Newton Harrison, who with his wife, Helen Mayer Harrison, introduced the ecological art movement that positively affected both neighborhoods and nature around the world, died September 4 at the age of eighty-nine. The news was announced by the Los Angeles–based gallery Various Small Fires, which represented “the Harrisons,” as the couple were known. In a practice that spanned more than five decades and encompassed a broad range of media, the Harrisons collaborated with ecologists, biologists, historians, architects, urban planners, and activists, as well as other artists, to investigate issues of biodiversity and community development, presenting their carefully documented findings within the context of art. The couple’s work shaped government policy and city planning in the US and Europe, and continues to influence a broad network of eco-artists focused on raising awareness of the ongoing negative impacts of militarization, environmental disregard, industrialization, and pollution on the land.
“Put most simply,” Harrison told the journal Ecopoesis in 2021, “I as an artist am unafraid to offend. I as an artist feel compelled to improvise much the way my other companion species do. I improvise my existence as best I can with the material at hand. The intention,” he concluded, “is to the improve that which is around me.”
Newton Harrison was born October 20, 1932, in Brooklyn, New York, the grandson (through his mother) of Russian immigrant Simon Farber, a tinsmith and the founder of the kitchenware brand Farberware. Harrison grew up in the nearby suburb of New Rochelle, and by fifteen knew he wanted to be an artist, though his parents urged him to finish his prep-school studies. From 1948 through 1953, Harrison assisted sculptor Michael Lantz, to whom he had introduced himself. From Lantz, whose 1942 Man Controlling Trade greets visitors to the Federal Trade Commission Building in Washington, DC, he learned to sculpt with a variety of materials and to read and draft architectural blueprints, which would themselves become a key facet of his own practice.
Harrison did stints at Antioch College and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the latter interrupted by his draft service in the army during the Korean War, which he entered in 1953, shortly after marrying Helen, whom he had met in 1950 on her family’s farm in Connecticut. He eventually earned both his BA and his MA in fine arts from Yale University in the mid-1960s, when he was in his thirties. During this span and for the next few years, the Harrisons worked separately, with Newton turning from sculpture to painting, and Helen assuming various leadership roles within the anti-war movement and other humanitarian efforts, while both worked as professors on the East Coast.
In 1969, having moved to California to take jobs at UC San Diego, and inspired by Rachel Carson’s pathbreaking book on ecocide, The Silent Spring, the pair began collaborating on environmental art with the piece Fur and Feathers, a world map of extinct and endangered 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 regarding the world, with water, rather than land, as its focus;; Hog Pasture: Survival Piece #1, 1970–71; a small wooden frame containing a patch of grass above which hovered a light box of the same size; Portable Orchard, 1972–73, twelve redwood grow boxes each containing a live fruit tree and attended by an overhead light box ; and Force Majeure, 1993–2011, which comprised extensive research into the effects of human-generated climate change. Their 2016 manifesto Time of the Force Majeure urged readers, “Travelers, let us continue the serious labor of re-enchanting the planet.”
Recently, the Harrison Studio, which the couple cofounded, curated “Eco-art Work: 11 Artists from 8 Countries” at Various Small Fires in LA and at the gallery’s Seoul outpost presented “DMZ: A Bioregional Transformation,” a solo exhibition revisiting the studio’s 2021 research on the demilitarized zone along the border between North and South Korea, which has become an ecologically rich nature reserve. The studio argued for expanding the DMZ, currently a two-mile-wide, 160-mile-long corridor, to include associated uninhabited mountainous areas, broadening the territory’s environmental value.
During the course of their long career together (Helen died in 2018), the Harrisons were the subject of more than one hundred solo exhibitions and participated in over 250 group exhibitions. Among the venues in which they exhibited were the 1976, 1980, and 2019 Venice Biennales; the 2018 Taipei Biennial; Documenta 8 (1987); the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Cooper Hewitt Museum, MoMA PS1, the Museum of Modern Art, and the 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 the LACMA, MCA Chicago, MoMA, the Whitney, and the Centre Pompidou, Paris, among other institutions. At the time of his death, Newton Harrison was a professor emeriti at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the University of California, San Diego.