(American, b. 1946)
New York-based artist Alan Sonfist (b. 1946) is known for his ecological artworks, featuring found organic or mineral materials and the natural landscape. Sonfist received a Masters in Art from Hunter College in 1971 and later studied Gestalt psychology with Hoyt Sherman, a notable fine arts professor at Ohio State University. From 1971 to 1973 and from 1976 to 1977, Sonfist was a fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, where the emphasis on the integration of environmental art with technology would have a formative impact on his subsequent work.
Sonfist was part of a generation of artists whose works from the 1960s and 70s incorporated natural elements or were sited in the landscape. Known variously as Earthworks, Land art, or Environmental art, these works intersected with a widespread public interest in ecology and environmental protection. Nonetheless, Sonfist’s approach was distinct from those of his peers who created conceptual, Minimalist-inspired works carved into remote terrains in the American west. Instead, he created works that sought to make visible the unseen or imperceptible internal structures and processes of natural materials and the environment. For example, Untitled [Crystal Monument] (1972), exhibited in “Nature Into Art,” at the Renaissance Society in October of 1973, featured a glass globe filled with crystals that formed unique patterns in reaction to the changing light and temperature of its surrounding environment.
His most famous public project, Time Landscape (1965-1978-Present), created a ‘pre-colonial’ urban forest in downtown Manhattan using native flora of the island. Bringing a piece of New York City to documenta 6 (1977) in Kassel, Germany, Sonfist exhibited the work Autobiography of Hemglock Forest, Visual Poem (1969-76), featuring photographs of the forest near his childhood home, tree branches, and a collection of seeds. As if echoing these ideas, a year later at documenta 7, German artist Joseph Beuys would create the notable tree-planting project, 7,000 Eichen (7,000 Oaks). Throughout his career, Sonfist has always conceived of his works as monuments to natural phenomenon meant to be seen and appreciated by the public. As the artist stated in 1978, “As in war monuments that record the life and death of soldiers, the life and death of natural phenomena such as rivers, springs and natural outcroppings need to be remembered.”
Written by Nancy P. Lin, a doctoral student in the Department of Art History