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.