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.