By Nathaniel Nelson
Occupation: Environmental Landscape and Sculpture Artist
Hometown: Bronx, NY
Current City: Manhattan, NY
College: MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies
One of the founders of the Earth Art movement, a small but growing arena in the art world that incorporates principles of environmentalism into formal art, Alan Sonfist passed the half-century mark in his career just last year, when he celebrated the 50th anniversary of his breakthrough, Time Landscape of New York, a constantly evolving land art installation featuring plant life indigenous to ancient New York. Standing at the corner of West Houston and LaGuardia in SoHo, the work was immediately celebrated as a relief from New York’s increased deforestation and localization of green spaces. Sonfist would soon garner support from former Met director Thomas Hoving and even have his own exhibition in the Smithsonian Institute, as he developed a reputation as a popular niche artist on the flourishing ’70s New York City art culture.
In the years since his breakthrough work, the prevailing theme of Sonfist’s career has remained constant—a return to ancient natural landscape within modern cityscapes—and his more recent works span from Kansas City to Cologne, Germany. Some of his most popular works include the site-specific sculptures Lost Falcon of Westphalia, the Disappearing Forest of Germany and Circles of Time in Tuscany, and his portrait works Surface Memory and Animal Fantasy, among others. Sonfist mostly works out of his Little Italy studio, where I sat down with him to discuss his work and the movement he helped foster, which is perhaps more relevant and necessary today than it has ever been.
Can you tell me about how you first decided to become an artist?
I’ve always made art, since I was a child. It began with a desire to re-create my childhood forest, which had been destroyed, as an artwork and as an environmentally concerned [manifestation] of how the city could revive itself, because ancient nature is radically disappearing from the city. As an artist, I try to conjure up and bring back the rivers, the streams, the forests that once existed within the urban centers.
Time Landscape is now 50 years old. How has its legacy developed over time?
I think Time Landscape, which is [the product of] my dream to collect and duplicate the magic that I had as a child—growing up in the Bronx near the Hemlock Forest, which has been somewhat destroyed by the corporate “improvement” of it—is about respecting nature in all forms, from its birth to its death. So that’s always been an echo of my work. The most impressive thing is that my work changed the whole attitude in New York City. When I first planted the Time Landscape, I was told that all the trees would die—that they would not survive because they had not existed in a city for over a hundred years. I had to personally guarantee that if they did die I would have to plant only the approved trees, which are exotic trees that were introduced into the city. The ironic twist to it all is that now, in the last administration of the city, the commissioner of parks became a very strong supporter of my work, and proposed that the city now only plant indigenous species, and remove all the exotic species from the actual planting list for New York City. So I’m very pleased that I was able to affect a whole change within the attitude of New York, and hopefully this attitude will catch on in other cities throughout our country, as well as the world.
So if that first Time Landscape was your big break into the art world, how did you get to the point where you could have your own installation in SoHo? Obviously that wouldn’t have been available to just anybody.
That was the magic of it. I had support from the leading environmentalists that lived in Greenwich Village, including Jane Jacobs, plus the director of the Metropolitan Museum, Thom Hoving. There were several other people in the art world that were equally supportive, and the Surface Memory (1967-71) imagery was acquired for the Metropolitan collection, opening the door for my work to be collectible in museums. Because of this support, the city, along with private individuals, started to see that my work—once it functioned and succeeded—was a potentially valuable asset to both the art world and the environmental world.
What was it like running with those crowds in the art world in the late ’60s and ’70s?
It was strange. Even though we claim the “art world” to be , in reality anything that threatens the status quo became a threat to them. So it was kind of an interesting mix—I had major supporters in the art world, but at the same time the general population was very much threatened by the project. I know the Time Landscape was supported by the National Endowment of the Arts, and initially the director applauded the project, and he’s an art historian. And he unofficially told me that the two artists on the panel voted against me, and he was shocked and embarrassed, because the art historians all voted for me. And the local politician who was on the panel also voted for me. So the director had to revise and explain to them the significance of how a new form of art can contribute, and doesn’t have to be the status quo. I think up until the ’90s people in the art world were considerably threatened by the idea of opening up a whole new vocabulary and connecting it to the environmental movement, where respecting nature and incorporating it into the urban center was as important as going out and doing something in a more exotic area, and then questioning how it affects the environment around it.
For those of us not involved in this arena, could you explain the similarities and differences between what you do and straight environmentalism?
It’s evolving—it’s still not in the mainstay in the art world, it still has an edge to it, which I’m very pleased about. I think, on a larger scale, we have to look at the environment and realize that global warming is really happening, and all of us have to, in some way, try to contribute in understanding, and echo that understanding in our daily lives, and in the work we do. And that, to me, is the most important issue, because if humans are to continue living on this planet, we have to create a considerable alteration of our lifestyles. That really is what my work is advocating—create a forest, but respect it. You don’t have to alter it, you just have to understand the different patterns of how it grows.
Is there a deeper reason why you’ve made New York City your home base, for your whole life?
It’s kind of an interesting issue. I raised my child by myself. New York has probably one of the most impressive learning experiences in this country, and the diversity of the city opens a door. I thought it was important for my child to have that opportunity. I could’ve lived any place, and I’m always considering the option of moving, and that’ll probably, eventually, happen.
Since your career’s spanned half a century now, do you see any prevailing themes in your past work, or for your work moving forward? How do you retain artistic drive for this long?
I think the most exciting part of my work is that the environmentalist groups are all moving this in a positive direction. So one of the environmental sculptures I’m working on is the Island of Paradise in Tuscany, and there I’m working in collaboration with one of the leading environmentalists of Italy. We’re creating an island that will reference the transition between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The reason I selected that time frame is because it represents a cultural shift in human commitment to the urban environment, and also to nature. The Island itself will be off-limits to humans—it’ll only be allowed for migratory birds to use the Island, from Northern Europe to Africa—so therefore it becomes a sanctuary for the birds that exist in Africa, as well as in Europe. This is important because, as natural habitats are disappearing, the other species on this planet are trying to desperately find sanctuaries where they can survive, and that’s what I’m trying to do.
Nathaniel Nelson (N8) is a filmmaker and writer.
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