Alan Sonfist, Environment Artist Part 3

 

In his early career, Sonfist worked along the mainstream of the current school of art. he came in the middle of the Pop era, but soon found he wanted to address what he was feeling about nature and the city. As a child he had lived near, and played in, and felt a part of, the last virgin forest in New York City. Then, he went away to school and on his return found very little of the forest remaining. This troubled him so much he created his first Time Landscape. It took much effort and grant money, but the results were a monumental recapturing of the recent past life of the city. His work is much more than the historical part that the earth artists worked with, although they seem similar on the surface. 

As a part of the past, his works portray and actually use species of trees and other plants that lived there before man came to the area. As these grow and the soil returns to the way it was as a result, even the air rising from the area mixes with the polluted air of the present city. People walk by and are part of the work. Then, in time their children will live there and so the work also speaks to the future.

Sonfist does careful research in each area to be as accurate as possible in reproducing the environment that was there hundreds of years ago. Anyone with any imagination could create a wilderness of the past, but his are two separate ecologies that coexist in the present.

Other works include museum installations such as was in Fresno, where he surveyed the entire San Joaquin Valley from the West Hills to the Sierra. Then taking a slice of the land, he used wet clay and made “footprints” in the soil, leaving these as tiles for a remembrance to the future of what exists here today.

He has made rubbings, mounds, a circle of the past vegetation of an area. He has worked in bronze, often combining the natural with his sculptures of nature. He created a prairie, a swamp, and many other types of landscape. In this his work resembles that of Singer, for instance.

But he is doing more than making a statement of ecology or environment. In Tennessee in the early 1990s, he created the Sewanee Oasis, using nature and the site as medium, subject and essence of his work. The shape of the site has symbolic and historical relevance from the earliest maps of the area. Then it was planted with the help of local students with endangered species.

In another project, he took seeds of the long-dead American Chestnut trees and made arks to hold them. both as a relic and reliquary, these arks contain fragments of the trees, a seed of the tree sealed in beeswax. Then these arks were sent to various museums across the country for safe keeping.

He sees his representations of rivers, streams, forests, marshes and beaches a par of the natural continuum, as much a part of a city’s vitality as any man-made urbanization. “Public monuments have traditionally paid homage to national heroes, but now we have to pay homage to our natural heritage.”

That is what makes Sonfist stand apart from other earth artists of the late 20th Century. Perhaps he could be more closely associated with nature artist Andy Goldsworthy, whose ephemeral art includes materials of leaves, snow, and ice. With all art forms, each takes from the previous style that which it can use and goes on from there. Sonfist has worked along with these men, and yet remains different from each. One may see some of Gorky in his work, or of Smithson or Singer. But none of these artists were trying to tie the past, present and future together into one work of art in quite the same way, or with such determination. Sonfist’s bronzes may only be “worth $4.00”, but the trees he works with are indeed worth $4,000 in comparison.

It has been over 20 years since Sonfist planted his first Time Landscape in New York City. It was honored in an Earth Day Celebration in 1998. During these years he has worked on other projects and has become known as a leading environmental artist around the world. Sonfist’s recent works include Time Totem in Alaska 1980, and the Circle of Time, 1986-89.

From the internet, I quote: Land Art, or natural art, has changed since the concept was formed in the early 1960s. For many the dialogue with nature’s eternal cycle is of greater importance than subjective gains The artists from near and far who have worked with TICKON have demonstrated by their residence and daily work in the park that a world-embracing solidarity exists where nature is concerned. They observe, listen, experience, and pass their perception on to us.

 

Alan Sonfist, Environment Artist Part 2 (3)

 

art and the landscape architects grew out of the ecological awareness of the late 1960s. Suddenly people were noticing the problems their lifestyles were causing. The air was polluted. The waters were polluted, and the land was polluted. As a statement against this in part, and as a result of personal frustrations in the art world, Smithson, Long and Singer showed their concern for the environment in various monumental works.

Henry Martin writes in 1967 “Nature has become the great forgotten subject. Romanticism possessed itself of Nature so thoroughly that the baby seemed almost to have become the bathwater. Nature now belongs to the people who are worried about highway beautification and expensive and profitable projects for lining route 66 with petunias and weeping willow trees.”

The projects were indeed monumental as well as museum pieces, and many were profitable. Corporations intent on obeying government regulations t clean up their mess or be fined were pleased to have an artist cover up their mess for them. but not everyone considered their efforts as works of art.

As example, Dore Ashton wrote in Arts Magazine (April 1969, “Exercises in Anti-Style”) You keep talking about putting things or non-things into environments. You keep hinting that we are not sufficiently sensorily aware. The environment, then, is studded with projects that are as nearly unmanipulated by you as possible. But studded by individuals, for the sake of whom? Who is having the experience? What exactly have you done?

Earth artists made mounds and planted them; they moved mountains and estuaries; they worked in the natural materials of wood, salt, snow, rocks and sand. They could not claim however that the work spoke to the mind, for in order for the nature of the materials to be exposed, the materials must be there – alive, arrayed and displayed. The mind can only work on the matter.

If Smithson brings graded chunks of salt into a museum and arranges them, is he creating a miniature universe? If Morris makes an appealing design of mounds of coal, earth and asbestos, is he saying anything about the nature of the universe? Or only about the appearance of the materials? These are the questions critics – in this case, Dore Ashton – have.

Is this what Alan Sonfist is also doing?

He has brought slices of forest floors indoors, lifting the room with the musky fragrance of molding oak leaves. Is this not like Smithson’s Non Sites?

Sonfist claims no connection with the earth art movement. He maintains “art has to be meditative, on a scale that relates to the human being.” He feels the greening projects of the sixties failed because they tended to eliminate the human element. They had made tiny parks which had no relation to the surrounding community. They treated trees as cosmetics, something to paint on a city block.

 

Alan Sonfist, Environment Artist Part 1 (3)

 

Overview of some of Sonfist’s contributions to the Art World, and comparison of his work and the Earth Art Movement of the 1970s.

“A pair of small tree branches, one in natural wood, the other – its exact replica in bronze – hung in the entryway leading into Alan Sonfist’s exhibition. Beside them, the artist had placed a label: Bronze – worth $4.00. Natural – worth $4,000.00. Must be purchased together. This often quoted incident sums up Alan Sonfist, Artist.

For centuries, over and over again, man has turned to nature as a theme for his art. Whatever his reason, whatever his style, whatever his statement, nature was part of the art scene.

After World War I, a general movement away from nature – the world, as it were – resulted in the work of art as an object in itself, not representing an object – the world. Harold Rosenburg states, “Liberation from the object meant liberation from the nature, society and art already there.”

Some artists continued to paint landscapes and nature, especially in America where Romanticism never really died off. Americans liked pretty scenes hanging over their living room sofas. But the industry, the avant garde, seemingly left the subject behind as it turned to abstract, minimalism and conceptual art. Back in 1935 Georgia O’Keefe painted morning glories. Gorky painted a work in the mid-forties he called “The Apple Orchard”. Jackson Pollack painted horses and other animals in his paintings, and de Kooning painted landscapes.

Society was more turned away from nature for a generation or two. The young people moved to the cities and away from the countryside and were not as interested in preserving nature. During the 1960s people in general, and artists in particular, began to see problems that this was producing. One big movement of that period was the ecological one that focused the nation’s attention on pollution.

Nature came back to people’s attention in a monumental way with eh earth artists in the 1970s. Galleries were full of Minimalist works in their own isolation. In Brian O’Doherty’s words, “a kind of eternity of display, where there is no time”. But the earth artists wanted to make contact with time. They wanted to re-introduce time and space coordinates into art.

Many of Sonfist’s works have been indoor installations. In March 1990 he visited Fresno Art Museum to create an installation in conjunction with the museum’s proposed sculpture garden. I had occasion to talk at length with him about his work and views on where art was at that time.

He made some of his intentions clear. In general he tries to create an aesthetic environment that people can relate with. He looks on his works as public monuments to celebrate events in human history. He sees the need to recapture and honor the natural history of our environment. He feels that we will lose part of our heritage if we don’t start revitalizing our natural heritage.

Sonfist has been compared with the earth art movement of the seventies.