Long is the only artist to be shortlisted for the Turner Prize four times. He was nominated in 1984, 1987, 1988 and he then won the award in 1989 for White Water Line. He currently lives and works in Bristol.
Long made his international reputation during the 1970s, but already with sculptures made as the result of epic walks, these take him through rural and remote areas in Britain, or as far afield as the plains of Canada, Mongolia and Bolivia. He walks at different times for different reasons. At times, these are predetermined courses and concepts; yet equally, the idea of the walk may assert itself in an arbitrary circumstance. Guided by a great respect for nature and by the formal structure of basic shapes, Long never makes significant alterations to the landscapes he passes through. Instead he marks the ground or adjusts the natural features of a place by up-ending stones for example, or making simple traces. He usually works in the landscape but sometimes uses natural materials in the gallery. Different modes of presentation, sometimes combined, were used to bring his experience of nature back into the museum or gallery. From 1981, Long also alluded to the terms of painting by applying mud in a very liquid state by hand to a wall in similar configurations, establishing a dialogue between the primal gesture of the hand-print and the formal elegance of its display. He stressed that the meaning of his work lay in the visibility of his actions rather than in the representation of a particular landscape. Almost forty years on, his work continues the dialectic between working freely and ephemerally wherever in the wide world, and bringing it back into the public domain of art spaces and books in the form of sculptures of raw materials such as stones, mud and water and photographic and text works. In 2012 the artist was on view at the exhibition "Ends of the Earth: Land Art bis 1974" with his first text work from 1969: A Walking Tour in the Berner Oberland.
Richard Long, then 22 years old and a student at Saint Martin's School of Art in London, walked back and forth along a straight line in the grass in the English countryside, leaving a track that he then photographed in black and white. The work, taken as the milestone in contemporary art, balances on the fine line between the performance (action) and the sculpture (object).
Nature has always been a subject of art, from the first cave paintings to twentieth-century landscape photography. I wanted to use the landscape as an artist in new ways. First I started making work outside using natural materials like grass and water, and this led to the idea of making a sculpture by walking. This was a straight line in a grass field, which was also my own path, going 'nowhere'. In the subsequent early map works, recording very simple but precise walks on Exmoor and Dartmoor, my intention was to make a new art which was also a new way of walking: walking as art. Each walk followed my own unique, formal route, for an original reason, which was different from other categories of walking, like travelling. Each walk, though not by definition conceptual, realised a particular idea. Thus walking – as art – provided a simple way for me to explore relationships between time, distance, geography and measurement. These walks are recorded in my work in the most appropriate way for each different idea: a photograph, a map, or a text work. All these forms feed the imagination.
The consistent employment of archetypal shapes, mostly circle, line, cross and spiral, is immediately noticeable in the artist's body of work. Much as the appearance could evoke ancient monumental connotation, the force of Long's oeuvre lies in its conceptual simplicity. The work is just as it is staged. Nonetheless, Long does not withdraw himself from believing his actions of connecting simple geometric structures such as circles with organic elements, may reach across cultural and generational boundaries:
"I think circles have belonged in some way or other to all people at all times. They are universal and timeless, like the image of a human hand. For me, that is part of their emotional power, although there is nothing symbolic or mystical in my work." —Richard Long
Long works with indigenous materials, such as stone, wood and mud. Stone is one of the earliest material used by man to fashion tools; and one of his preferred materials. Delabole Slate Circle, a solid circle made on the floor with slate from the Delabole quarry in Cornwall, was constructed by slate roughly cut to retain as much of its natural character as possible. The circular arrangement is an imposed order, but the flatness of each piece is characteristic of slate, representing a natural order.River Avon Driftwood (1976) seemed to hold chance and order in equal sway, as in much of Long's work. It is made up of bits of driftwood which he gathered from the banks of the River Avon below Leigh Woods, near the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol. These are used randomly, and spaced approximately but within the precise form of an anti-clockwise spiral. Objects which arrived at a given point by chance, through the flow of the river, are organised into a logical, and ancient, pattern.
From 1981, he also alluded to the terms of painting by applying mud in a very liquid state by hand to a wall in similar configurations. Long applies the mud with his hands — throwing it, drawing with his fingers or using the imprint of his palms. While he may allow people to watch him place stones, he paints in private. The mud circles, the most impermanent parts of his shows -when the exhibitions are over, the circles are painted over — hold everything together. Mud has represented the ground he stepped through his walks and the realisation of these "murals" establishes a dialogue between the primal gesture of the hand-print and the formal elegance of its display. He stressed that the meaning of his work lay in the traces of his actions rather than in the representation of a particular landscape.
Bringing together the unevenly shaped raw materials in the geometric structure, Long's works illustrate a recurrent theme, the relationship between man and nature, as he has explained, "You could say that my work is a balance between the patterns of nature and the formalism of human, abstract ideas like lines and circles. It is where my human characteristics meet the natural forces and patterns of the world, and that is really the kind of subject of my work."
Long usually works in the landscape but sometimes uses natural materials in the gallery. The scale of his sculptures is determined by his response to each particular place or landscape locality. In 2000, for the first time, he also presented discrete, modest-sized mud fingerprint drawings on driftwood that hang on the wall like paintings. They are portable and permanent, a deviation from his typical practice of enacting temporary installations on site.
The outdoor and indoor works are complementary, although I would have to say that nature, the landscape, the walking, is at the heart of my work and informs the indoor works. But the art world is usually received 'indoors' and I do have a desire to present real work in public time and space, as opposed to photos, maps and texts, which are by definition 'second hand' works. A sculpture feeds the senses at a place, whereas a photograph or text work (from another place) feeds the imagination. For me, these different forms of my work represent freedom and richness – it's not possible to say 'everything' in one way.
I like the fact that every stone is different, one from another, in the same way all fingerprints, or snowflakes (or places) are unique, so no two circles can be alike. In the landscape works, the stones are of the place and remain there. With an indoor sculpture there is a different working rationale. The work is usually first made to fit its first venue in terms of scale, but it is not site-specific; the work is autonomous in that it can be re-made in another space and place. When this happens, there is a specific written procedure to follow. The selection of the stones is usually random; also individual stones will be in different places within the work each time. Nevertheless, it is the 'same' work whenever it is re-made.
Permanent installations include Riverlines (2006) at the Hearst Tower (at about 35 x 50 feet (11 x 15 meters) this was at the time the biggest wall work he had ever made);Planet Circle (1991) at the Museum De Pont in Tilburg, Netherlands; in the Hallen für Neue Kunst Schaffhausen, Switzerland; and White Water Falls (2012) in the Garvan Institute in Sydney, Australia.
Long's Whitechapel Slate Circle (1981) brought a record price for the artist in 1989 when it sold for $209,000 at Sotheby's in New York. At another auction in 1992, the piece was estimated far more modestly at $120,000 to $160,000, but bidding never exceeded $110,000; instead, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. purchased it in 1994 through dealer Anthony d'Offay.
In the United States, Long is represented by the James Cohan Gallery, located in New York City. He has in the past also shown with Sperone Westwater Gallery, New York. Lisson Gallery represented Long between 1973 and 1980; the artist left for Anthony d’Offay Gallery and, when D’Offay closed, joined Haunch of Venison gallery, which closed in 2013. In early 2013, Long rejoined Lisson Gallery.