One of the most significant works of public art in New York is easy to miss. Alan Sonfist’s Time Landscape, on the corner of Houston Street and LaGuardia Place, is an unassuming patch of precolonial, pre-urbanized ground—a slice of native forest improbably thriving in an overheated real-estate market. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the project (the artist considers it to have begun when he proposed it, in 1965, though it wasn’t realized until 1978), Alden Projects has brought together elements from Sonfist’s 1978 exhibition at Leo Castelli Gallery. At a moment when ecological crisis is fueling resurgent interest in Sonfist’s work, the exhibition couldn’t be more timely—or needed.
Sonfist makes poignant proposals for how humans might relate to the natural world. “Autobiography of a Hemlock Forest” (1969–75) is a series of framed panels, each containing photographs of a forest near the artist’s childhood home in the Bronx, twigs and leaves he collected there, and a typewritten page with a timeline of dreamy, oblique autobiographical recollections (“1958: From my hands flow landscapes / 1964: curated a museum of seeds and nests and lifeless beasts.”). The trio of components suggests a layered encounter, with the forest prompting study and analysis as well as poetic introspection.
Sonfist’s anti-monumental work has always seemed out of place within the Land art canon. Instead of making huge marks in the desert, he offers cultural production as cultivation. Sonfist’s projects are never simply about looking back to a pure natural state; rather, they envision a complex and uncertain future. New York Gene Bank (1974) consists of a grid of photographs depicting a forest paired with a wall-mounted vitrine of glass jars containing leaves, sticks, and seeds, which the artist described as “genetic element sections” comprising the material needed for “future generations to recreate the forest.” Despite the suggestion of ecological collapse, Sonfist rarely indulges in dystopian speculation, just as he avoids finding Romantic-style self-fulfillment among the trees. As art historian Robert Slifkin writes in the catalogue for a retrospective he recently co-curated at Reed College, Sonfist’s art and writing offer something more meaningful: “a model of community in which society and nature were equal partners in the world.” —William S. Smith
Pictured: Alan Sonfist: Autobiography of Hemlock Forest, 1969-75, mixed media in the artist’s frame, 61¼ by 27â?? inches. Courtesy Alden Projects, New York.