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Alan Sonfist: in the nature of things

By Paul Sutinen

April 19, 2016

Lee Krasner told a story about the meeting between venerable painter Hans Hofmann and Jackson Pollock.

Hofmann asked, “Do you work from nature?”

Pollock replied, “I am nature.”

Some might consider that an arrogant reply. On the other hand, Pollock might have been humbly saying that he was only a part of nature like any tiny insect, that human versus nature was a false dichotomy, that human action is natural action.

Pollock’s expression of his nature was found best in his grand dripped abstract expressionist paintings. Painting was the forward-looking medium that was available to him. He died in 1956 at the age of 44. In 1956 Alan Sonfist was 10 years old. Another decade later he would find that the idea of what a forward-thinking art “medium” could be was wide open. The exhibition Alan Sonfist: Natural History through June 12 at the Cooley Gallery at Reed College documents some of his works from 1960 to 1980.

Alan Sonfist, "Myself Becoming One with the Tree," 1969

Alan Sonfist, “Myself Becoming One with the Tree,” 1969

When I first heard of the show, I immediately thought of the essay Nature as Artifact: Alan Sonfist, in the November, 1973, issue of Artforum magazine. The first illustration in the article is Army Ants: Patterns and Structures, a photographic top view of hundreds of army ants marching in a tight galaxy-like pattern, “following a circular trail of chemical secretions.” I’ve always considered this picture as a “drawing” that utilizes the unknowing cooperation of the ants. As it turns out this was a detail view of a 400-square-foot installation for which “Sonfist rearranged four separate food sources for the ants, carefully videotaping and drawing their changing movement patterns.” In the Cooley show there are two graphite on paper drawings, Army Ant Movements, 1972-1973, related to Sonfist’s study of these ants that he had collected in Panama and brought to New York (more than a million of them).

Another illustration in the Artforum article was Running Dead Animal, 1973, “opossum discovered on a road, encased in plaster … ‘The natural fluids are allowed to emanate from it.’ ” This piece has always intrigued me: found object, hidden within a sculpture, with an evolving painting (the fluids). Unfortunately it is not in the exhibition. However there is a work that relates to that idea of display and decay: Last Artwork, Will and Body, 1972-1973. The photographic presentation of this piece shows a side view of Sonfist naked and supine. For the work itself, Sonfist attempted to donate his body to the Museum of Modern Art, to be “placed at death in a sealed transparent enclosure…I feel that the decay and growth of my body will present the continuance of my artwork.” MOMA has not taken up the offer, but the Ludwig Museum in Aachen, Germany has invited him to donate his body there. (We have a similar artwork in Portland at the Convention Center: Buster Simpson’s Host Analog, 1991, a thousand-year-old Douglas fir log, which, as it decays, hosts the growth of seedlings—the little trees grow as the log is decaying.)

Alan Sonfist, "Last Artwork, Will and Body," 1972-1973

Alan Sonfist, “Last Artwork, Will and Body,” 1972-1973

Ants, possums, and decaying dead body, oh my. These are not the “beautiful” subjects of art. However, Sonfist’s work with these things does not provoke with ickiness: In the manner of a scientist, he intervenes calmly with natural processes that make us perceive something, not scientific facts, but a kind of poetry. In the Artforum article, Robert Joseph Horvitz notes Sonfist’s “transition out of the conventional methods of artifacture.” There was no need to utilize a conventional art-making technique in the way Pollock was limited to “painting.” In Sonfist’s works there is nothing “picturesque” in the photographs and no artsy smudges or erasures in the drawings. The pieces are carefully presented in well-made, conventional frames, giving us just the clear idea of what has happened without embellishment.

I’ve always related Sonfist’s work to the tradition of landscape. The Dutch landscape painters of four hundred years ago were the first to make the land a major subject. We can see their enjoyment in depicting trees and clouds, and sometimes the paintings give subtle clues about mortality (a dead tree) or the power of nature (stormy skies). In 19th century America, the power of God was seen in the wilderness, and artists tried to convey that in their landscape paintings. In her excellent book Nature and Culture: American Landscape Painting 1825-1875, Barbara Novak quotes James Brook (The Knickerbocker, 1835): “God has promised us a renowned existence … He speaks this promise in the sublimity of Nature. It resounds all along the crags of the Alleghenies. It is uttered in the thunder of Niagara. It is heard in the roar of two oceans …” (Meanwhile in Europe, painters utilized landscape as a subject through which to reinvent the nature of painting: Impressionism.) Up to this time the question for the artist was, “Given my interest in nature, how do I express it through painting?”

In the late 1960s, early 1970s, many artists were out expressing their interest in the land by bulldozing. Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, Robert Morris and others were making “earthworks”—altering the landscape, not depicting it. They were making art that was grandiose and dramatic, harking back to the mythic past of Stonehenge or medicine wheels, but maybe not dealing with the “sublimity of Nature.” Sonfist’s works that we see in the exhibition tend to have a light touch, requiring nothing more than the strength of the artist’s hands. They seem to be about “how do I as a single human being interact with nature?”

We see that Sonfist was an early tree hugger in the five photos Myself Becoming One with the Tree, 1969. The title suggests that he is not hugging just to show physical emotion, but in some way is attempting something like a soul-meld. From the photos we can’t tell how long he held the tree—maybe only long enough for the photo op, maybe for several minutes of meditation. He leaves a lot to our imagination.

In Artforum, Sonfist is quoted: “My art presents nature. I isolate certain aspects of nature to gain emphasis, to make clear its power to affect us, to give the viewer an awareness that can be translated into a total unraveling of the cosmos.” He only “presents” nature. The works have little pictorial interest. They are like the key first dominos that fall into a long trail of toppling before the “cosmos” is reached. The viewer’s mind can get to eternity, but Sonfist only suggests it—he doesn’t demand it.

Alan Sonfist, "Last Artwork, Will and Body," 1972-1973

Alan Sonfist, “Last Artwork, Will and Body,” 1972-1973

Sonfist has done big art that is meant to be eternal. Time Landscape, 1965-1978-present, is sited in lower Manhattan. According to the New York Department of Parks & Recreation:

“After extensive research on New York’s botany, geology, and history Sonfist and local community members used a palette of native trees, shrubs, wild grasses, flowers, plants, rocks, and earth to plant the 25′ x 40′ rectangular plot at the northeast corner of La Guardia Place and West Houston Street in 1978. The result of their efforts is a slowly developing forest that represents the Manhattan landscape inhabited by Native Americans and encountered by Dutch settlers in the early 17th century.”

Walking through the concrete jungle of Manhattan for a moment we find the prior jungle of vegetation. As in many of his works, Sonfist sets up a situation and lets nature take its course. In this simulacrum, as the plantings grow into the future they increasingly resemble the past.

The span of this show is 1960-1980, when, amazingly, Sonfist was between 14 and 34 years old (so he was only 19 when he began the Time Landscape concept in 1965). In a statement accompanying the exhibition he relates his Beginnings. He grew up among the “concrete streets and brick buildings” of the South Bronx, but found refuge in an isolated forest in a deep ravine by the Bronx River. In his childhood exploration there he encountered turtles, snakes, deer and foxes. It seems that his time there was solitary. But later on, more people went to the forest and ruined it. The city decided it was dangerous and cut down the trees.

There is a wistfulness in the exhibition, a lone artist among the twigs and leaves. The framed photos, schematic drawings and a couple videos document ideas in action. There isn’t much to savor in conventional art ways. Not a lot to see. A lot to think about.


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