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Newton Harrison, a founder of the eco-art movement, dies at 89

Artist Newton Harrison.THE HARRISON STUDIO/NYT

Newton Harrison, who with his wife, Helen Mayer Harrison, was a founder of the eco-art movement, creating work that married science, cartography, biology, urban planning, agriculture and other disciplines, died Sept. 4 at his home in Santa Cruz, California. He was 89.

His son Joshua said the cause was pancreatic cancer.

Long before climate change was in the public consciousness, the Harrisons were focused on its consequences. They were educators at the University of California San Diego — he was making sculpture and teaching art; she was painting and working as an administrator — when they became galvanized by the environmental movement. She had read Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” he was thinking about cellular structures, and it was the heyday of conceptual art, with artists beginning to imagine work unconstrained by gallery walls.

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“If we’re going to survive as a species,” Mayer Harrison later said of their early pivot to environmentally focused art, “we’re going to have to learn how to grow our own food, and take care of ourselves at one point or another. So we started looking at what that means.”

The Harrisons raised catfish, and then Sri Lankan crabs, simulating the monsoons of the crabs’ native seas to encourage them to reproduce. They studied soil science to create topsoil, grew meadows and orchards, and demonstrated the effects of global warming on Alpine plants in a 2001 video work that shows flowers, grasses and lichens blooming and then disappearing.

Their work was meditative and poetic, blending text, photographs and maps. It could also be instructive and prescriptive: They investigated ecological perils and offered solutions — for example, in a 2008 work they proposed a forest planted with ancient species that might not just survive climate change but also mitigate its effects.

They collaborated with government agencies, scientists and urban planners, and they often earned grants from scientific organizations. A commission from a cultural organization in the Netherlands spurred them to create a design that preserved parks and farmland for the growing population, instead of paving it over as developers had proposed. The Vision for the Green Heart of Holland is now permanently protected open space. Other projects were more theoretical or experiential, and sometimes confounded their audiences — or were thwarted altogether.

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An early installation, “Hog Pasture,” was an indoor field specially planted with all that a pig might find delicious, and intended for an actual pig to graze on. It was created for “Earth, Air, Fire, Water: Elements of Art,” a 1971 group show at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. That show also included work by Andy Warhol, who contributed Mylar balloons, and Christo, who wrapped the walkways at Fenway Park. But the museum balked at having a live pig, despite Mr. Harrison’s argument that it was “a random moving part in our piece and not an animal.”

(Mr. Harrison was fond of saying, “I like to approach everything with an open mind, and a bad attitude.”)

In 2012, the Harrisons reprised the piece at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. They invited a winsome six-month-old piglet named Wilma to snuffle around in the mini-meadow, which she did with tremendous focus and energy, transfixing her audience. In a video of that performance, Mr. Harrison said, “This pig, Wilma, is to make up for the mistake the Boston Museum made 40 years ago.”

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And then there was the great catfish scandal. In an installation called “Portable Fish Farm,” part of a group show of California artists at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1971, they filled six 20-foot-long tanks with catfish, oysters, lobsters and brine shrimp to explore how humans might feed themselves in a polluted environment. The conclusion of the work would be a fish fry — a feast of hush puppies made from those catfish. But problems arose when someone discovered that the way those fish would be harvested was through electrocution, which is apparently the most humane way to dispense them.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals protested the “ritual slaughter” of the defenseless fish, and the comedian Spike Milligan smashed a gallery window with a hammer. A compromise was reached, as Time magazine reported at the time: The feast would go on, but the fish would not be killed in public. Time added that Americans who missed the London show could catch another Harrison exhibit in San Diego of snails being nibbled by ducks, and that “whatever the ducks leave will be served up to art lovers as escargots.”

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The Harrisons’ first collaboration was a map of imperiled animals and newly extinct species shown at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City in early 1971. The piece had Mr. Harrison’s name on it, but, Mayer Harrison told Grace Glueck of The New York Times in 1980: “He bit off more than he could chew. I pitched in and I realized I was more interested in doing what Newton was doing than in my own work. And that’s how it all began.”

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Newton Abner Harrison was born Oct. 20, 1932, in Brooklyn and grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y. His mother, Estelle (Farber) Harrison, was a homemaker; his father, Harvey Harrison, worked in his wife’s family business, the kitchenware company Farberware.

Newton’s family tried to recruit him into the kitchenware business but failed; he wanted to be an artist. He attended Antioch College in Ohio before being drafted into the Army during the Korean War in 1953, the same year he married Helen Mayer. After serving for two years, he attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

In the 1960s, the Harrisons lived in a cold-water flat in the East Village; entertained local musicians such as the Clancy Brothers and saxophonist Archie Shepp; and threw themselves into the social justice movements of the era. Mr. Harrison taught painting at the Henry Street Settlement; Mayer Harrison was the New York coordinator of Women Strike for Peace.

Mr. Harrison earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale in 1965 — Mayer Harrison had a master’s in educational philosophy from New York University and was teaching in the New York City public schools — and later in the decade the couple moved to San Diego to take positions at the University of California. Mr. Harrison was also working as a sculptor, making light installations. Mayer Mr. Harrison’s own practice included a conceptual performance piece in which she made strawberry jam.

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In addition his son Joshua, Mr. Harrison is survived by two other sons, Steven and Gabriel; a daughter, Joy Harrison; nine grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. Mayer Harrison died in 2018.

As Joshua Harrison recalled, his father described his collaboration with his mother this way: “She’s smarter than me, and I’m smarter than her. We take turns.”

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The Harrisons were emeritus professors at UC San Diego and at UC Santa Cruz, where they founded the Center for the Study of the Force Majeure, an organization that brings scientists and artists together to work on projects that address climate change.

When Glueck of the Times summed up their work in 1980 as being cosmic in scope — she noted pieces that tackled glacial melt, acid rain and other issues — she asked Harrison why these endeavors should be considered art.

“When you read Dostoyevsky, why aren’t you calling it social science?” he replied. “He took his own transactions with the world and transposed them into images and stories. We do the same. The best description we can make of ourselves is as storytellers of a sort.”

Harrison also told Glueck: “We’ve been very alienated from our resources, but our time of grace is over. The idea that technology is able to buy us out of our problems is an illusion. We are going to have to make vast changes in our consciousness and behavioral patterns, because if we don’t, we won’t be here.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.