American Land Artist
Bronx, New York
Summary of Alan Sonfist
In the extraordinary range of his work, Alan Sonfist recreates the inventiveness and intricacy of his subject, the natural world itself. Beginning as a teenager in the 1960s, Sonfist has explored issues of ecological deterioration, preservation, and what would later be understood as "climate change" through projects that draw on the materials and methods of the naturalist, historian, and urban planner. An increasing rejection of commercialization and growing ecological awareness in the early 1960s provide the historical context for many of the themes in Sonfist's work and connect him to artistic movements such as Conceptual Art, Land or Environmental art, and site-specific works. But Sonfist's distinctive interest in urban ecosystems - a result of his upbringing in New York City's South Bronx - is one of the features that distinguishes him from other artists who use natural elements and processes as their artistic medium. Rather than excluding human history from his pieces, Sonfist is deeply attentive to the many specific histories of a given site, often juxtaposing them to powerful effect.
- Sonfist was only 19 years old when he approached the Mayor, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum, and the New York Parks Department with the idea for what would become his most famous, Time Landscape. With this recreation of an indigenous landscape in the heart of lower Manhattan he redefined the concepts of public art and urban park.
- In contrast to the "masculine" modes of other Land artists such as Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, who used heavy machinery to displace and reshape the landscape, Sonfist's artistic process has consistently been concerned with the generative aspects of nature and with highlighting fragility of nature, rather than for its sublimeness or monumentality.
- A distinctive quality of Sonfist's site-specific works is the attentiveness he gives to the specific history of a given site. He approaches projects such as Time Landscape in New York City or The Endangered Species of New England (2011-13) as both naturalist and historian, recording the impact of human history on the environment and envisioning a future in which some reconciliation of the human and non-human natural world may occur.
Progression of Art
Conceived in 1965 when he was only 19 years old, Time Landscape already reveals Sonfist's distinct take on the Land art movement that was taking shape in the 1960s and 70s. This gentle burst of flora, nestled within one of the densest neighborhoods in New York City, both works within the grid that marks the city's urban development and serves as a reminder of the terrain that existed before that development occurred. This 25- by 40-foot plot, owned by the NYC Department of Transportation, was one of several such public spaces that Sonfist had envisioned as projects drawing attention to an indigenous ecological past not typically acknowledged in the city. As he put it, "As in war monuments that record the life and death of soldiers, the life and death of natural phenomena such as rivers, springs, and natural outcroppings need to be remembered as public art."
In contrast to other Land artists of the time, many of whom worked in the wide-open spaces of the West using giant machinery to displace rocks and soil, Sonfist created Time Landscape through a generative process, seeding the area with native plants and trees including beech saplings transplanted from his favorite childhood park in the Bronx. Amid the urban landmarks named for famous male figures from New York's post-colonial history, this mini-forest, a microcosm of the land that existed for millennia before, commemorates the ongoing fertility of the earth as well as its fragility in the face of modernization. Initially planted in an orderly progression from south to north, intended to recreate the stages of a forest from grass to sapling to fully grown trees, the current jumble of growth shows the impact of natural processes over the orderly plans of human design.
In some ways, Time Landscape shares certain characteristics with the art of the 19th-century Hudson River School, with the lyrical, premodern landscapes of artists such as Thomas Cole and Asher Durand, for whom Sonfist has long expressed admiration. However, as a piece deeply embedded in the urban fabric, it is also, to quote the American art dealer and curator Jeffrey Deitch, "an example of the artwork as a major urban-design plan." When the plot was finally unveiled in 1978, New York City was in the middle of an economic and, one might say, existential crisis. Time Landscape was hailed by then-mayor Ed Koch as a revitalizing addition to the city and a significant point of continuity with its natural past, noting "The concept of a year round natural microcosmic forest, which would contain plants and trees indigenous to pre-colonial New York is fresh and intriguing and is desperately needed for our city."
Earth, indigenous trees, bushes and flowers - Corner of Houston St. and LaGuardia Place, Greenwich Village, New York City
Autobiography of Hemlock Forest
Autobiography of Hemlock Forest consists of six framed panels, each of which contains three elements: photographs of an actual forest near Sonfist's childhood home in the Bronx; a specimen that he collected there; and a typewritten page containing dated personal reflections. Juxtaposed with one another, these elements suggest his layered interaction with the forest, which is at once deeply personal and subjective, and at the same time representative of the larger fate of the natural world as he witnessed it. In other words, the "autobiography" alluded to in the title is both his own and that of Hemlock Forest and other natural sites like it. The format itself is striking in this regard. Each piece combines different modes of display, such as one might find in an art gallery, a natural history museum, or a written diary, prompting the viewer to reconsider the intersection of art, environment, and personal experience.
The forest depicted in the series was one of the last remnants of an ancient hemlock forest that covered the area, once inhabited by the Weckquasgeek Indians and later incorporated into the Dutch colony that became the Bronx in the 17th century. Sonfist's history with the forest was more recent. As he explained, "This was my sanctuary and my play area as a child. The Bronx was a slum covered in concrete that I had to walk on for several blocks to my sanctuary. . . The Bronx was divided by gang warfare, but the forest was an exception; eventually however this forest was set afire, as well as the buildings in the neighborhood." While the destruction of his childhood refuge is the immediate subject of this work, the series also expresses Sonfist's awareness that what happened to Hemlock Forest was "an echo of what was happening throughout the world." Here, Sonfist links the theme of recovery of precolonial nature to his personal reconnection to the natural sanctuary of his youth.
Mixed media in the artist's frame - Alden Projects, New York
New York Gene Bank
New York Gene Bank is the first of several mixed-media pieces in which Sonfist presents photographs and "genetic" material from environmentally endangered or devastated sites. In this work, 35 separate photographs are arranged in a rectangular grid, creating a coherent, if somewhat fragmented, view of soaring trees in a patch of living forest. Below this grid, Sonfist has placed a neat row of glass vials on a shelf, individually labelled, each containing leaves, sticks, seeds, as well as the invisible microbes and fungi necessary to recreate the forest's ecosystem at some future point. In bringing natural materials from the outside into the museum/gallery space, Sonfist places this piece within the tradition of other Land artists, most notably Robert Smithson, whose Site/Non-Site works of the late 1960s explored the dialectic between inside and outside exhibition spaces. But Sonfist departs from that work through the precision of his display and his offer of art as a means of preserving the natural site in the name of possible future regeneration - however literally we might take it. It is worth noting the suggestion of the miraculous here; even as the glass vials invoke the scientific - specifically, the collecting of natural specimens for scientific study - they also reference the spiritual, recalling religious relics used in the veneration of saints as tangible evidence of their existence.
Photographs, glass jars, leaves, sticks, and seeds - The University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tuscon, Arizona
The Pool of Virgin Earth
Sonfist created this piece while part of an artist residency program in honor of the Land artist Robert Smithson, who had died in a plane accident the year before the Lewiston Artpark, just north of Niagara Falls, was founded in 1974. Situated on a former toxic chemical dump, Pool of Virgin Earth is a 50-foot-diameter clay container filled with "virgin" or uncontaminated earth designed to capture seeds blowing in the air. Photographs of the site before and after Sonfist's intervention show the successful reclamation of what had once been an industrial wasteland, transforming it into a fertile circle of wildflowers and other plants that might have existed before the human-inflicted damage to the land. The shape itself is reminiscent of some of Smithson's earthworks. The directors of Artpark were so impressed with Sonfist's piece that they adopted his process as a model for the entire site.
Clay, earth, and seeds - Lewiston Artpark, Lewiston, New York
Cerchi del Tiempo (Circles of Time)
Cerchi del Tiempe (1986-89), which translates as "Circles of Time," is an example of the agricultural, as opposed to indigenous, landscapes that Sonfist began to incorporate into his work in the 1980s. For this piece, he created a 3-acre circular timeline of the history of the Tuscan landscape. Seven concentric rings represent specific milestones in the history of planting and land usage in Tuscany. A primeval forest of indigenous plants sits at the center, surrounded by a ring of branches cast in bronze, alluding to Roman mythology. The next circle forms a footpath covered with thyme, a plant common to the area but also a play on the word "time" in the piece's title. The fourth ring is laurel, associated with the crowning of heroes and poets, alluding to the Greek influence on Rome. A ring of galestro stone unearthed from local soil encircles the laurel ring and will eventually erode back into the earth. The two outer circles connect to the current use of the land - a penultimate circle of olive trees and a ring of wheat that ripens annually, enclosing the whole in a vibrant golden "crown." In presenting specific vegetation associated with various periods of the past, Sonfist becomes, in his words, a "visual archaeologist," unearthing a story that reveals the complex interaction between humans and the land.
Bronze, galestro stone, and plants - Gori Collection of Site-Specific Art at the Villa Celle, Santomato, Tuscany, Italy
The Endangered Species of New England
Completed in several phases, The Endangered Species of New England is an outdoor installation in Lincoln, Massachusetts consisting of four monumental aluminum leaves, each representing an endangered species of native tree suggested to Sonfist by the Harvard University Forestry department: the American Beech, the American Chestnut, the Burr Oak, and the Sugar Maple. In addition to standing in for the trees themselves, these sculpted leaves are intended to serve as totems expressing reverence, but also warning about the trees' silent disappearance as a result of environmental change. At the base of each sculpture, Sonfist places a hidden time capsule containing the corresponding seeds of each tree, a gesture towards the possible preservation of the species in the future.
In October 2012, Sonfist completed a second phase of The Endangered Species of New England, laying a cobblestone silhouette of the endangered local bald eagle, forming a pattern that connected the aluminum leaves to one another. In May 2013, in a third phase, Sonfist filled in the interior of the cobblestone eagle with Inkberry Shamrock, a native species that serves as food and habitat for various birds, insects, and mammals, all creatures that might visit the site. In creating these three aspects of the work, Sonfist notes their complementary relationship, each highlighting the fragility of the ecosystem to which they belong. In choosing to present local species of New England, Sonfist is asserting that endangered species exist not only in distant places such as the Amazon rain forest of Brazil, for example, but are present in our own local communities.
Aluminum, granite cobblestones, inkberry (ilex glabra shamrock), and seeds of endangered trees - deCordova Sculpture Park, Lincoln, Massachusetts
Biography of Alan Sonfist
Born in 1946 in the New York City borough of the Bronx, Alan Sonfist is as much a product of his place as of his time. The Bronx underwent enormous changes in the years following World War II. Once a destination for upwardly mobile working-class families, by the time of Sonfist's childhood the area is riven by gang violence and in a general period of economic decline. By the 1970s, the Bronx entered the national lexicon when the phrase "the Bronx is burning" became shorthand for late-20th-century urban blight and decay. Indeed, parts of the Bronx were burning as fires ravaged whole city blocks.
Amid the concrete and violence, Sonfist found sanctuary - what he cites as the original inspiration for his art - in an ancient patch of precolonial forest near his home where his mother and father would take him to play. In this hemlock forest he developed a connection with nature, skipping school at times to collect seeds, leaves, and rocks, occasionally spotting deer and foxes. Drawings from later in his life depict the hollow tree trunk, where he remembers his parents placing him when he was very small. His affinity to these scarce remnants of the natural world deepened as he discovered the Bronx Zoo and the Bronx Botanical Gardens. Trips with his mother to the city's many museums cemented his fascination with nature, as he found himself equally drawn to the paintings of the 19th-century Hudson River School, the landscapes of Thomas Cole and Asher Durand, and the taxidermized animals and painted dioramas on display at the American Museum of Natural History.
Education and Early Training
Although Sonfist studied art during high school - notably at the Art Students League - he did not consider art a viable career. Instead, after graduation, he enrolled in agricultural school in Illinois to pursue his interest in plants and growing things. That experience proved to be deeply disappointing, however. He was put off by the business of farming, which he saw as a commercial enterprise interested more in money than plants, concerned only with the buying and leasing of land. This "crisis" spurred him to return to art classes. Moreover, a serendipitous encounter with the writings of Gestalt psychologist Hoyt L. Sherman, whom he then contacted and studied with directly, prompted him to rethink his approach to art more generally, as he moved away from the representation of nature - drawings of trees, for example - to presenting natural elements and processes as an artistic language in and of itself. This shift opened up a whole new realm of practice for Sonfist, whose work from the late 60s and early 70s included displays of glass and plexiglass containers of crystalline formations, patterns of microorganisms, and paper/leaf combinations in which the leaves would shrivel and die. These works, like those of many of his contemporaries, marked a continuation of the Neo-Dada challenge regarding what, precisely, constituted a work of art. Sonfist referred to this challenge in an interview in the New York Times on the occasion of his first solo exhibition at the Palley Reese Gallery in Soho in 1970, noting of the Dada artist Marcel Duchamp that "He claimed man-made objects works of art. I claim natural phenomena."
Sonfist's return to the East Coast after agriculture school in the summer of 1965 marked a period of public recognition and success and established him as a significant voice within the Environmental Art movement. Although only 19 at the time, Sonfist conceived what might be his most well-known work, Time Landscape (although not completed until 1978). With the same boldness as when he snuck into the animal cages at the Bronx Zoo as a child, Sonfist approached the mayor, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the New York City Parks Department with plans for a public park to be planted with the indigenous species predating colonial arrival in the area. Although told he was too young to execute it at the time, Sonfist nevertheless did see to the completion of the project 13 year later in 1978. Although Time Landscape may appear to be just another urban park, in fact it marks a major rethinking of the public monument, commemorating, as it does, not a human event or figures (such as those for whom the streets around it are named), but the past as remembered and experienced through an earlier precolonial phase of the landscape.
While Sonfist was making a name for himself in the New York City art scene, absorbing many of the principles of Conceptual art, Performance art, site-specific art, and happenings, which were disrupting the traditional conceptions of the time, he was also experiencing the loss of his childhood neighborhood most profoundly. Returning to the Bronx in the 1970s, he remarked that it "looked like World War II." With his parents now relocated in Queens, he moved his home and studio to Mulberry Street in Manhattan.
In 1972, Sonfist spent three weeks in a remote jungle in Panama tracking and collecting a colony of Eciton hamatum, a species of army ant, for a planned exhibition, "Army Ants: Patterns & Structures," to be held at Automaton House in New York City. The ants would be exhibited live, allowing viewers to observe their intricate movements and patterns as they searched for food within a 16 by 24-foot sand-filled enclosure. Towards the end of the Panama trip, however, Sonfist fell off a cliff and nearly died. Although he was able to make it to the exhibition, he collapsed soon after from his injuries, and spent the rest of 1972 and into 1973 recuperating on the Caribbean island of St. Croix. As part of his healing process, he mimicked the actions of various animals (as he had done as a child) and documented the results in photographs. When he returned to New York, however, he was deeply upset to learn that his Army Ant colony had died due to a heating malfunction two weeks following the exhibition's opening.
Distressed by the death of his ant colony, Sonfist turned his attention to site-specific projects, aligning himself more closely with the works of some of his contemporaries in the Land Art (or Earthworks) movements, such as Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson, and Walter de Maria. But Sonfist was never committed to the monumental projects of those artists, which often involved large machinery, colossal structures, and deep mark-making in the earth itself. His work consistently draws on a vocabulary and scale that stress the generative and restorative aspects of the landscape, working, as one writer noted, "at the border between Land Art and landscape architecture." His reliance on his own research of a given area and on the advice of regional experts signals his interest in the specific histories of the sites he chooses for his projects. By layering these histories, he presents a complex vision of the past, present, and future of the fragile and ever-changing ecosystems that humans share with the rest of the natural world.
Although Sonfist creates projects all over the world, he continues to live and work in New York City. In a comment that clearly harks back to his own experience growing up, he noted that "New York has probably one of the most impressive learning experiences in this country, and the diversity of the city opens a door. I thought it was important for my child to have that opportunity. I could've lived any place, and I'm always considering the option of moving, and that'll probably, eventually, happen."
The Legacy of Alan Sonfist
While Sonfist is most often described as a pioneer of the Land Art movement, his work and creativity have spanned multiple decades, multiple movements, and in fact represent an important bridge between the early stirrings of ecological awareness in the 1960s and our much more urgent understanding of climate change today. As an artist who has consistently embraced new ideas, new materials, and new processes, he defies easy labeling, which makes it difficult to limit his legacy.
In expanding the notion of the public monument as a place where natural and urban history intersect, Sonfist can be seen as anticipating the interventions of architect/sculptor Maya Lin, best known perhaps for her Vietnam War Memorial but also her more recent Ghost Forest (2021), as well as Agnes Denes's Wheatfield (1982). His writings and continued experimentations offer each new generation of contemporary artists a way of conceiving of the natural landscape as a site of wonder and as a process of renewal and reclamation, and also serves as a call to action to protect and preserve the natural world.