Sunday, April 16, 2017

Interview with Alan Sonfist by Robert Rosenblum

The following interview selection was taken from the book titled Alan Sonfist, published by Hillwood Art Museum. 

Robert Rosenblum: Alan, since I am primarily an art historian, the first thing I do is try to situate you in terms of decades, movements, other artists, and to learn how you feel about such things. One question I would like to start with has to do with something I read recently. It referred to the present "mood" as archeologism. The writer thought that the whole spirit of regression, of moving backwards, of exploring layer after layer of our historical past, whether recorded or pre-historical, was part of the mood of the past ten years or so. Does that ring any bells for you?

Alan Sonfist: Yes you're right, because that is exactly what my art is about. It is about trying to uncover the natural past of our cities. I see myself as a visual archeologist. The idea of digging up this research is to bring the past into the present.

I do extensive research. My sculpture in New York City took five years of research. I discovered the history of the area by looking through the Dutch records of their lumber supplies and accounts of their walks to their favorite trout stream. From that, I was able to get some idea of how the city looked prior to man's intervention. So I find it to be an interesting work; digging up the multiple histories of an area, using them in an artwork and then placing that artwork in a contemporary environment.

RR: So, is it really a sort of natural history equivalent to art history? The whole tenure of the past ten, twenty years is to reconstruct the historical past, to dig it out and make it look like it was resurrected. You are doing that in terms of the natural history, of getting to the lowest strata of time-experience in terms of what was here before we were. There seems to be a parallel there, don't you think?

One of the things this makes me wonder about since this includes not only your geological and botanical strata in regression, but also your own regression to primitive states of being, is how do you fit that in? I mean, the things were you were caged in a zoo, and where you ran through the woods naked and so on.

AS: To answer the first part of your question, all my art deals with prime experience of the creation of the land, as with Circles of Time at Villa Celle, To enter into the main part of the sculpture, one must go into the earth, and rediscover our geological past. What I have created is a circle, rippling in waves of ribbons or rock, each ribbon representing a strata of time, thus visualizing the upper and lower strata of the hills of Tuscany. As one walks out of this ring, one enters an area representing the Greeks, who brought the laurel to Italy. One then goes through the laurel by an opening which is low to the ground. One can then feel and smell the Etruscan herbs. The passage rises, opening to view monumental bronze sculptures, composed of castings of endangered and extinct trees, that through the sculpture have been transformed into the Greek heroes the ancient sculptures depict. In the center of the circle, one experiences the forest vegetation of Italy, that which existed before human intervention. To complete the multiple histories of the land, I have shown its contemporary use of agriculture through a ring of olive trees and wheat.

In response to the second question, I would say that as humans, we are part of the environment. That is the prime concept behind my art. I feel that that was the difference between myself and the earth artists. They were involved in going out to the desert and doing the artworks there. My art is to rediscover my own past in the city. I grew up in New York City. How the caged animal performance came about is that, as a child, I used to go to the Bronx Zoo. I would observe the animals in their cages and sometimes sneak into the cages with the animals.

RR: What was the species? I'm trying to think of how you could get in.

AS: Mostly, I visited the antelopes and the deer, they were the most curious. Being a little child, the animals would walk right up to me. Sometimes I would just go in the cages and hide in the trees and play.

So, this is where these animal fantasies actually came from, my past. It's interesting talking about archaeology because it's almost like I'm unearthing my own childhood experiences. It goes back to growing up in New York City, and to when I lived next to one of the last virgin forests, which has been destroyed now.

RR: It seems like an ideal situation; a combination of both private and personal history, your own regression to your past, and also public history, because your experience is part of a general communal one.

I am always curious about the proportion of science as opposed to poetry, if they can be separated. That is, how much actual work do you do in terms of research, in order to find the truth about geological, botanical developments wherever you are working. Is it imaginary? I mean, what is the proportion of fact and fiction?

AS: In New York City, I have created four forests. Each one concerns its own unique vegetation which I get from site history of each sculpture. In Dallas, Texas, I have traced the history of the Trinity River, so that it could be reconstructed into a functional, natural waterway. The city is using this environmental sculpture as part of their master plan. I have also traced the historical streams of New York City, and proposed that a bronze line be set into the concrete, marking their past existence. During Earth Day in 1970, I marked off the natural boundary of New York City to show land boundaries that no longer exist.

RR: Have any of the official historians of New York, whether involved in social history or natural history, been concerned with your work?

AS: Yes, after the sculpture in New York was created, several historians from around the city called and complimented me on the historical facts used to imagine each site.

As far as natural history, I am creating not a true ecological model, but rather a romantic forest. My concern is to show the struggles within nature, which in reality makes for a true natural system. One would observe, within each of my environmental sculptures, the struggle of life and death, as well as the human interaction in a historical time forest. That's what the 19th century concepts were about. That is really what I am involved in, and what my thought process is trying to create. The natural cycles as opposed to doing an ecological model from a scientific point of view, or using pure history. It is like a palette. I see it as laying out facts, and then I make the aesthetic decision.

RR: It is like reconstructing Darwin. Have you ever thought of doing environments with animals?

AS: I proposed the New York City officials that they create an environment that would have historic animals, such as deer, foxes, and raccoons, that could co-exist with humans. It would be totally different from the typical zoo, which has all of the exotic animals. This is another concept for archaeological layering of the city environment.

In Dallas, Texas, I proposed to create islands that would be representative of primeval forests, and also have the animal life of the forests. Each island would have animals unique to the vegetation on that island. each island would have animals unique to the vegetation on that island. At this moment in time, the historic animals of the cities have become exotic, and lions and tigers have become common.

RR: It is the most thrilling irony to turn the least natural of cities to its natural origins. It almost seems impossible to get rom the present to the past. But obviously, you work in the in-between layers. But New York is the perfect place, the city to do it in.

AS: As the art center, New York is unique. But actually, all cities and suburban areas have obliterated their natural past, so my sculptural forests in Kansas City for example is just as meaningful.

In the last twenty years, New York has rediscovered its historical buildings. My work means that the city's historical nature can also become a functional monument to the fabric of the community.

RR: I know, I remember that there was a point when suddenly all of the 1930s buildings of New York, all of the Art Deco buildings looked like ancient architecture, and they were thrilling because they suddenly loomed as an historical strata upon which the present is built. So we are all interested in layers.

I am curious. We have been talking about the New York City and Dallas, but obviously you have worked all over. The west. The east too? Have you ever done anything in the Orient?

AS: In Japan, I have recently received a commission outside of Tokyo to create a Time Landscape in the inside lobby of a new building. This environment will show the layerings of time histories of the land in the area of the building. I will be introducing my concept of constant change in relationship to the Zen garden concept of a fixed moment in time.

RR: How do you adjust internationally? That is, so much of your work is involved with your personal history, in New York City, and what it means to you as a human being, and what it means as your own environment. But when you go abroad, to Europe especially, where you have done so much work, how do you plug into their history, natural and unnatural?

AS: Upon arriving at a new site, I immediately start sensing the land by walking, feeling, and smelling to absorb the atmosphere to associate with my past experiences. Then the process begins. I start creating a series of drawings, bridging my own history to my immediate observations of the site. For example, the Circles of Time, created at Villa Celle, began with hundreds of sketches about the environment that spoke to me of the history of Tuscany. The sketches were expanded into a set of etchings that connected the spiritual/historical understanding of this land to the universe.

I start collecting historical facts about the land, as well as natural fragments that became the stimulus to create a series of micro/spiritual etchings connecting the land to myself and the forces that shaped it. Therefore, the recollections of my past, to collecting of factual histories of the land and then connecting the environmental sculpture to the universe.

RR: Incidentally, just as an aside, did you spend a lot of time as a child in the Museum of Natural History?

AS: Yes, I would go to all the museums in New York City. I felt that there was no difference between the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Natural History. They both added magic to my own existence.

RR: It's interesting, just thinking about historical connections, because recent research on Abstract Expressionists has turned up that the Museum of Natural History was one of the major locales of inspiration for them, not only in terms of ethnological displays, but also in terms of geological and botanical displays in the forties. It's fascinating that you can connect with traditions in Western painting that go back as far as the forties.

But to get back to Europe, do you find a difference in the response to your work there from the response here? Are the Europeans more attuned to your viewpoint?

AS: I think it's interesting that the Abstract Expressionists were interested in the Museum of Natural History, since most of my early drawings were created from exhibits at the museum as well as direct observations of nature.

The museum showed me the multiple histories of the land, while the art museums were giving me a contemporary view of history. To this day I still go back to the museum to connect with my early experiences.

I feel that in Europe there is a clearer understanding of the multiple histories of the land since it has been inhabited for a greater period of time, Western art history has more meaning for them since it has been their existence. Therefore it's easier for Europeans to see the logical connection of my environmental sculptures in relationship to the history of art.

RR: How many countries have you worked in in Europe?

AS: Most of my art is in Germany and Italy. I am currently working on a sculpture park for a manufacturer in Austria. The concept of the sculpture park will be to create the archeology of the land from a primeval forest to archeology of the ruins of the historical Renaissance city in relationship to its contemporary boundaries. Fragments of the city will become settings for the future sculptures. My artwork becomes the setting for an international sculpture park.

RR: Do you have any connections with England? I always think of them as being the most earth oriented of European countries.

AS: In the early seventies, I had a one man exhibition at the institute of Contemporary Art in London, where I exhibited a series of historical, natural artworks. I was later invited to create a historical forest surrounding the ruins of a family castle. The trees that were selected were under three feet, so that the ruin would eventually disappear into a mature forest, thus becoming another lost fragment of history, to be rediscovered in the future. This inspired me later to create the centennial commission for the Kansas City Art Institute. In this sculpture a young forest and prairie surround a thirty-foot bronze column of intertwining branches cast from the fallen limbs of endangered trees. Again, the bronze sculpture will disappear over the next 100 years into the forest I created.

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