A sculptor’s work caught fire in the Presidio—and the art kept burning

Andy Goldsworthy’s environmental work is on view at Haines Gallery

By Max Blue

Special to The Examiner

When sculptor Andy Goldsworthy’s “Spire,” a 100-foot-tall obelisk fashioned from 37 Monterey cypress trunks in San Francisco’s Presidio, caught fire in June 2020, I was giddy. The suspected arson seemed to resonate with the Scotland-based artist’s interest in ephemerality using organic materials — in this case, trees that can burn. Now, an exhibition titled “Firehouse,” at Haines Gallery’s new location at Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture, reveals Goldsworthy’s feelings about the “Spire” fire in a series of “site responsive” works.

Goldsworthy’s history with the gallery dates to his first major U.S. exhibition in 1992. He also has worked locally with gallerist Cheryl Haines’s FORE-SITE Foundation to place four public sculptures in the Presidio between 2008 and 2014, of which “Spire” was the first. While the sculpture still stands, now blackened from the blaze but not significantly diminished, “Firehouse” has the somber feeling of a burial.

The centerpiece of the show, “Spire Table,” is a 4-by-24-foot surface covered with charcoal collected from the burnt “Spire,” suggesting both a blasted landscape and a coffin hoisted by pallbearers. Three series of photographs show Goldsworthy scattering ash from “Spire” and two other burnt sculptures (the latter were singed from wildfires in Napa and Whitchurch, England). The gesture is reminiscent of scattering a loved one’s ashes, but the act of documenting the ritual perhaps reveals Goldsworthy’s inability to let go of his burned works.

In an hour-long video, “24 February 2022,” Goldsworthy is seen standing on a lava field in Hawaii as the sun rises behind him, casting his shadow on the large boulder he faces. The hardened lava surface echoes “Spire Table,” but it’s immutability seems to imply that nature, like the unknown actor who torched “Spire,” has sent Goldsworthy to stand in the corner. He looks tired, defeated.

Goldsworthy’s work is about reordering nature and taming ephemerality against the odds, such as his arrangements of leaves in colored patterns or webs of sticks held together by thorns. Put that exercise in a frame in a gallery and it loses the unpredictability that makes the work engaging. A picture or digital video, by default, won’t decompose as fast as a leaf, won’t melt as fast as ice, won’t catch fire by chance. Goldsworthy has displayed this kind of indoor work before, with kelp and dust. These were interesting experiments at the time (Haines had a show of them, “Drawing Water Standing Still,” in 2017), but replicating the endeavor here feels as self-gratifying as the obsession with “Spire.”

I typically love Goldsworthy’s work, or maybe just the half of it he leaves outside. That’s not to say institutionalizing his work is entirely impossible. When Haines Gallery cleared out of its 32-year home at 49 Geary Street this month, a built-in Goldsworthy piece was left behind: A red clay wall resembling, in the network of cracks across its surface, an arid desert floor. The artist has installed one such wall at the new location; this one made with china clay from the Sacramento area.

What moves me about the clay wall is the implication that it, and the freshly plastered walls it adjoins, might one day be returned to a state of nature, which is to say decay. Similarly, what I like about “Spire Table” isn’t what it preserves from the original piece, but what it reveals about one of nature’s most destructive forces. That’s the taste of chaos I come to Goldsworthy for and the feeling I got in spades when, after leaving the gallery, I stopped off in the Presidio to sit with “Spire,” contemplating its resilience in spite of the iridescent beauty of its burnt husk.

IF YOU GO:

“Firehouse”

Where: Haines Gallery, 2 Marina Blvd, Building C, First Floor, S.F.

When: Tuesday to Saturday, 10:30am-5:30pm through May 28, 2022,

Contact: (415) 397-8114, hainesgallery.com

Andy Goldsworthy’s “Spire” in the Presidio, June 2019. (Michael Benjamin Lubic/New York Times)

Andy Goldsworthy’s “Spire” in the Presidio, June 2019. (Michael Benjamin Lubic/New York Times)

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