Born in New York in 1946, Alan Sonfist begins his studies there at the Art Students League in 1963. In the following year he transfers to Western Illinois University and returns to New York in 1965, where he enrolls at the Pratt Institute. He finally receives his degree from Hunter College in New York.
Sonfist’s works are early ecologically motivated creations that aim at historical and aesthetic aspects of a nature beyond the affects of culture. For his first careful intervention on the natural ecosystem – which in this manner is given a voice – he uses found stones, vegetative material and earth which he integrates in photo series, pictures, bronze castings, and collages. In photographically documented actions he seeks to approach animal perception (Myself Becoming One with the Tree1969; Territorial Gorilla Invasion 1972 — 73).
Soon Sonfist turns to biological experiments – cyclical natural processes and morphological structures particularly fascinating him – as they convey discoveries regarding the development and history of nature – structures that microorganisms leave behind on canvases, thickening slime trails of living snails or the linear hiking paths of forest ants that appear as aesthetic pattern forms (Snail Enclosure 1972; Colony of Army Ants, 1972). The systematic character of nature is also presented in Sonfist’s work as a communication and decoding allowance, as a way of illustrating invisible rules and regulating mechanisms of special meaning. In the piece Crystal Globe (1966) he pursues similar experiments with crystalline structures and their forms of self-regulation.
The wish to circumvent established exhibition spaces and art concepts also leads Sonfist to discover the art space of nature and landscape. His approach may thus be compared to Hans Hacke’s and Robert Smithson’s more monumental Land Art. But Sonfist primarily views the communicative and historical nature of landscape and landscape formation in the context of an ecosystem. In the following years, Sonfist is especially concerned with those natural phenomena and forms from which history and time can be extracted. He is interested in »the isolation of a visual perception at a particular moment in time, so that every visual image must be seen as an individual excerpt from an encompassing process. Every arbitrary form must be seen as the essential in a continuum that is being formed by other, sometimes visually absent, factors. Landscapes present the dismemberment of the continuum.« (Sonfist 1972). It is from within this historical interest that one should also understand Sonfist’s concept of monument, which he terms both a form of memory of human history but foremost as a form of conserving natural processes that essentially contribute to the history of a place, though often invisibly. The repertoire of his »monuments« is thus expansive, including public monuments of natural history, geology and biology. His Rock Monument in Buffalo (1978) presents an Installation of rocks which the artist collected at the location and arranged as an expression of regional geological history. This site specific historical anchoring must be seen as a special trait of his work.
The historically oriented aspects of Sonfist’s work are particularly evident in his project Time Landscape, which is created in New York, partially in the area of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art (1965 — 78). There plants of a pre-colonial forest grow, arrayed in three developmental stages. Seemingly unhindered by the effects of civilization the trees, bushes and wild flowers prosper and become a »living« memory that is meant to stimulate historical memory.
The planning and execution of Sonfist’s projects are time-consuming and complex, requiring collaboration with scientists, politicians and adherence to ecological regulations; planning for most lasts years. Again and again consignments of recent years have concentrated on »time-landscapes« which are supposed to heighten awareness for phenomena of historical length and continuity through natural growing processes. Also included is Sonfist’s project idea for a series of park landscapes in North Paris, Natural / Cultural History of Paris: A Narrative Environmental Landscape (1999). Here he reconstructs a topographical landscape of French palaces and cathedrals, using their ground plans as a model for plantation areas containing vegetation typical of the middle ages. In projects of the following years Sonfist realizes similar connections between cultural and natural history (Natural / Cultural Landscape of Jersey City 1994; Natural / Cultural Landscape of Aachen, 1999; The Lost Falcon of Westphalia, Bad Berleburg 2005).
Alan Sonfist lives and works in New York.
Nature the End of Art. Environmental Landscapes. Alan Sonfist: Ausst.-Kat. mit Texten von W. Becker, Florenz 2004
Paris – La Défense. L’ art contemporain et l’axe historique. Magdalena Abakanowicz, Piotr Kowalski, Jean-Pierre Raynaud, Alan Sonfist: Ausst.-Kat. hg. v. Jean-Luc Daval, Genf 1992
Sonfist, Alan (Hg.): Art in the land, a critical Anthology of Environmental Art, New York 1983
Common ground. Five Artists in the Florida Landscape. Hamish Fulton, Helen and Newton Harrison, Michael Singer, Alan Sonfist: Ausst.-Kat. The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art Sarasota, hg. v. Michael Auping, Sarasota 1982