Alan Sonfist: American Earth Landscape
New York CityShin Gallery
October 26 – December 4, 2021
When you google “land art” one of the top options features two photographic examples: Robert Smithson’s monumental Spiral Jetty (1970), perhaps the paradigm for the genre, and Alan Sonfist’s Time Landscape (1978). Smithson’s earthwork is a massive and muscular transformation of terrain set in the vast open area of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Its image is quickly identifiable, iconic. Time Landscape is modest, non-iconic, and set in the heart of an urban metropolis. A delicate intervention by the artist, it defines in a fraction of a city block, a thousand-square-foot forest in downtown New York City. The physical scale of Sonfist’s landscape is slight—the size of a small art gallery; its other dimension, as noted in its chronometric title, is by contrast, infinite. In fact, Smithson’s and Sonfist’s works represent contrasting ideas of what land art is or might be. Consider them the alpha and omega of the field.
Sonfist began drawings for Time Landscape as early as 1965, but permission was not given for the dedicated site and the planting of its vegetation until 1978. His intervention lays claim as a natural process-driven genesis and regeneration of botanic species harking back to pre-colonial, even prehistoric specimens. Time Landscape was given New York City landmark status in 1998. Since the early 1970s Sonfist has been commissioned to create interventions in nature, one might call them botanic installations, large and small, in sites ranging from Tuscany to the Rhineland, from Indiana to Japan, as well as his beloved Hudson Valley and Long Island’s East End.
The current exhibition at the Shin Gallery is a two-part affair, a well-selected survey of gallery-based works made for indoor display mainly from the first two decades of Sonfist’s career (1968–1985) dialogue with his recent and most monumental indoor piece, American Earth Landscape, created within the last two years. Among the early works are three large canvases, each measuring six by eight feet: Surface Memory of the Oak; Surface Memory of the White Pine; and a similarly titled work featuring the birch. For these Sonfist wrapped canvas around the trunks of mature North American species and, using a wooden bar with lamp black and resin, he rubbed the bark using a frottage-like technique to map the outermost features of the tree. He thus created a map of each surface, abstract seeming, but channeling each tree’s growth pattern and, by extension, implicating its fundamental DNA.
Bronze Branches, (1974) was fabricated from a pile of branches found at Pocantico Hills, the Rockefeller estate in Westchester County, New York, where at the time Sonfist also was creating artworks on the property’s woodlands. In this case he found an agglomeration of fallen wood, photographed the lot, and using “element selection,” his self- coined term, crafted an arrangement. By casting these in bronze, he fused—physically and metaphorically—nature with culture. This prescient move channels the intellectual thinking in the air at the time, predating the historic (and historical) 1976 exhibition The Natural Paradise at the Museum of Modern Art conceived and curated by Kynaston Mc Shine and Robert Rosenblum. It similarly channeled Barbara Novack’s 1980 eponymous book: Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825–1875. This coming together of salient intellectual, aesthetic ideas relating art and landscape, the natural and artistic worlds, was hardly happenstance. Sonfist had been in extended conversation with both curators of the MoMa show and the author of the previously mentioned publication. Similar elementally selected branches appear in two later works at Shin. Titled Mudslide California I (and II), they include found branches and actual mud from the Malibu natural disaster of that year. In the years since the early 1970s Sonfist’s work exemplified a delicacy of placement and restraint; its elevation of the beauty inherent in natural materials is much like the found, beautifully mounted rocks venerated in Chinese art. With his use of an industrialized grey color, Sonfist substitutes natural color for the industrial tones of Minimalism. This work is also oddly aligned with the postwar practice of creation from (or by) destruction, e.g. Tingeley or Baldessari, while simultaneously sending a resounding ecological warning about the fragility of our planet.
Using material found in the natural environment has been a cornerstone of Sonfist’s practice. This is nowhere more clear than in Gene Bank of New York (1974) where the artist’s photos of his perambulations through the pockets of primal forests in the 70-mile radius directly north of New York City are coupled with bottled specimens of collected elements found en route. Sonfist calls these “botanical relics.” Likewise, the series of “Earth Paintings” from 1970–71 uses soil outside of urban areas as far afield from one another as New York and Los Angeles, Chicago and Savannah as pigmented and textured surface covering for what are essentially monochrome paintings.
Such techniques of botanical archivism and Conceptual accumulation are the grounding for the artist’s American Earth Landscape, (2019–2021). This major opus—ten feet tall and fifteen feet wide—is made of 25 rectangular panels of that create a modernist grid, within which organic shapes defined by the source of the samples abut and merge. Sonfist collected earth from varied regions across the United States to create a geological map of the country. Some self-collected, others “phoned in” from friends and colleagues, these impressively varied soil samples provide a range of color and texture based on the mineral and chemical compositions of the samples’ locales. It is as if the cartographic, state-defined political borders of such evident precursors as Jasper John’s iconic maps of the US have melted, and the contours of the demarcated areas are returned to their primordial state. With shades ranging from sandy white to deep, dark brown, from the orangey reds to subtle greige, the forms are thus based on organic geology rather than administrative geometry.
The work of this pioneer of land art, uniquely urban, reflects a hybrid range of artistic practices, art historical tastes, and natural scientific interests. Minimal and conceptual strategies are building blocks. Using the gears of historian, archaeologist, ecologist, and archivist, Sonfist was a key early proponent of process art as well as a fore-runner of eco-feminism. Biological and geological processes are his primary tools for fabrication. According to Sonfist, his art unearths the primal experience of creation in and of the land.