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Goldsworthy idea takes shape

Snow sculpture could be a natural for deCordova

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By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / May 22, 2011

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The deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum and Andy Goldsworthy were made for each other.

Is that putting it too strongly? Not at all. If anything, it’s surprising that the deCordova, a jewel among New England museums, hasn’t tried to get a Goldsworthy sculpture installed in its park before.

Goldsworthy is British. He is one of the most popular artists alive.

Like how popular? Like Dale Chihuly popular — although his art is more reticent and subtle. He specializes in making works of art from natural materials: sticks, stones, flowers, rain, snow, ice, mud, leaves, rocks, and so on. A lot of these works, as you would imagine, are ephemeral. They change over time, and frequently fold back into nature. They have the poignant beauty of ruins, except that there is no pathos behind their gradual undoing, for they seem to exist in nature as water exists in water.

Goldsworthy’s works are known to art lovers — and millions who would never willingly go by that description — largely through his handsome books, which reproduce sumptuous photographs of his installations in picturesque natural settings. You find these books on the coffee tables of bankers, lawyers, journalists, farmers, and teachers all over the world. They are ridiculously seductive, disarmingly emotional.

The deCordova, with its rolling, pond-side campus framing the changing seasons, is as picturesque a setting as any art institution could provide for a Goldsworthy sculpture. Recognizing this, the deCordova invited the artist to propose an outdoor installation of his devising for the sculpture park.

The invitation was sent in 2009. It was part of a push by the deCordova’s (then) new director, Dennis Kois, and its board to raise the quality of works in the park. That effort has resulted in the installation of “blue chip’’ pieces by the likes of American artists Sol LeWitt and Dan Graham, and Britain’s Antony Gormley.

Goldsworthy paid the deCordova a visit on a cold winter’s day last year and snuffled around the park for a few hours, trying to think up ideas. What he has subsequently proposed is the installation of a permanent — though changing — work called “Snow House’’ that will consist of a granite structure set deeply into the steep slope leading from the pond to the museum itself. Its design will echo those of ice houses, which, in the days before refrigeration, would preserve ice cut from the pond for the summer months.

It’s not ice, however, but snow that Goldsworthy plans to install in his granite structure. A giant snowball, to be precise.

Who will make this snowball, which will be 9 feet in diameter?

Museum staff members will make it, and whichever members of the public they can rouse to the task. It will be done after the first significant snowfall each winter, and the resulting sphere — presumably without a carrot nose and coal eyes — will be installed in the closed-off “Snow House’’ during the winter.

In the summer, the snow house will be opened, and the snowball will be left to melt in the warmth over a one-week to 10-day period. The snow house itself will remain open until the following winter. The plan sounds ambitious, and takes, as you can see, a bit of explaining. The satisfaction of seeing it will presumably depend on when one sees it. But that’s the case with almost all of Goldsworthy’s work.

The work, according to the artist, “is not an object, but a container — a forum for change, memory, replenishment, season — in which the construction and care of the object, along with its interaction with people, are integral to the work.’’

The deCordova is hoping this summer for a specific kind of interaction with the as-yet unrealized work. That would be financial interaction. The work has been approved by the deCordova. But to pay for it and get it built, they need to do some serious fund-raising. It’s to that end that they have announced a new exhibition about the proposal called “Andy Goldsworthy: Snow,’’ which will run from May 29 through the end of the year.

The show will comprise details of the proposed installation, as well as photographs, videos, and drawings of other snow-related work by Goldsworthy. It will also display research relating to the history of ice harvesting in New England.

Kois believes “Snow House’’ would “secure deCordova’s place as a leader in sculpture’’ and that it would be “a unique gift to the community at large . . . for generations to come.’’ Here’s hoping he pulls it off.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

ANDY GOLDSWORTHY: SNOW At: deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln. May 29 through Dec. 31. 781-259-8355. www.decordova.org

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