What if we memorialized ecological losses like we did battles? “As in war monuments that record the life and death of soldiers, the life and death of natural phenomena such as rivers, springs, and natural outcroppings need to be remembered,” wrote Alan Sonfist in 1968. The New York artist imagined a series of Time Landscapes that would use public art to recall the precolonial terrain of New York City, whether restoring a spring to Spring Street, or a lake near City Hall. Unused land could be reclaimed for remembering the city’s natural history.
Only one of Sonfist’s land interventions was completed in Manhattan, and you can still see it at the corner of LaGuardia Place and West Houston Street in Greenwich Village. This “Time Landscape” was planted in 1978, on land from the Department of Transportation. Its 25-foot-by-40-foot plot was seeded with native flora, from wildflowers to witch hazels to beech tree saplings carried from a favorite of Sonfist’s childhood parks in the Bronx. Initially, it was designed to have three stages of a forest’s age; now those have blurred with decades of growth. Its humble appearance makes it among the city’s more overlooked public artworks.
Alden Projects on the Lower East Side is currently showing Alan Sonfist: 50 Years of Time Landscape. The exhibition restages work from a 1978 exhibition by Sonfist at Leo Castelli Gallery, along with “Time Landscape” sketches from 1965. Sonfist was only 19 when he created these initial drawings, and was considering how his experiences growing up with the natural beauty of New York City in the Bronx could inform his practice. Originating at a time when few were advocating for native plants in urban gardens, or arguing that the fragility of nature was an essential message even in a city, his art feels very connected to current environmental concerns.
“At the moment, it’s as urgent as ever,” Todd Alden, director of Alden Projects, told Hyperallergic on a visit to the gallery. He noted that this “monument to the history of nature,” that’s not a park or garden, is a “creative concept for a larger way of thinking.”
Alongside the “Time Landscape” drawings, are small-scale contact sheet photographs. These Nature of New York: Past and Present diptychs contrast nature and the built environment, for instance two trees and the two towers of the World Trade Center. On the opposite wall are his three-stage “Autobiography of Hemlock Forest” (1969–75) pieces, where photographs, collected specimens, and a poetic timeline merge his own biography with that of this evolving Bronx forest. And finally, a large-scale photocollage for “Gene Bank of New York City” (1974) is fixed above a “time capsule” of the city’s forest, with bits of bark, leaves, and other samples, representing a future template for retrieving this heritage.
Sonfist is often associated with Land artists like Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson, but he proposed very different ideas through his quieter work. Rather than carving the land into something where the human hand wields a godlike force, he was interested in peeling back the centuries in a city, to remind us of the lost places that were once beneath.
Alan Sonfist: 50 Years of Time Landscape continues through November 20 at Alden Projects (34 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan).