Newton Harrison, who along with his wife, Helen Mayer Harrison, pioneered the environmental art movement that positively impacted neighborhoods and nature around the world, died September 4 at the age of eighty- nine years. The news was announced by Los Angeles gallery Various Small Fires, which represented “the Harrisons”, as the couple were known. In a practice that has spanned more than five decades and encompassed a wide range of media, the Harrisons have collaborated with ecologists, biologists, historians, architects, urban planners and activists, as well as other artists, to investigate on biodiversity and community development issues, presenting their carefully researched findings in the context of art. The couple’s work has shaped government policy and urban planning in the United States and Europe, and continues to influence a vast network of eco-artists focused on raising awareness of the continuing negative impacts of militarization, disregard for the environment, industrialization and pollution on earth.
“Put simply,” Harrison told the newspaper. Ecopoesis in 2021, “As an artist, I am not afraid to offend. As an artist, I feel compelled to improvise like my other companion species. I improvise my existence as best I can with the material at hand. The intention”, he concluded, “is to improve what surrounds me”.
Newton Harrison was born on October 20, 1932, in Brooklyn, New York, the grandson (through his mother) of Russian immigrant Simon Farber, a tinsmith and founder of the Farberware cookware brand. Harrison grew up in the nearby suburb of New Rochelle, and at fifteen knew he wanted to be an artist, despite his parents urging him to complete his preparatory studies. From 1948 to 1953, Harrison assisted sculptor Michael Lantz, to whom he had introduced himself. De Lantz, including 1942 Man controlling trade welcomes visitors to the Federal Trade Commission Building in Washington, DC, he learns to sculpt with a variety of materials and to read and write architectural plans, which themselves would become a key facet of his own practice.
Harrison had stints at Antioch College and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the latter interrupted by his military service in the Army during the Korean War, which he entered in 1953 shortly after marrying Helen, whom he had met in 1950 on his family day. farm in Connecticut. He eventually earned his BA and MFA from Yale University in the mid-1960s, when he was in his thirties. During this period and for the following years, the Harrisons worked separately, with Newton moving from sculpture to painting, and Helen taking on various leadership roles in the anti-war movement and other humanitarian efforts, while the two worked as teachers on the East Coast.
In 1969, after moving to California to work at UC San Diego, and inspired by Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book on ecocide, The silent springthe duo began collaborating on environmental art with the play Fur and feathers, a world map of extinct and threatened species. Future projects included the “Lagoon Cycle”, begun in 1972, a multi-part prose poem presented as a 360-foot-wide mural and synthesizing biology, history, economics, mythology, geography, aquaculture and geology to establish a philosophical basis for considering the world, with water, rather than land, as the focus; ; Hog Pasture: Survival Coin #1, 1970–71; a small wooden frame containing a clump of grass above which hovered a softbox of the same size; portable orchard, 1972–73, twelve redwood grow boxes each containing a living fruit tree and accompanied by a hanging light box; and force majeure, 1993-2011, which included extensive research on the effects of human-induced climate change. Their 2016 manifesto The time of force majeure urged readers, “Travellers, let’s continue the serious work of re-enchanting the planet.”
Recently, the Harrison studio, which the couple co-founded, held “Eco-art Work: 11 Artists from 8 Countries” at Various Small Fires in LA and the gallery outpost in Seoul, presented “DMZ: a bioregional transformation”, a solo exhibition revisiting the studio’s research in 2021 on the demilitarized zone along the border between North and South Korea, which has become an ecologically rich nature reserve. The studio advocated for the expansion of the DMZ, currently a two-mile-wide and 160-mile-long corridor, to include associated uninhabited mountainous areas, expanding the territory’s environmental value.
During their long career together (Helen passed away in 2018), the Harrisons were the subject of more than a hundred solo exhibitions and participated in more than 250 group exhibitions. Among the places in which they exhibited were the Venice Biennales of 1976, 1980 and 2019; the 2018 Taipei Biennale; Documenta 8 (1987); the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Cooper Hewitt Museum, MoMA PS1, Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art, all in New York; the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; and Tate, London. Their work is held in the collections of LACMA, MCA Chicago, MoMA, Whitney, and Center Pompidou, Paris, among other institutions. At the time of his death, Newton Harrison was a professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz and the University of California, San Diego.