Mrs M writes from New York to ask whether the great gardener (but perhaps in this context he might be better described as an earth-mover) Capability Brown might be compared to the American land artists on the fourth quarter of the 20th century. She had in mind James Turell’s Roden Crater, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, and Michael Heizer’s City in particular. All of these, if you are not familiar with them, are colossal modifications of landscape at a colossal scale, and to these one might add more modest and more recent British examples such as Kim Wilkie at Heveningham and Boughton, Charles Jencks at the Garden of Cosmic Speculation, Crawick Multiverse and so on.
What happens then when you stand these works up against Brown’s at Himley or Chatsworth for example, free of any historical context. The most obvious thing is that Brown’s is invisible. There are no obelisks, no ornaments, no evident omnipotence overhang this ‘ombre. The land artists are all male as it happens and are all for stamping their own artistic personality on the land, bursting into the saloon and announcing that they’re in town and does anyone have a problem with that? – as for Brown, you have to look very hard to see anything at all, the swing-doors never move. So, in so far as he is the begetter of a great tradition – and he is – then it is the understated tradition of Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long, two people who must hate to be grouped together, but whose work can be so quiet that if you blink you’ll miss it. This tradition is not orchestrated by drums and trumpets; it doesn’t even take electricity, it has some other kind of socket and a cable that plugs straight in to the heart.