Hungarian/American Environmental Artist and Writer
Summary of Agnes Denes
Agnes Denes was ahead of her time, when, in the 1960s, she turned toward the natural world and our relationship with it as the primary medium for her artwork. A pioneer of Environmental Art before environmental concerns became de rigueur, she was difficult to categorize and, originally, largely confused the art world with her focus on investigating humanity's imprint on, and relationship with nature as a viable art form. Yet, her fastidious study and prodigious investigations into science, math, philosophy, and history alongside a devout passion for the land and its future concerns has informed a career studded with projects that have foretold many of the issues society currently deals with - those of preservation, ecological decline, global hunger, and the vast effects of our human footprints that are coming to light today.
- Denes' artistic practice remains distinctive in terms of its aesthetics and engagement with socio-political ideas. Using humanity's accumulated knowledge to validate her concepts continues to lend weight to the mirror her projects reflect back upon us as she elevates the concept of artist as ecological warrior to new heights.
- Denes' work goes further than merely emphasizing the relationship between humans and the natural world; it in fact, draws attention to the damage being caused while offering literal solutions in reversing said damage. Much of this work shows how the transformation of human interference can be gained by progressive human attention and forward-thinking interaction.
- Aside from her large-scale environmental projects, Denes is noted for her drawings that borrow from her multi-disciplinary knowledge rooted in science and math, resulting in a body of exquisitely precise renderings to document and accompany her work.
- Unlike many Earth artists, Denes makes a point not to disturb, or intrude, upon the naturally existent landscape. Instead, she proposes ways in which her work can illuminate ecological concerns and inform solutions simultaneously. Much of her art can be likened to seeds, ideas being planted for a fruitful, flourishing environmental future.
The Life of Agnes Denes
Denes said she "nearly died" working on her seminal work Wheatfield - A Confrontation (1982). Impoverished, relying on volunteers to help, and ensuring that the work came at no human cost, Denes put in 16-hour days before going home and making sandwiches for her helpers, ready for the next day’s work.
Progression of Art
Rice/Tree/Burial with Time Capsule
This piece, first realized privately in 1968 and then performed on a larger scale in 1977-79, consisted of four events. First, Denes planted a rice field in the Niagara Gorge on the border between the United States and Canada. This symbolized beginnings and growth. Secondly, she chained the trees of a sacred Indian forest. This symbolized human interference with the natural world. Thirdly, she buried a time capsule consisting of her own haiku poetry, of which she kept no copies. This symbolized the abstract and humanity's power of thought and creation. Lastly, Denes ventured out onto a ledge above Niagara Falls where she lived and filmed alone for eight days. This was a statement of intent, an acknowledgment of the fact that her art would exist on the perilous edge with nature, and would be dedicated to environmental concerns.
During the burial process the land was managed, thanks to agricultural knowledge, to harness nature's life-giving properties, with the intention of producing further sustenance for the future rice. In a strange, unforeseen twist, however, the soil Denes used to fertilize the ground was contaminated with radioactive waste and the rice plants remained stunted in growth, producing beautiful, yet inedible, red rice. The site on which the rice was grown sat not only on a human territorial border but also on the original starting point of the life-giving Niagara River. The interplay between human knowledge and natural science remained continuous.
After chaining the trees, Denes described, "The texture of the forest, having been interrupted by the reordering of its elements, yielded unique structures of isolated or combined sculptural forms. The chains became additional limbs and blended into their surroundings to become visible only in certain lights, angles, and perspectives, conveying the conflicting and interdependent aspects of art and existence, illusion and reality, imagination and fact."
The burial represented a submission on the part of humanity, one of returning to the earth, which had equally provided the sustenance of the rice and the inspiration and opportunity of the trees. It became the ultimate resignation of human thought, bowing before nature.
The richness of interplay between these three aspects illustrated a sensitivity that pervaded all of Denes' work, separating her from the bullish nature of much of the Land Art that would follow.
Rice/Tree/Burial was so significant because it was the first piece of site-specific Environmental Art. It took Conceptual Art's use of metaphor and symbolism out into the far more delicate realm of nature. As with many of Denes' installations, there was a cyclical notion of balance at its heart; the earth produces life, we manipulate and control it, and ultimately the earth reclaims everything once again. The delicate nature of the interdependence of man and nature is constantly bought to the fore.
Commissioned by Artpark, Lewiston, New York
Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space - Map Projections Series (The Doughnut and The Hot Dog pictured)
This series consisted of many different drawings and a book of the same name. Though the exact materials vary between the different versions of the drawings, all depict the earth's globe manipulated into different mathematical shapes: cube, ovoid, torus, spiral etc. The drawings comprise of two layers. The first, often on graph paper, reflects different maps of the earth in Denes' transformed shapes. These are made by hand, often in watercolor, charcoal, or gouache. Above this sheet lies a sheet of mylar or similar material onto which the structural lines of the shape are drawn, again by hand, normally in ink.
The scientific theory behind this series is incredibly specialized and complex, taking Denes' work out of the realm of art and into abstract scientific philosophy. Each drawing is a correct rendering of how the geographical coordinates of the earth would sit on these different shapes. They are mathematically identical versions of the earth; the only thing that has changed is the formula for the shape.
Though the math behind these works is often not evident to the viewer, the way in which Denes represents complex philosophical and scientific ideas is significant. The delicate aesthetic to the precise layered drawings speaks to how theoretical reality and experienced reality intertwine. Philosophy Professor Mark Daniel Cohen suggests that the drawings encourage us to "explore the range of available protocols and to recognize that none is literally correct, or rather that literal accuracy is accidental and immaterial."
Despite being unrealizable these technical sketches are nonetheless still inherently sculptural in the same way that many of Denes' later large-scale installations were. They are inherently preoccupied with space and in her book of the series she explores how the physical properties of our home planet would, theoretically, change due to her manipulations: the effect these new forms would have on currents and gravity for example.
In 2009, drawings from this series were exhibited at The Whitney in New York. They sat alongside drawings from other site-specific artists from the 1960s and 70's. Most of the artists presented work that reflected preparatory exercises to large sculpture or land art but others such as Robert Morris showed drawing as a method to explore unrealizable ideas. Still others, such as the wall drawing Ghoster by Gary Simmons made in 1997, also dealt in the realm of the mind, collating different fragments of memories. Denes' Map Projections series dwells within a canon of artists that use drawing as a direct link to the more intangible areas of our communal thought processes, documenting the journey from thought to final artwork.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Wheatfield - A Confrontation
For Denes' most iconic work, she planted and harvested a field of wheat on two acres of New York City's Battery Park landfill, which sat mere blocks from Wall Street and the World Trade Center, facing the Statue of Liberty. Upon this land, which was worth 4.5 billion dollars, and with the help of a $10,000 grant from the Public Art Fund, Denes and her volunteers ploughed the cluttered dirt and sowed the seeds by hand. They then cared for and maintained the crop for four months before harvesting 1000 pounds of golden wheat on the 16th of August 1982. The wheat was then exhibited in The International Art Show to End World Hunger and travelled with the exhibition to 28 international cities. Visitors to the exhibition acquired the wheat seeds and planted them around the globe. Today, luxury offices and apartment complexes occupy the site of Wheatfield.
In this piece, the "confrontation" of the title is not, as per usual with Denes' work, between the differences and similarities of nature and humanity but rather directly between their opposing aspects with the goal of drawing attention to the damage being caused. This piece was altogether more strident in its activism than some of her other work. Originally commissioned to create a piece in the quieter area of Queens, Denes insisted upon the Battery Park Landfill. The immediate and dramatic metaphor of this alternative placement cut straight to the point: the wheat field referencing the forgotten fertility of the soil beneath New York and the potential nutrition it could create. Produced within a global environment, which was experiencing pockets of severe world hunger and rapidly depleting natural resources, Wheatfield stood in stark contrast to the excesses of the financial industry it neighbored.
Two acres of wheat planted and harvested by the artist - Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan
Tree Mountain - A Living Time Capsule
For this piece, Denes composed a plan to plant and spur a manmade virgin forest on a Finnish mountain composed of wasteland from a nearby gravel pit. She worked with 11,000 people to plant 11,000 fir trees according to a carefully mapped out design derived from the Golden Ratio. She was able to secure protection for her project for 400 years, enough time for the forest to grow lush and self-contained. Each of the 11,000 people involved were issued a certificate declaring them custodian of one tree. These entrusted roles of guardianship were inherited for the next 400 years or 20 generations and did not designate ownership but personal responsibility.
The significance of this project lies in its forethought. Not only is it impressive in sheer physical scale and ambition but its continuing impact stretches far out into the future. It is not simply an aesthetically appealing creation; it is an act of eco-safeguarding for continual generations. It comprises the delicate conversation between humanity and nature for which Denes is famous. It also represents a uniquely common cycle of intent from her overall oeuvre in which land made barren by human interference becomes repopulated with nature by humans. The repopulation itself follows a dictated pattern inspired by mathematics that incurs within nature itself and then is left to flourish and evolve, relinquished back to the organic rhythms of time.
Executive Director of The Urban Arts Institute, Ricardo D. Barreto talks about the "vocabulary of tools to sculpt time and history" which Denes draws upon to create her work. Tree Mountain is an excellent example of this, in which she uses math and science to carve a fruitful future for a segment of earth.
11,000 Trees, 11,000 People, 400 Years - Ylöjārvi, Finland
The Crystal Fort/Glass Fortress
Still in proposal stage, The Crystal Fort is a plan for a full scale, perfectly symmetrical glass fort to be built in line with a string of 70 stone forts and fortifications from the 16th century to the 19th century of central Holland. The Crystal Fort will act as a tourist attraction, which will in turn fund the regeneration design for the whole Nieuwe Hollandse Waterlinie. This ecological public project will see the installation of bike paths, new water and flood management systems, a wildlife reserve, and windmills along with a considerable amount of tree planting.
With this proposal, Denes references a recurring theme in art history of a shimmering, transparent castle or fort. Piero Della Francesca's Ideal City from 1470 is a good example. The image of a defensive structure that we recognize as heavy and durable being represented as fragile and ethereal brings a kind of magical purity with it. Embedded within the waterline's history it will represent the idealized, mathematical thought behind the existing architecture and become a shimmering beacon of distilled, human intellect sitting amongst, and funding the existence of, the environmental development of the surrounding landscape.
Part of The Fort Asperen Project proposal for the Nieuwe Hollandse Waterlinie in Holland
Biography of Agnes Denes
Childhood and Education
Agnes Denes was born in Budapest into a country struggling with tempestuous politics, restricted and diminished by the sanctions following World War I. The tensions continued to grow in Hungary following the outbreak of World War II. In March 1944, the country was occupied by the Nazis and shortly after by the Soviets. Around this time, and possibly before, Denes' family fled for Sweden. During these early teenage years Denes was already creative, writing poetry.
At some point during this time in Scandinavia, Denes came across Öland, an island off the south east coast of Sweden in the Baltic Sea. Birds stopped off at this island before migrating south to nest. The large quantities of birds created high-density flocks and sometimes individual birds would become disorientated and commit suicide, ceasing to flap their wings and falling to earth. The young Denes became fascinated by this phenomenon. When she moved to New York soon after she described feeling an affinity with those confused birds, through her own disorientation brought on by a new, busy, and unfamiliar place. This would later inspire her proposed project for the American - Scandinavian Foundation, to place a drone amongst the birds on Öland Island with the hope of capturing the precise moment the birds decided to stop flying.
Denes did not immediately gravitate towards this type of Environmental Art, however. Having "lost her language," as she puts it, in her own migration, she moved from poetry to visual arts as a form of expressing the creativity bubbling up inside her. She began to study painting at Columbia University in New York. This did not last long, and she soon realized she needed to, in her own words, get off the wall and out into the environment. Her final act as a painter was to produce a landscape from the patterns generated from enlarging the weave of canvas over and over. From this point on Denes embedded her practice and theory within the ever-changing landscapes of our planet.
Denes describes the art world at the time she began working as a "close knit boys' group." She was surrounded by the machismo of the tail end of Abstract Expressionism and the beginnings of the incredibly male-dominated world of Earth Art. This led to a feeling of isolation for the artist, but she became determined to achieve her goals regardless. This attitude has led to a career that is hard to define or pigeonhole into one particular style or movement.
In 1968, Denes staged what she claimed to be "a symbolic event" through her first iteration of Rice/Tree/Burial. She planted rice to represent life, chained trees together to indicate human interference with life and natural processes, and buried her Haiku poetry to symbolize the idea or concept. This event symbolically announced her new "commitment to environmental issues and human concerns."
Her work also began to involve (and still does) a substantial amount of research time alone in the library as Denes strived to understand the extent of human knowledge and began her lifelong quest to "make the invisible, visible" through what she termed her "visual philosophy." It was at this point that she also began to write again, and in 1970 she completed her own manifesto.
Denes' experience with the "male mania for supremacy" in art led her to champion the work of female artists like herself. In 1972 artists Susan Williams, Barbara Zucker, Dotty Attie, Maude Boltz, Mary Grigoriadis, and Nancy Spero selected Denes, along with thirteen other female artists, to start the A.I.R Gallery in Brooklyn. A.I.R (Artists In Residence) was the first artist led, not for profit gallery focused solely on work by women in the United States. After their initial meeting in March of 1972, the group began renovating 97 Wooster Street which opened to the public the following September. Denes exhibited a solo show there later the same year. In 1976 she was awarded the International Women's Year Award "In recognition of outstanding cultural contribution and education to women and art."
In the 1960s and 70s, with a few exceptions, (notably both iterations of Rice/Tree/Burial), Denes was mostly making complex, highly-researched drawings. These were the Early Philosophical Drawings, the beginnings of The Pyramid Series, and the Map Projections. In addition to this, she was also teaching at The School of Visual Arts in New York between 1974 and 1979 as well as giving many talks and lectures at numerous other institutions and galleries. This intense desire to pass on her knowledge, to use her art as a way of communicating academic theories of the universe to the world's population as a whole, was the same desire that would later drive her larger environmental works.
In the early 1980s, Doris Freedman, who started the Public Art Fund and was a good friend of Denes, asked her to create a piece of public art in Queens. Instead, in 1982, Denes planted a field of wheat on a landfill site two blocks from Wall Street. It would become her best-known piece that, despite only existing physically for six months, has continued to evolve and remain relevant, not only to the art world but also to humanity as a whole. Wheatfield - A Confrontation marked what should have been Denes' meteoric rise to fame but in reality, it was not until recently that the true importance of the large-scale environmental pieces Denes has created have been universally recognized.
The world in the 1980s and 90s was still miles behind her in its knowledge and mainstream investigation of environmental issues. Despite Denes' almost yearly attendance at global climate conferences, it was difficult for her to get noticed in the art world because her work often remained within the remit of those with a specialized interest in her concerns. This is perhaps also in part due to Denes greater preference for the company of, and collaboration with, scientists and philosophers rather than fellow artists. Because scientific methodology resonated more naturally with her, what is known of her life so far reads more like the study of an academic with a rigorous timeline of research fellowships and lectures than the life of an artist. She frequently calls out the industry in which she works. She describes a wish to "cleanse art from its elitist self-involvement" and to use art as "the integrator of disciplines" which have been "alienated through specialization."
In recent years, with the threat of global climate collapse becoming harder to ignore, Denes has become more widely appreciated. She is not shy to inform those listening why they should be paying attention. In every interview she steers questions away from possible artistic relationships she made in the 1960s and 70s and back towards the importance of her work. She does not want to marvel at her age or entertain artistic comparisons to Leonardo Da Vinci, though these are frequently made. She wants to discuss where new forests must be planted and how to repackage and further the knowledge we have. In her own words, her "work breaks through the boundaries of art and deals with ecological, cultural, and social issues." She "map(s) human evolution, create(s) social structure and metaphors for our time" and that is the knowledge she wants those interested in her to gain.
Denes' tireless work has been included in nearly 600 exhibitions in over 30 countries. She has spoken at 50 global symposia, produced over 30 large-scale installations and commissions, and written six books. Her work is varied and ever-evolving to match the need for its commentary and insight.
The Legacy of Agnes Denes
The concept of legacy informed by Denes' work is twofold. There is the artistic legacy of her work and the impact it has had on the field of Environmental Art and environmental policy, but there is also the physical legacy of the pieces themselves. Often designed to exist and evolve through the fourth dimension of time, legacy is built into the very structure of her practice.
In another sense, as a founding practitioner of environmental or "Eco-logical" art, Denes' impact on the art world is also everlasting. By creating with the existing landscape as medium, rather than intervening, she inspired a gentler, more productive form of Land Art. The artists who are working with the greatest similarity in spirit today, however, are those utilizing the science and activism she so passionately championed. Rachel Pimm underpins all of her environmentally focused work with scientific research, working in many mediums and countries while also writing prolifically. Marina DeBris upholds Denes' spirit of collaboration with scientific institutions and organizations, most notably The United Nations Special Assembly on Climate Change. Artists such as Aviva Rahmani make their work out of the direct physical steps required to assist our struggling environments. In 2002, Rahmani's project Blue Rocks helped restore the wetlands on Vinalhaven Island in Maine. Denes' most significant legacy therefore has to be that she paved the way for environmental artworks to move beyond solely abstract commentary and into productive and restorative acts of climate protection and regeneration.