Alan Sonfist

In a recent installation Alan Sonfist gathered some 20 pieces, all employing found organic objects or natural processes in their conception. This collection, or Autobiography, as the artist calls it, shows Sonfist working in and around the two worlds of nature and art. This is a consistent aspect of Sonfist’s work; inconsequential yet familiar bits of nature intentionally presented in an artful context.

Some of the works in the Boston show literally do just that—his Gene Enclosures documents a sector of a forest for posterity with a grid pattern of photographs as well as a display, like so many botany lab samples, of bottled twigs, leaves and shards of bark. All the works, from Sonfist’s well-known lucite columns containing crystal formations to the highly romanticized prints, Dreams with Asher B. Durand, inspired by the paintings of that 19th-century celebrator of the American landscape, embody this dichotomy between the given and the created, the natural environment and the work of art. Even works like the tree tracings or the heat ring plates, which are visually attractive on a simple formal level, evidence this same split.

In one very elegant composition, Natural and Gilded, Sonfist pushes the two worlds into close proximity. Here, pairs of elements—small pebbles, twigs, a chunk of bark, an acorn and a leaf—are displayed side by side in a glass-fronted case. One half of each pair is left in its natural form, the other is painted gold. Though fragile and ephemeral as both art and nature, these details become delicately precious as well. Most significantly, the artist’s intervention, assumed in many other pieces, is clearly demonstrated here. Natural and Gilded encapsulates the two polarities of Sonfist’s esthetic act—the initial selection and the eventual manipulation of natural material.

Viewing works like Gene Enclosures, Natural and Gilded or Aging Canvas, the latter a canvas sheet water-stained by the artist and allowed to mold, one senses that Sonfist is concerned with something more than the Duchampian art-life split. It is as if the natural themes, some of which create images suspiciously close to pretty color field paintings, are but a palatable gloss that the artist uses to express deeper concerns. Every work in Autobiography functions out of that fertile area between the natural and the artificial where Sonfist focuses his greatest attention.

In some works, the artist anneals this intermediate space by interposing a working surface—canvas or paper—between himself and his subject matter. Elsewhere it is the mechanical contrivance of a camera that stands between the natural subject and the artist’s intent. Through these links (or are they obstacles?) between the arenas of art and life, the artist formulates his conceptions visually.

Occasionally, artistic intervention is alluded to but not represented. Sonfist’s presence is felt in the series of metal plates and mud pieces where he initiates a natural process that proceeds to run its own course. This allusion is perceived in the singular case of Natural and Gilded where art and life, in a tightly controlled situation of duplicate samples, are contrasted by juxtaposition. Thus, the artist’s presence is metaphorically but emphatically present between the pairs of objects.

What sets Sonfist apart from other antiformalist artists who work between the Duchampian dichotomy is that Autobiography reveals his constant attempts to define this crucial interspace. Lurking within all the constituent parts of the Boston show, and indeed reasserted by its title, is the concept of time.

Sonfist is attuned to time as the most constant force acting upon the world. Time is required for the natural processes in Sonfist’s work; it allows his intentions to be realized visually. It is a universal flow that keeps his art in a state of flux. Although emphasized here, this same flux is present in every work of art, despite the efforts of curators and others to arrest natural processes and maintain a falsified status quo.

Time for Sonfist is not only subject matter, but process and realization as well. Concepts of storing, aging, recording and processing prominent in Sonfist’s Autobiography collection all function within a common temporal field. He begins to appear as an artist-historian, not of imagined cultures or past civilizations, but of the earth itself. The natural quotient of his work, so appealing in today’s ecologically sensitive world, is the surface reminder that only time separates the varied creations of man from their eventual decomposition and reabsorption into the natural system. His art exposes the dichotomy of art-life as the myth that it has always been, and we are finally made to realize that his main concern, that of time, is in fact only a thin veil between the hemispheres of one single, experiential world.

Ronald J. Onorato