New York

Alan Sonfist, American Earth Landscape, 2019–21, earth on canvas, 10 × 15'.

Alan Sonfist, American Earth Landscape, 2019–21, earth on canvas, 10 × 15'.

Alan Sonfist

A pioneer of the Land art movement, Alan Sonfist has never received the degree of critical attention awarded some of his contemporaries, such as Michael Heizer and Richard Long. This despite the fact that Sonfist’s Time Landscape, a nine-hundred-square-foot plot of land fenced in at the corner of West Houston Street and LaGuardia Place, has been staking its claim as the largest and most important example of Land art in New York City since its creation in 1978. Originally proposed by the artist in 1965 as one of fifty such pockets of reclaimed urban territory that would re-create—and thus retrospectively preserve—the topography of the area prior to colonial settlement, Time Landscape, like a great deal of Sonfist’s work, invokes such parasculptural paradigms as the monument, the relic, the time capsule, and the natural-history diorama, using what the artist has called “natural phenomena” as his primary medium and, more profoundly, as a means of historical and even cosmic orientation.

These expanded aesthetic paradigms equally inform American Earth Landscape, 2019–21, the large new work that was the centerpiece of Sonfist’s presentation here. Composed of a tightly fitted grid of twenty-five panels upon which soil samples collected from across the United States have been compressed into bands that represent the varieties of earth constituting the surface layers of the continental mass of the country, the piece functions as something like a scientific illustration and a scale model. A natural coloristic harmony emerges from the red clay of the Piedmont, the dun sand of the Southwest, and the rich dark loam of the Midwestern plains, just as the various terrestrial zones produce biomorphic and camouflage-like configurations that at once indicate familiar geographic regions and exceed human borders and even coastlines. With its extensive size—ten by fifteen feet—and its ambitious and notably participatory mode of production, American Earth Landscape is a demonstrably big statement, one that asks viewers to consider the fundamental matter upon which the three terms that comprise the work’s title are grounded.

This new piece was effectively installed alongside a selection of Sonfist’s art from the past six decades. In the first gallery, for example, was Gene Bank of New York, 1974, in which a similar grid of twenty color photographs depicting sections of New York state forests are hung above a row of eighteen glass jars variously containing seedpods, twigs, a pine cone, and other organic matter taken from the pictured locations. By setting these two archival collections in dialogue with one another, the artist suggests that the various spores and microbes contained in the jars could repopulate and refertilize the region documented in the photographs. In other objects in the show, he similarly mixed a preservationist impulse with a modernist sense of allover composition. These concerns were evident in pieces such as “Surface Memory,” 1968–91, a series of large graphite-on-canvas rubbings made on the trunks of various types of trees, and Leaves Frozen in Time, 1968, in which a dispersion of autumnal foliage is suspended in translucent encaustic.

These works, like American Earth Landscape, combine indexical immediacy with a marked aestheticism that appears surprisingly in dialogue with the abstracted cartography of Jasper Johns’s painted maps; Robert Rauschenberg’s “elemental paintings” of the early 1950s, made from grass and dirt; and the art of Giuseppe Penone, whose own brand of romantic materialism seems closely aligned to Sonfist’s melancholic environmentalism. Nevertheless, the sense of ecological emergency that motivates much of Sonfist’s practice contains its own more approachable antiart attitude, albeit one in which sci-fi portrayals of human-directed catastrophe—such as the interstellar greenhouses featured in the movie Logan’s Run (1976) or the amber-encased dinosaur DNA in Jurassic Park (1993)—appear more apposite than the cool dialectics of Robert Smithson’s nonsites. If such unconventional points of reference underscore Sonfist’s position as something of an odd man out within the standard accounts of Land art, which have emphasized institutional critique at the expense of ecological engagement, his output gains a new relevance and seems more in tune with that of contemporary artists such as Matthew Day Jackson, Josh Kline, and Anicka Yi. They have similarly produced works that at times suggest a science-fair project gone wrong or, as Sonfist’s art repeatedly demonstrates, natural phenomena that always exceed human control.