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.