From the Archives: The Alchemist and the Phenomenologist

Alan Sonfist: Aging Canvas of the Catskills, 1968, mold and fungus on canvas, 6 by 6 feet. Courtesy the artist. 


In our September 2017 issue, Ruba Katrib discusses how in recent years several artists have been making work that treats people, places, and other kinds of sites not only as singular entities, but also as the microscopic multitudes they comprise, by incorporating chemical and biological transformations. Some of the topics she addresses hark back to an article from March-April 1971, where Cindy Nemser analyzed how Gordon Matta-Clark and Alan Sonfist each used natural processes to create sculpture. But while Katrib links contemporary works to emerging ideas about bacteria, Nemser was more concerned with art as an expression of alchemy, phenomenology, and other ways of understanding man’s relationship to nature. We present her essay in full below. —Eds.


Art takes into its province all the devices which man has invented in order to comprehend himself and the environment which he inhabits. Mythology, religion, philosophy, and science have continued to be transformed into aesthetic images ever since those first unknown artists painted their amazing forms in the caves at Altamira. Now two young artists, Gordon Matta and Alan Sonfist, working with microorganisms and crystals along with other natural phenomena, are continuing to incorporate aspects of spiritual wisdom and scientific knowledge into their works. Though one artist emphasizes the mystical while the other focuses on the phenomenal, they would ultimately agree on the necessity of integrating both elements into the esthetic experience.

In June of 1970, at the Bykert gallery in New York, Gordon Matta exhibited a piece called Museum, composed of various organic materials in different stages of growth. He obtained those growths by taking agar, a sea gelatin, and mixing it with water. Then he cooked up several products such as yeast, sugar, sperm oil, juices, and meat and vegetable extracts and added them to the agar. This mixture, along with others concocted out of different food, and mineral recipes, was poured into shallow metal pans of assorted dimensions and remained exposed in order to provide nutrition for the various microbes in the air. When these microorganisms used up the water and food, their rate of growth, development, and change decreased drastically, and they were transformed into solid segments of organic matter.

Matta emphatically states that the cooking and mixing processes he performs in his loft are his primary creative activities. One cannot ignore the hints of alchemical and spiritual investigation implicit in his various domestic preoccupations. Indeed, his intense involvement with transmuting one substance into another by first making it soluble (sometimes in water, sometimes in mercury) and then putting it through an incendiary process (cooking) suggests the alchemical procedures, described by Jung, that can be traced back to ancient Egypt. The water or mercury solution is the aqua permanens of the alchemists, and the torture by fire corresponds to the operation of separatio. 1 Matta’s preoccupation with stoves and cooking vessels can be related to the alchemist’s obsession with his vas mirabile, his furnaces and his retorts. 2 The organic accumulations brought into being by the artist’s brewings and burnings have an affinity with the alchemic procedure of coagulatio, which, according to Reinhard Federmann, author of The Royal Road to Alchemy, is the solidification or crystallization of a liquid. 3 Matta also does incendiary pieces in which chemicals, drained of all fluid, are ignited and transformed into finer states. This activity correlates to calcinatio, which is the incineration, or, more exactly, the burning and firing, of a body in an open flame. 4

The practice of alchemy was more than a rudimentary form of chemistry. In seeking to transform base metal into gold, the alchemists were actually attempting to transcend time and to attain a higher state of consciousness similar to that sought by the Chinese Taoists and Indian Yogis. Accepting the doctrine that the microcosm of the human body contained all the elements of the macrocosm of the universe, they believed that in working on the earthly matter they were actually working on themselves. If they could change base metal into gold, they could transform themselves into purely spiritual beings. 5 Well aware of the metaphysical motivations of the alchemists, Malta readily admits that his own esthetic actions have a kinship with those of the ancient savants. “The spiritual focus of my work is connected to those traditions that have always dealt with the preparation and transformation of materials.”

To enter Matta’s loft, filled with forest plants, vats of bubbling chemicals and containerized organic materials, is to enter an older world somehow removed from time. After having first gone to the forest to create sculpture by weaving woolen ropes onto trees, Matta has now attempted to bring the forest into his studio by re-creating it on a smaller scale. For him, his microscopic worlds have never been isolated phenomena; rather they are fragments of something much greater than themselves. One can find a parallel to Matta’s microbic activities in the arranging of the miniature gardens so popular among Chinese scholars of the seventeenth century. Within the tiny environment of pottery bowls, they created small universes out of rocks, dwarf trees, flowers, etc. These miniature worlds were objects of meditation as symbols of the cosmos. 6

In the future the artist plans to work his transformations on the forest once again. He is designing shelters out of trees in order to translate his organic vision of the world to a more human scale. His emblem-like drawings of these projected plant structures, which are a combination of the whimsical and the probable, also relate to Matta’s alchemical interests. According to Federmann, the prima materia to which the alchemist wished to return is represented not only by a dragon, but by a woodland scene; the alchemist’s task itself may be shown as a tree.” 7

In terms of his art-historical origins, Gordon Matta, who was born in 1944, has certain affinities with that great master of metaphysical magic, Marcel Duchamp. For the younger artist, it is the Dadaist’s concern with the gestural that is of the utmost importance. Certainly Duchamp’s rendezvous with ready-mades had an aura of mysticism. That he was well-versed in the symbolism of traditional alchemy is also known. According to Ulf Linde, the title given to his large glass, The Bride Stripped to Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, refers, among other things, to the same theme in alchemy where the divestment of the bride was analogous to the loss of color undergone by materials during distillation in chemical marriage. 8

Nevertheless, despite the spiritual sympathies he shares with Duchamp, Matta’s art has more in common with the fire pieces of Yves Klein and John Van Saun and the earthworks of Robert Smithson. Like them, Matta leaves only remnants of actions or gestures that have already taken place, and when the natural processes he has set in motion slow down to an almost imperceptible state of activity, we have only his stratified accumulations to tell us what has gone on in the past.

The use of containers is closely connected with the artist’s attitude toward time. He believes that by containerizing the microscopic world he is working back toward the terrestrial forests and primordial jungles out of which his consciousness developed. However, the container is only part of a stage that will pass on and deteriorate. Therefore, when rigor mortis sets into his organic growths, Matta removes them from their containers and hangs them on the wall. He considers the display of his past activities to be another stage of his work. Since Matta views museums as storehouses of the fragments of past actions, Museum was an apt title for his piece at the Bykert. For that exhibition, the artist provided a microscope and several containers of organisms in different stages of development in order to allow the viewer to see what transactions had taken place to produce those fragments.

Matta, by focusing on these various stages of microbic development, also seeks to reintroduce us to a cyclical conception of time. Man, he believes, having lost track of his basic relationship to the natural growth processes, has become secularized through his dependence on the mechanized, technological world, which is lineal in its measurement of time. By investing domestic activities, which he views as cyclical, with mystical values, the artist proposes to restore spirituality to the home, hearth, and garden. With this aim in mind, he performs his occult rituals with the produce of today’s market, bringing us back from the primordial past to the prepackaged present.

Alan Sonfist, using microorganisms and crystals, has created an art very different from that of Gordon Matta’s. Working in a scientific laboratory for the past three years, he has isolated many specific strains of microbes and can predict what they will do when they are introduced into agar. He has also discovered a crystal compound which, when vacuum-sealed, will shift from a gas to a solid and then back to a gas in accordance with the atmospheric pressures. This compound, though composed of basic geometric structures, re-forms itself after each condensation into a three-dimensional pattern

Yet, though Sonfist works in a systematic method, he is not a scientist; his aim is to make the observer aware of the natural processes of change and transformation and to point out the aesthetic visual beauty inherent in these transformations. In observing the activities of his microbes and crystals, Sonfist would urge us to follow the phenomenological injunctions of Gaston Bachelard. In The Poetics of Space that author calls on us to forget our habits of scientific objectivity and look for “the images of the first time.” 9 Sonfist would endorse Bachelard’s contention that “only phenomenology-that is to say, consideration of the onset of the image in individual consciousness-can help us to restore the subjectivity of images and to measure their fullness, their strength, their transubjectivity.” 10

Sonfist’s phenomenological viewpoint has evolved out of his college concern with perception and his lifelong love affair with nature. In his earlier artwork, he experimented with various optical techniques in order to make the viewer more aware of his own perceptual processes. Then, through his laboratory investigations, the artist realized that nature has been creating the most sophisticated and beautiful patterns in existence: he decided that the best way to sharpen human perception was to focus it intently on nature’s often overlooked accomplishments. His iridescent molds and ever-changing crystal motifs are the results of that decision. The artist has also singled out other visual phenomena in order to expand the viewer’s awareness of his environment. In a recent exhibition at the Reese Palley Gallery in New York, he has isolated, for our contemplation, a small species of flea known as daphnis that live out their life cycle within a few days. Using a seismograph, Sonfist has made visual records of the vibration patterns of volcanic eruptions, and he has also used sound waves to produce fluctuation patterns on water. Everywhere this man looks he sees nature creating her ever-varying motifs. By isolating these natural phenomena or by re-creating them with the aid of sophisticated technological equipment, Sonfist feels he will be able to awaken the spectator to nature’s intricate and inventive designs.

In making us cognizant of nature’s endlessly evolving patterns, Sonfist also makes visible the invisible passage of time. His microorganisms are constantly changing as they grow, while his crystals are always regrouping according to atmospheric pressures. These works, continually in a state between being and becoming, are existential metaphors for the flow of time.

Art-historically speaking, Sonfist, as well as Matta, takes his cue from Marcel Duchamp. However, Sonfist is more interested in the master as a phenomenologist who saw all objects, even such ready-mades as bottle racks and urinals, as works of art. It was also Duchamp who exhibited the first piece of kinetic art when he put his Bicycle Wheel on display in 1913, and then followed it up with his Rotary Glass Plate in 1920 and his Rotorelief in 1935. Sonfist’s work also finds antecedents in the grass “paintings” done by Robert Rauschenberg at the Stable Gallery in 1953, in the encapsulated microorganisms of Peter Hutchinson, and in the elemental and organic systems of Hans Haacke. 11 Like these artists, Sonfist, with his phenomenological approach, sees his microbes, crystals, and daphnis as separate systems which are nonsymbolic, “things” unto themselves. Yet he also realized that in the presence of his tiny worlds the viewer immediately slips into the cosmos. As Bachelard observes, “the miniscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world.” 12 When we look at his work, the artist wants us to understand “there are billions of little lives at stake here, all depending upon the delicate balance of water, air and food in the surrounding atmosphere; though each phenomenon is a system in itself, each one is dependent. Nothing is isolated from its surroundings.”

Sonfist deliberately containerizes these miniature systems in order to draw an analogy between them and the larger ecological system that we think of as our earth. His Plexiglas columns and spheres not only make the esthetic aspects of nature’s patterns visible, but emphasize the dependency of all phenomena on the total environment. By putting his various phenomena in conventional sculptural containers and by placing them in art galleries, he forces us to focus on them and reorganize our careless nonhierarchical view of nature. In the “Elements” exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Sonfist placed his crystals in windows so as to draw our attention even closer to the interconnections between his phenomena and the surrounding atmosphere. 13

By concentrating on the phenomenological, Sonfist also hopes to make us visually aware of the areas of our biosphere that we have despoiled. To that end, he has set up a hydroponics system to show how man has depleted the soil and made plant life dependent on synthetic chemical foods, so that it cannot replenish itself. On Ecology Day, in New York, he interspersed artificial flowers with real ones in Central Park to point up the differences between the living and the dead. As an artist Sonfist believes it is his duty to make others aware of the dangers assaulting their environment, and all those who come to see his works are urged to send in samples of pollutants to their congressmen as a form of political protest. Because he feels that the message contained in his works is so crucial, he will not sell them to any private collector unless that latter agrees to put his purchase on public display.

Though not a scientist, Sonfist does not scorn the contributions that science can make to art. He has worked as a fellow at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, and his interactions with scientists have convinced him that they too advocate a broader, more inclusive vision of the natural world.

In the final analysis, Matta and Sonfist, the alchemist and the phenomenologist, the internal and the external, the mystical and the scientific, are more closely related than one would initially suspect. Both artists focus on nature and by incorporating it into their works are attempting to shield man from the dangerous onslaughts of the technological world in which he has entrapped himself. Matta transmutes nature into art with the aid of mythology and magic, while Sonfist works his transformation with the help of science and phenomenology. Yet both artists would agree that ultimately art is the only means through which man will rediscover his own origins and once more become part of the natural world.