See Hear: Rockin’ the Nelson: On Andy Goldsworthy’s Moveable Wall

The Goldsworthy wall progresses, inch by inch, stone by stone. At least that was the plan for this summer. The British artist was scheduled to arrive back in Kansas City just as this column’s deadline passed in mid-May. And by the time you read this, anger surely had arisen among those who might have found Goldsworthy’s “Walking Wall” inconvenient for a few weeks, as it disrupted their commute via Rockhill Road on the Nelson-Atkins Museum’s east flank.

But that speaks to one of the significant points of the project. It’s another in a decades-long line of Goldsworthy’s interventions in the natural world. And this one merely asks us to stop and smell the limestone. So chill out, friends, and take a moment as Goldsworthy, uh, rocks our world.

Goldsworthy’s project has surely caused many to think about the nature and meaning of walls. The British artist concedes he didn’t have the troubling, divisive issue of immigration and American borders on his mind when he set out to conceive of “Walking Wall.” But it fits. Which is one reflection of art’s vibrant and malleable role as an instrument to interpret the world.

Previous Goldsworthy stone walls have meandered through forests and performed visual tricks with bodies of water and natural objects. For the Nelson, he has inaugurated the newly expanded Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park adjacent to the former Rockhill Tennis Club, which was originally built — out of fieldstone, of course — for the daughter of the museum’s benefactor and namesake, William Rockhill Nelson.

His source material comes largely from the Flint Hills in Kansas, referencing farm boundaries and ancient geological formations. The serpentine layout of the first phase of the wall came from somewhere within Goldsworthy’s neuro-network of creative impulses. Unlike here, the loopy stone wall that Goldsworthy constructed more than 20 years ago for the Storm King Art Center in upstate New York at least had trees to wind around and play with.

This might be a simplistic comparison, but aerial views of the wall remind me a bit of the understated Maya Lin sculpture, installed inside the Bloch Building, that traces the meandering path of the Missouri River. Where Lin’s piece, made of recycled silver, speaks to wild nature and the earth’s hydraulic forces in a micro-miniature scale, Goldsworthy’s waved creation, of recycled stone, speaks to human endeavor, labor, time, impermanence, a paradoxical fluidity and repose.

“There is this form I can’t stop making which is really snakelike,” he says in “Wall,” a book about the Storm King project, “but I often think of it as a river.”

Yes, it is fluid, he adds, but essentially he’s more interested in the movement, a thought he repeats to “Walking Wall” visitors at the Nelson two decades later.

The intermediate phase of the Nelson-commissioned project found Goldsworthy and crew dismantling the dry-stacked stones of the first section and building anew to cross Rockhill Road. Three more phases will ultimately, in the fall, take the wall directly to a Bloch Building window. There it will interface with a section of stone wall inside, a play on transparency and the unruly impudence of an art that can’t be contained within the confines of architecture or the finite conditions of curation.

“It’s a reminder of the life the objects had outside the museum,” Goldsworthy said one afternoon to onlookers.

Goldsworthy was present and open to conversation as his crew members wheeled piles of rocks and positioned them early on in light rain or under gray March skies. One day when he was holding a pencil and the large, thin spool of a tape measure, he said to an onlooker or two, “This makes it look like I know what I’m doing.”

He recognized some of the regulars who dropped by to watch the wall’s progress. He gestured, for example, toward a couple of bundled-up guys who sat on the existing boundary wall on the north end of the site, taking in the stone-stacking as if it were the object of meditation practice.

Goldsworthy’s wall makes no heavy demands. It offers a quiet joy. There’s nothing digital about it, save for the drone videos and photographs that become part of the artist’s documentation. “A wall walks slowly,” goes the poem by Norman Nicholson that inspired Goldsworthy’s stone creations. These days, we owe ourselves some slow.

Steve Paul

Steve Paul is the author of “Hemingway at Eighteen” and a biography of Evan S. Connell. He has been a writer and editor in Kansas City for more than 45 years.

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