of the most sought-after commissions for the Bay Area’s ultrarich? In the case of Andy Goldsworthy, surprisingly, yes. As closely associated as the 61-year-old Scottish land artist and sculptor is with lauded public works like the Presidio’s Spire or Wood Line, many more of his pieces are created for private patrons and exist entirely out of public view.

In June at Haines Gallery, where gallerist Cheryl Haines has represented Goldsworthy locally since 1992, he was pulling double duty: at once preparing for his latest public exhibition, Drawing Water Standing Still, on view there through September 2, and also beginning work on what he calls a “massive, 45-foot-high rammed-earth wall” that he otherwise “can’t talk about” for an undisclosed patron building a private museum of Chinese scrolls outside the city. Those within the art world insist it’s not unusual for an artist of Goldsworthy’s stature to accept private commissions. Yet it still registers as a shock to learn that an artist whose career-long preoccupations have been nature’s flux and temporality is simultaneously earning untold dollars to create works for patrons’ private estates.

Goldsworthy is best known locally for his four installations in the Presidio, plus Stone River at Stanford, Drawn Stone at the de Young, and seven pieces at the Hess Collection in Napa. His newest monograph, Projects, is being released this month, and Leaning into the Wind, a sequel to the 2001 art-house documentary about his work, Rivers and Tides, will be released in early 2018 after having premiered in April at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival.

But Goldsworthy has also become one of the most in-demand artists for private collectors, who often hire him to create site-specific works on their properties. Haines’s office regularly fields requests from collectors eager to commission a Goldsworthy, she says. Haines says that because of the complexity of his works, Goldsworthy undertakes only a handful of new projects per year—but “that said, the Bay Area is one of the highest-density areas of his works internationally.”

In fact, Goldsworthy’s first permanent sculpture in the United States was a 1992 commission for John Rosekrans, heir to the Spreckels sugar fortune. The abstract piece, made of clay excavated from the site, was installed on Rosekrans’s private Runnymede Sculpture Farm in Woodside. But it’s the Fisher family, owners of the Gap, who may hold the claim to being Goldsworthy’s most prolific patrons. Bill Fisher, also the founder of the private equity firm Manzanita Capital, and his wife, Sako, were longtime admirers of Goldsworthy’s work when, 10 years ago, they invited him and his family to spend a week at their estate. The sculptor produced two ephemeral pieces for them that have since disappeared. (As with most of his work, the photographic record is all that remains—ultimately, it’s what’s being purchased.) Goldsworthy has also created works for “the whole extended Fisher family,” he says, including a particularly complex piece for Bill and Sako’s Triple C Ranch in Marin, which the artist calls “a tough, tough work to make—a real rite of passage.”

A few years later, he created two more works there, both permanent—one of which may be the only truly functional work in Goldsworthy’s entire oeuvre. Culvert Cairn is effectively a drainage ditch with a fine-art pedigree, a carved stone sculpture that’s balanced within the property’s massive outdoor piping system. The piece has never been viewed by the public—the only record of it is in a video that was used as the backdrop to an ODC/Dance performance, Boulders and Bones, in 2014. The second, untitled work is a “bee’s nest–like cairn wrapped around a tree limb six feet off the ground,” Fisher says. He fondly recalls that “Andy put me to work a few of the days, collecting sticks.”

Some may see something risible in the image of billionaire art collectors engaging one of the world’s most celebrated land artists to make priceless works in their backyards. Yet speaking with Goldsworthy collectors makes clear that they see themselves as acquiring more than a bespoke piece of art. “I was interested in seeing how his brain works—how he comes up with ideas,” Fisher says.

Haines sees something “courageous in some way” among Goldsworthy’s patrons. They are, after all, purchasing work that is often mutable, or even prone to vanish, in months or years. “It’s an interesting parallel to the way Andy works,” she says. “His relationships tend to be long-term, deep, and significant.”

And, to be clear, such private engagements are common in the world of fine art, says curator and art adviser Natasha Boas. She points to collectors who recently hired light artist James Turrell to work on their Napa Valley swimming pool; others who hired Mission School artist Barry McGee to create an Astroturf installation at their San Francisco residence; and a Stinson Beach collector who commissioned French artist Jean-Michel Othoniel—whose La Rose des Vents was installed in front of the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park—to create an outdoor work encased in glass. Another example: In 2009, former SFMOMA board president Steven Oliver and his wife, Nancy, converted their 100-acre Geyserville ranch into an invitation-only private museum of commissioned land art—which includes a Goldsworthy.

For his part, Goldsworthy says his artistic instincts remain the same no matter who a work is intended for. “All the works I do, irrespective of whether they’re private or public, are most often done after a strong feeling someone has for a place,” he says. “These are not works that can be moved or sold. They’re for the place.”

That rings true for Roger Evans, a venture capitalist who’s commissioned several Goldsworthys for his Napa property. “One doesn’t buy his work for investment purposes, that’s for sure,” he says. Evans’s favorite is a cut-oak sculpture. But since its creation, the “bark is starting to come off and mushrooms are growing on the wood,” he says. “As a collector, it is challenging to see a piece of art you loved the day it was installed evolving—if that’s the appropriate word—and wrestling with the discomfort that comes with remembering it the way it was. But every time I see it, I am reminded that Andy intended for nature to do its thing with his work.” Fisher agrees. “I think that’s what Andy’s after as much as anything else: to make people aware of the world around them.”

If some see contradictions in Goldsworthy’s approaches to public and private artwork, it doesn’t seem to bother the artist. Speaking in Leaning into the Wind, he acknowledges that “there are a lot of contradictions in what I make. When I was younger, I said, ‘I work with nature.’ Now nature is everywhere. So why even mention it? When I work in a city, I work with nature. When I work with myself, I’m working with nature.

“It isn’t so clear anymore.”

 

Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco

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