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Alan Sonfist Photo

Alan Sonfist

American Land Artist

Born: March 26, 1946 - Bronx, New York
"Each one of my site-specific sculptures addresses the issues of its surrounding location as well as the land's unique, natural heritage."
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Alan Sonfist
"My work has become a microcosm of understanding the environmental issues of our time. Each artwork addresses the unique natural cultural history of a site. Therefore, they become integrated into the community, educating the community of the value of the Earth in the city."
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Alan Sonfist
"The ideas are constantly repeating themselves in different formats. I see them as a lifetime of understanding who I am. And at each stage you become more aware of what you don't know."
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Alan Sonfist
"A key to our understanding of the environment we live in is literally locked into the rock formations under our cities and the evolution of our solar system above us."
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Alan Sonfist
"All my public projects involve the community. I always have public meetings to discuss my ideas. I invite the local artist as well as architects and landscape architects. They became part of the process of creating the artwork."
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Alan Sonfist
"I think when one involves the community there is a kind of inter exchange of ideas. The park becomes the community. For me that is what determines the ultimate success of a public sculptures. When I create private commissions, I am responding to the corporate structure."
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Alan Sonfist
"As an artist, I try to conjure up and bring back the rivers, the streams, the forests that once existed within the urban centers."
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Alan Sonfist
"I see myself as a visual archeologist."
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Alan Sonfist
"I think, on a larger scale, we have to look at the environment and realize that global warming is really happening, and all of us have to, in some way, try to contribute in understanding, and echo that understanding in our daily lives, and in the work we do. And that, to me, is the most important issue, because if humans are to continue living on this planet, we have to create a considerable alteration of our lifestyles. That really is what my work is advocating - create a forest, but respect it. You don't have to alter it, you just have to understand the different patterns of how it grows."
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Alan Sonfist
"To enter into the main part of the sculpture, one must go into the earth, and rediscover our geological past."
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Alan Sonfist
"My concern is to show the struggles within nature, which in reality makes for a true natural system. One would observe, within each of my environmental sculptures, the struggle of life and death, as well as the human interaction in a historical time forest."
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Alan Sonfist
"It is only by understanding what is in our own backyard that we gain a greater sense of protecting the rest of the Earth."
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Alan Sonfist
"I feel that all great art has dealt with the social issues of its time. As the Renaissance painters have dealt with the spiritual and social values I feel that global climate change is the social issue of our time that has to be addressed in art."
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Alan Sonfist
"My art becomes a monument to our understanding of global environmental changes. The mythology of conquering the land as in the pioneer spirit is over. We have conquered the land and depleted it, now we have to restore it. Human beings are inventive creatures able to adapt to these environmental issues and the creation of my landscapes can be considered to be one of the solutions."
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Alan Sonfist

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.

Accomplishments

  • 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.

Biography of Alan Sonfist

Alan Sonfist Photo

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.



Progression of Art

Time Landscape (1965-present)
1965-present

Time Landscape

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

1969-1975

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

1974

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

1975

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) (1987)
1987

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

2011-13

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


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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Nina Rosenblatt

"Alan Sonfist Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Nina Rosenblatt
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First published on 14 Oct 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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