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