When Alan Sonfist was a child in the South Bronx, his favorite refuge was a pristine hemlock forest dating back to the days when New York was a more pastoral corner of the world—not far from his home on East 180th Street and Boston Road. There he found a source of wonder and a connection with nature, collecting seeds, leaves, and rocks and even occasionally spotting deer or foxes. “My parents would take me for walks in the forest, but also to museums,” Sonfist says. “They were both magical areas that opened the doors to a way of looking at life.”
One way or another that forest inspired a four-decade career encompassing sculpture, drawing, photography, performance, and site-specific landscapes that reflects an enduring fascination with New York City’s topographical history.
As a high-school student, Sonfist could not imagine a life as an artist and instead went off to agricultural school at the University of Illinois. But to his disappointment, he quickly realized that farming in the Midwest was mostly about business—”leasing and purchasing land,” as he puts it. Taking what few art classes were offered by the university, he stumbled across a book by Hoyt L. Sherman, a professor of fine arts at Ohio State University and an early influence on Roy Lichtenstein, among other artists. Sonfist went on to study under Sherman at Ohio State before returning to New York with a changed perspective on his calling.
By then his old Bronx neighborhood “looked like World War II,” he recalls. “It was thoroughly devastated.” And his beloved forest was smoldering after an epidemic of arson in the 1970s that caused the area’s economic collapse. With his parents relocated to Queens, Sonfist moved into the building he still occupies, on Mulberry Street in Little Italy. He finished his M.A. in art at Hunter College and began petitioning Mayor John Lindsay and Commissioner of Parks Thomas Hoving to authorize a series of forests to be constructed in the city.
The artist made a plan of the entire city, showing different sites that highlight its natural heritage. (This research would later help sway the Parks Department to add a division of urban forestry.) With his understanding of the area’s precolonial terrain, Sonfist devised Time Landscape, a 25-by-40-foot plot of native trees, shrubs, grasses, and rocks in Greenwich Village that re-creates the Manhattan landscape first encountered by Dutch settlers.
While lobbying for projects like Time Landscape, which was proposed in 1965 but not realized until 1978, Sonfist was always drawing, making evocative works out of resin on canvas, and taking photographs of what vestiges of nature remained around the city. He also photographed his performances, becoming perhaps the country’s first documented tree hugger, in a sequence of shots that show the hirsute nude artist embracing tree trunks of different species (“Myself Becoming One with the Tree,” 1969). Like many of his works, this one harked back to memories of his childhood: “I did many drawings as a kid about becoming a tree or disappearing into the earth,” he says. “It was part of my way of recovering from the urban slum.”
His coming-of-age as an artist coincided with the heyday of Land Art, but Sonfist never identified with the exemplars of that movement, led by Walter De Maria and Robert Smithson. “It’s an entirely different vocabulary,” he says. “My feeling is that if we are going to live within a city, we have to create an understanding of the land. And that includes suburban dwellers as well. We have to come to a better understanding of who we are and how we exist on the planet.”
In the early ’70s, after a near-death experience falling off a cliff in Central America, Sonfist retreated to a Caribbean island and, as part of the healing process, acted out the lives of animals. He fantasized himself becoming a turtle, a gorilla, a crab, and a lion and had photographs made of his efforts at crawling out of the surf on all fours, clambering among tree branches, and stumbling through grass and brush. “I knew someone was coming to photograph but I didn’t know when,” he later wrote. “Gradually I began to think less and less of them and more of the animal. I became a tiger—waiting. I sensed the approach and my feelings were of anger. It was my territory not theirs.”
But most of Sonfist’s art is of a more tangible nature. In his small, fastidiously neat space on Mulberry Street (he has a larger area downstairs, which he declines to show to visitors because he is in the process of cataloguing work), the 64-year-old artist—a burly, bearded, soft-spoken man—discusses the works casually arranged on the walls and floor. There are small, vivid sketches of chalk on canvas that relate back to his imaginative and precocious childhood, when he envisioned himself hiding in trees or “releasing” the moon and birds. On the floor is a pair of branches lashed together to resemble the structure of DNA. (“The idea is that the DNA double helix and the human structure are not that far apart,” he says. “We’re not that much different from our environment.”) And on one wall is an elegant minimalist sculpture of narrow earth-tone cylinders made from rock prized from deep below the city’s surface. It is, Sonfist says, “a real image of what’s below the Museum of Modern Art.”
Sonfist, who doesn’t work with a gallery, lives from his commissions. His large-scale projects, primarily produced in the United States and Europe, have occupied much of his time in the last two decades. In Tampa, he constructed a seven-acre park that comprises a formal garden and what he calls different “ecological niches” that trace the natural history of Florida, from the Ice Age to the present. Deep within a forest in Germany’s Sauerland region, he created Lost Falcon of Westphalia (2004), an earthen wall “cutout,” 144 feet long, in the shape of a bird and visible only from the air. And in one of his more whimsical ventures, he studded the streets of SoHo with 100 waterproof circular photographs of how the river and vegetation below the neighborhood looked centuries ago.
Sonfist has recently been working outside Florence on a grove of trees in the shape of an olive leaf. Though the raw materials are the olive trees for which Tuscany is famous, tracking down the ones he wanted was not a simple matter of querying nurseries or doing a Google search. For the five-acre project he needed ancient trees, with a 5,000-year lineage, to show how the forest looked before even the Etruscans arrived (the present-day trees have a larger fruit and more condensed branches). In 2012, he will have retrospective exhibitions in Milan and at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf.
Of his varied and wide-ranging career, Sonfist says that “the ideas are constantly repeating themselves in different formats. I see them as a lifetime of understanding who I am. And at each stage you become more aware of what you don’t know.”
Ann Landi is a contributing editor of ARTnews.