Alan Sonfist: 50 Years of Time Landscape

October 21 – November 20, 2016
Opening October 21, 6-8 pm

Installation view of Alan Sonfist's exhibition at Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, Photo Landscapes: Autobiography of Hemlock Forest, June 1978.
Courtesy of the artist and Alden Projects™

PUBLIC MONUMENTS traditionally have celebrated events in human history—acts of heroism important to the human community. Increasingly, as we come to understand our dependence on nature, the concept of community expands to include non-human elements. Civic monuments, then, should honor and celebrate the life and acts of the total community, the human ecosystem, including natural phenomena. Especially within the city, public monuments should recapture and revitalize the history of the natural environment at that location. As in war monuments, that record of life and death of soldiers, the life and death of natural phenomena such as rivers, springs, and natural outcroppings needs to be remembered.
Alan Sonfist, “Natural Phenomena as Public Monuments” (1968)

Alan Sonfist: 50 Years of Time Landscape opens at Alden Projects™ on October 21 (6-8 pm) and runs through November 20, 2016. The exhibition commemorates the semi-centennial of New York-based Land Artist Alan Sonfist’s (b. 1946) first germinations of Time Landscape in 1965, a radical, new model of art (and life). Time Landscape[1] (1978 – present), to clarify, is also the eponymous name of his most celebrated public work, which broke ground in 1978 after years of planning, on the corner of LaGuardia Place and Houston Street: it consists of a nearly 1000 square foot plot of pre-colonial forest fashioned from a palette of native trees, shrubs, wild grasses, flowers, plants, rocks, and earth. With an eye towards marking Time Landscape’s living history, Alden Projects™ shines a light on Sonfist’s signal exhibition of intimately related work that opened at nearly the same moment in time: the artist’s exhibition at Leo Castelli Gallery—also 1978—and sited just two blocks away (at 420 West Broadway), a gallery-based gambit that also visualized a Time Landscape of the historical forest of New York.

And so to commemorate 50 years of Time Landscape, Alden Projects™ re-stages Sonfist’s signal 1978 exhibition at Leo Castelli Gallery, consisting of early conceptual photographs and photo collages (1969 - 75), there titled Photo Landscapes: Autobiography of a Hemlock Forest. (All works were also exhibited at Documenta VI, in Kassel the prior year). Alden Projects’ exhibition is supplemented with 1965 drawings, imagining Time Landscape not in a single enclosure, but as a proliferation of reclaimed New York City sites. Considered collectively, works in this exhibition evidence, structure and encompass the artist’s radical concept of Time Landscape—a softly spoken sleeper from the canon of Land Art that just may turn out to be the most urgent and relevant model for young artists today.

In 1965, at age 19, Sonfist inked the first drawings for his concept of Time Landscape—discrete public enclosures intended to exist in small pockets of recovered land plots in New York City to be seeded with pre-colonial flora and forests. In stark contrast to the heroic monumentalism of some fellow Land Artists, Sonfist’s Time Landscape structure proposed a very different kind of monument (and commemorative impulse): to recover “the natural environment before Colonial settlement.” Neither a park nor a wilderness preserve, Sonfist’s unusual hybrid combining both backward and forward-looking registrations radically re-conceived not only the idea of what a public monument might be (as a means of historical commemoration), but it also proposed nothing less than a re-formulated possibility frontier for art itself, including also man’s historical (and future) relationship to nature.

Demonstrating how the concept of Time Landscape keeps an eye on both past and the future, Alan Sonfist’s 8 x 12”  installation, New York Gene Bank (1974) grounds the exhibition at Alden Projects™, consisting of a grid of 35 photographs of a New York forest juxtaposed with the artist’s wall bound vitrine containing “genetic element sections that represent the entire forest for future generations to recreate the forest.” The prescient work is a powerful elegy for the fragility of New York and our present times, presenting contradictory indices of romantic loss, but also consequentially, carrying the seeds of renewal that are the collaborative, mindful, and invitational kernel of the Time Landscape gambit.

“This collaborative relationship with nature,” scholar Robert Slifkin writes in his recent, essay, Alan Sonfist: Natural History, “is crucial to Sonfist’s of a Hemlock Forest”—six 62 x 27” photo collaged panels from the original series are present—“combining photographs that document the seasonal changes of a small section of forest located near the… artist’s childhood home at the edge of the Bronx with natural specimens taken from that site and typewritten lists of events from the artist’s biography presented in a timeline format…The three modes of display used in Autobiography of a Hemlock Forest—timeline, natural relic, and photograph—each partake in this powerful rhetoric of evidentiary veracity, transforming fragments of space and time…into an intelligible coherence.”[2]

Also included in this exhibition is the artist’s series of diminutive photographs, Nature of New York: Past and Present Photographs (1975), diptychs, each 1 x 1 ½”, juxtaposing a single image-fragment from the urban streetscape with one image-fragment from a “natural” landscape; together, the pair partially reflects the then-present, but also unfixes, perhaps, photography’s peculiar relationship to the here-and-now by inviting the viewer to time travel back to an imagined past; we are invited, also perhaps, towards an imagined,  more collaborative—or a post-human?—future.

50 Years of Time Landscape postulates that as another election passes without any discussion of global warming and the history and the future of nature, now is as urgent a time as ever to reflect on Alan Sonfist’s genre-defining concept as when he first proposed it. Can we look forward without looking back?


This is Alan Sonfist’s first one-person exhibition with Alden Projects™. Alan Sonfist's works are included in many international public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; and Museum Ludwig, Cologne. Notable one-person exhibitions include The Autobiography of Alan Sonfist, at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; Alan Sonfist Trees at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C. Time Landscape received landmark status from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1988.

Alden Projects™ gratefully acknowledges the inspiring vision and generosity of Stephanie Snyder, Curator and Director of the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery, Reed College. Together with Rob Slifkin, Snyder curated the retrospective, Alan Sonfist: Natural History, at Reed College in 2016.

© Todd Alden 2016                                         

[1]  “Time Landscape” (in italics) refers to the realized, 1978 project at the corner of LaGuardia Place and Houston Street while “Time Landscape” (no italics) refers to the concept or genre invented by Sonfist.
[2] Rob Slifkin in Alan Sonfist, Natural History, Eds. Sonfist, Slifkin, Snyder, Tepper, (Portland, Oregon: Companion Editions, 2015), p. 38-39.