David Sylvester wrote this preface to the catalogue of the Richard Long exhibition at the São Paolo Bienal: Richard Long asked that it be left out

A catalogue preface, whether rhapsodic, investigative, polemical or explicative, is also meant to be a piece of advocacy. This creates a problem over writing a preface about Richard Long. He has too many admirers. A quarter of a century has passed since he began to gain an international reputation at about the time he left art school, and this reputation has steadily grown upwards and outwards. Mounting stacks of books, catalogues and articles have ensured that his very particular, ascetic, ritualistic methods and their mystique have become common knowledge. His solitary walks through the deserts of the world have come to have a scriptural resonance. To start singing his praises now is like taking a food parcel to someone who is in the middle of eating his dinner at the Ritz, or his manna in the desert.

The strength of Long’s reputation, indeed, is such that he has even been spared the customary critical division of his career into good and bad periods. He might well have suffered the unkindest form of that division – the one which prizes the earlier work at the expense of the later – given that his work has been frankly limited and repetitive. But then it is quite remarkable how he can do the same things again and again without becoming mechanical: the inspiration has not flagged at all.

There is perhaps one disturbing feature that has appeared in certain of his works during the last decade. Some of these have been floor-pieces which seem – there is an element of subjectivity in identifying them – to be like aerial views of rocky landscapes. This gives them the look of models of something they are not, rather than assemblages of pieces of slate or sandstone or flint or marble or wood arranged to fill a circle or a path – something that is just what it is and where it is. These illusionistic miniatures of other things in other places seem to me to strike a false note.

And then there have been wall-pieces which included arrangements of imprints of the palms of hands. The hands say that a maker has been there and has left his traces. Now, all of Long’s works make it manifest that someone has been responsible for performing certain actions on that spot, either placing solids or pouring liquids or finger-painting – it is even more manifest than in works by, say, Pollock or Giacometti that someone has been carrying out a series of moves that might well have gone on for longer and that he has desisted from making any more and has moved away, letting the work alone. But the artist’s removal of himself is denied when he leaves his hands behind. There is something out of place about these signifiers, about the work’s allusion to objects that are not actually present in it.

In short, there is an element of illustration in those two groups of works that is out of tune with the nature of Long’s art. ‘It is enough,’ he has said, ‘to use stones as stones, for what they are.’ And: ‘I think all my works, my actions, have no meaning outside what they are.’ The beauty of Long’s work is that it is what you see, and that what you see is all that is needed to bring you to a stop and as you look to make you feel that time has stopped, and to fill you with a sense of well-being and completeness.

That sense of completeness, of inner peace, is surely bound up with an attitude of acceptance of nature that is rare in art. Western art normally colonises nature. When its tendency is Romantic it takes nature over by inflicting the pathetic fallacy on it. When its tendency is classical it insists on improving nature by replacing its actual forms with ideal forms. Long’s art works with things as they are. In the tradition of Zen.

He can occasionally be un-Zen-like, though, when talking about his relationship to nature, exhibiting a certain earnestness which I think is a part of our northern Romantic heritage that Long has not discarded. Another, more significant, part of that heritage is the habit typical of English Surrealists such as Paul Nash and Henry Moore of discovering and fondling and cherishing objets trouvés in the form of stones. Another part is the style of the spectacular photographs Long takes and publishes of his arrangements of those found objects within the landscapes where they were found: whether the view is mountainous or flat, these images often have a striking resemblance to compositions by Caspar David Friedrich.

Working out there in nature, then, Long is a performer in the open-air theatre of the sublime. But is this aspect of his work its main distinction? There are two possible extreme interpretations of the relationship between Long’s outdoor and his indoor work. One would be that the former is the authentic work and that the latter is a pale shadow of it. The other would be that the outdoor work corresponds to the study and practice – exercises and rehearsals – carried out by a musician and that the indoor work is the actual performance. Both views are, of course, caricatures, but it seems likely that, while the outdoor work is the more physically demanding on the artist, the indoor work must be the more mentally demanding. Here, so far from having the backup of marvellous settings or ravishing photographs of them, the material from which the work is to be made is wrenched from its natural habitat and transported to the hostile environment of a harsh, mechanical, white-walled, neon-lit art gallery: out of doors the works are like animals in the wild, indoors like animals in a city zoo, not only caged but surrounded by gawping or chattering faces. And yet it is asked of them that they create a compelling presence, a resonant silence and stillness. And they do.

And they do so without needing to evoke the transcendental, though they may. Their re-latedness to the northern Romantic tradition suggests that they might well be a counterpart to the Abstract Sublime in painting. But they do not aspire to the cosmic grandeur of Newman or the cosmic energy of Pollock or the cosmic pathos of Rothko. The glory of Long’s works lies in their being down to earth, in having ‘no meaning outside what they are’. Meaning in those works can be defined, perhaps, in a paraphrase of a particularly elegant logical positivist definition of verbal meaning, Moritz Schlick’s ‘the meaning of a proposition is the method of its verification’: the meaning of a work by Long is the method of its fabrication.

Newman and Rothko exemplified the precept that ‘less is more’ as Mies and Malevich and Brancusi had done, through economy in the work’s form. Long exemplifies that precept – and herein lies his profound originality – through economy in the process of the work’s making. ‘I like the idea,’ he told Hugh Davies, ‘of making art almost from nothing or by doing almost nothing. It doesn’t take a lot to turn ordinary things into art.’

Turning any thing into art, or any idea into art, entails, I take it, setting up a dialectic in which the interplay between the poles is vigorous enough to generate a powerful electricity. Long has spoken of a hope that his work will reconcile opposites. ‘The planet,’ he said to Anne Seymour, ‘is full of unbelievably permanent things, like rock strata and tides, and yet full of impermanences like butterflies or the seaweed on the beach, which is in a new pattern every day for thousands of years. I would like to think that my work reflects that beautiful complexity and reality.’ Again, he told Richard Cork: ‘You could say that my work is also 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.’

Within that subject he deals with such antitheses as order and chance, acceptance and control, complexity and simplicity, wholeness and fragmentation, stasis and movement. His indefatigable use of the circle and the path or line is, of course, integral to his way of generating these oppositions. For the circle and the straight line are not only paradigms of regularity but also of universality and impersonality. ‘I think the very fact that they are images that don’t belong to me and, in fact, are shared by everyone because they have existed throughout history, actually makes them more powerful than if I was inventing my own idiosyncratic, particular Richard Long-type images. I think it cuts out a lot of personal unwanted aesthetic paraphernalia.’

He was saying virtually the same thing as another master of concentric circles, Jasper Johns, said to explain his continual use of forms that belonged to the world at large: ‘Using the design of the American flag took care of a great deal for me because I didn’t have to design it. So I went on to similar things like the targets – things the mind already knows. That gave me room to work on other levels.’

Long’s use of circles to work on other levels produces large-scale images on the wall and on the ground that call to mind some of the supreme portable artefacts of early antiquity. Thus the circles on walls recall the type of Chinese ritual jade known as bi (a term transliterated until recently as pi). The bi is a paradigm of serenity, its immaculate form gently pulsating as the light passes over and through the jade; the opposition between stillness and movement is much more violent in most of the Long wall-works, where the hectic scrawlings and spattetings and splashings of liquid mud make the circle a blazing Catherine wheel.

Again, the circles on the floor recall the type of pre-dynastic Egyptian vessels in diorite or other hard stones in which the circular opening is set in a flat circle that is like a disc surmounting the bowl. The relationship between the random markings, in the form of white speckles on a black field, markings which agitate the surface, and the precise perfection and stillness of the surrounding circles is rather like the relationship between the units of stone or wood in a floor-piece by Long and the circle formed by their arrangement. In the vessel, of course, the irregular pattern created by the speckles is both the result of chance and beyond human control. In the floor-piece the artist has arranged things to set up a visual and perhaps philosophical confrontation and reconciliation of opposing principles wherein his placing of the sticks and stones has simulated the haphazard, while in fact establishing both the notional outline of the enclosing circle and within it a clear, distinctive rhythm, disturbing or soothing or aggressive or whatever. This sounds as if Long were far from doing almost nothing. But surely the rhythm he establishes in each work is already implicit in his choice of material? ‘It doesn’t take a lot to turn ordinary things into art.’ It does take a lot of art.