Agnes Denes: Absolutes and Intermediates

By Deanna Sirlin

In 1982, Agnes Denes planted a two-acre wheat field in lower Manhattan. The towers of the World Trade Center loomed in the background with the Statue of Liberty is in the distance. Denes was something of a legend among New York artists at that time. For those only discovering her work now, it is almost unbelievable that it actually existed. The wheat field is gone and so are the towers, but both the concept, which still resonates, and the actuality are presented in a significant retrospective of the artist’s work, Absolutes and Intermediates at The Shed in New York.

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield- A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan, 1982

Denes was an early land artist who began showing her work in 1972 as a one of the founding members of A.I.R. Gallery in New York City, the first not for profit artist-run galleries for women artists in the United States. These were not easy times for women artists to get the recognition they warranted. Land Art, a significant movement in American art, was dominated by male artists like Robert Smithson, James Terrell, and Walter De Maria; only Nancy Holt (Smithson’s wife) was allowed into this boys’ club. However, in 1982, Denes received $10,000 from the Public Art Fund to create Wheatfield - A Confrontation on four acres of vacant land just below the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. It was not enough money to plant four acres but Denes succeeded in planting two acres in golden wheat. Denes cleared and cleaned the area, brought in 200 truckloads of topsoil, and installed an irrigation system to support the wheat’s growth.

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield- A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan, 1982

The wheat grew on a site that is now Battery Park, made perhaps even more remarkable now by the World Trade towers that appear in the documenting photos having been destroyed by terrorists, an act that forever changed this country. The artist walked daily in her Wheatfield, which was later harvested by combines and produced one thousand pounds of grain. Denes has said she wanted to “call people’s attention to having to rethink their priorities.” In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist Denes says, “I held out on this one, and the work turned out to be one block from Wall Street, facing the Statue of Liberty, for which this country stands, in the middle of traffic in a bustling city. A large golden field of grain on land meant for the rich, on expensive real estate.” There was much media coverage of the Wheatfield--at The Shed, there is a video of a young Jane Pauley interviewing Denes on The Today Show. The artist continued to make significant works around the globe, but is not well-known even though her art is as relevant now as the moment it was created.  Denes explains: “Wheatfield was a symbol, a universal concept. It represented food, energy, commerce, world trade, economics. It referred to mismanagement, waste, world hunger and ecological concerns. It was an intrusion into the citadel, a confrontation of high civilisation. Then again, it was also Shangri-la, a small paradise, one’s childhood, a hot summer afternoon in the country, peace, forgotten values, simple pleasures.”

Tree Mountain – A Living Time Capsule – 11,000 Trees, 11,000 People, 400 Years, 1992–96, Ylöjärvi, Finland, 1996, Digital Print depicting the artist's original design (1992) and view of the actual site (2001), 22 ½ x 31 ½ inches

Denes started trying to save the planet with her art early in her career. In Tree Mountain- A Living Time Capsule which she conceived in 1982 and realized between 1992 and 1996, 11,000 people planted 11,000 pine trees in an area of Finland that was barren and deforested because it was used to extract gravel from the land. The trees were planted in a spiraling pattern and have grown to create a virgin conical forest. The land has been set aside for 400 years; the trees cannot be removed and the artwork cannot be sold or owned. Denes has reforested this land into a work of art that returns nature to a place that was stripped bare by mining.  This work, which has returned nature--albeit organized and structured nature--to the land is a triumph of vision made into reality. In the exhibition, there is a remarkable video of the process of planting the trees, a beautiful fly-through video that allows the view to have a virtual experience of the artwork.

Agnes Denes, Installation view of Agnes Denes: Absolutes and Intermediates, October 9, 2019 – March 22, 2020.

Photo: Dan Bradica.

The work of Agnes Denes is nothing less than transcendent. That her work is not displayed in chronological order at The Shed, as in most retrospectives, reveals new meanings. At the center of the darkened gallery is a mid- sized teardrop form floating in space radiating a soft white light from within. There are no wires – the sculpture is floating in air held in place by magnets, but it creates renewed belief in possibility, a remarkable work that allows one to leave the physical and enter the realm of something not known.

Agnes Denes, Teardrop – Monument to Being Earthbound (1984), Courtesy the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects

This artwork, Model for Teardrop—Monument to Being Earthbound, 2019, was drawn by the artist in 1983. The work itself was commissioned by The Shed along with two new works and realized in 2019 for this exhibition. In 1983, Denes produced a monoprint, where the teardrop appears on a dark ground, illuminated and floating above its circular base. The descriptive text describes it “as a sculpture with a circular base that levitates above the center of an elastic cushion of magnets held in place by superconductive elements.” Thirty-six years elapsed between Denes’s concept and the physical execution of this work. The staying power of her vision and the fortitude and strength to see the work through to its realization speak to Denes’s tenacity, which is almost hard to comprehend.

Agnes Denes, Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space: Map Projections - The Hot Dog, 1974

In Absolutes and Intermediates, the sculptures are flanked on the walls by Denes’s remarkable drawings. They are mathematical fantasies of globes spun into natural and unnaturally perfect forms. The earth is remade into the spiral of a snail shell, a doughnut, a hotdog, an egg, and a pyramid; the longitude and latitude lines force the continents to conform to the artist’s will. This latter is one of Denes’s preferred forms which she continually readdresses in her work. There is great beauty in these line drawings of the earth. Made without computers, they are designed in the artist’s mind and made by her accurate hand. One also responds to the humor in these works, a levity that is also apparent in the drawing Body Prints, subtitled “Napoleon overlooking the Elba” (1971), made with fingerprints that resemble penises on graph paper.

Agnes Denes, Work commissioned by The Shed. Model for Probability Pyramid —Study for Crystal Pyramid, 2019

Denes has used the pyramid form in many of her works. Model for Probability Pyramid—Study for Crystal Pyramid, 2019, is a seventeen-foot white pyramidal translucent sculpture made from 3D printed blocks made from a corn-based plastic that is completely biodegradable. Once again, Denes has seen a long-term project through to its realization: the drawings for this sculpture date back to 1969. In 2015, Denes made The Living Pyramid at Socrates Sculpture Park that is 30 feet high and constructed of a tiered system of earth that is planted and grows on the site.  This work, a geometric reconfiguration of nature, was also shown again at documenta 14 in 2017. Denes wrote in 2005, “There are real pyramids and exotic ones, imaginary and philosophical, they represent logical structures, architectural innovations and society-building. They represent the past and the possible future we will invent. Some pyramids are not exactly pyramid-shaped and their meaning spans all of human existence. Some pyramids float in apparent weightlessness, while others are made of the weight of conscience. But what they all convey is the human drama, our hopes and dreams against great odds. They represent the paradoxes of existence and like grand mandalas, define our destiny.”

Agnes Denes, The Living Pyramid, 2015. Socrates Sculpture Garden, Long Island City, New York. Courtesy Socrates Sculpture Park.

This artist’s vision is extraordinary, as are the patience and perseverance with which she has pursued the realization of her ideas over decades. Denes, now 88 is still working on art that deals with climate change, the mathematical organization of nature--work that is thinking forward, not just to tomorrow but for the next several centuries.

Agnes Denes: Absolutes and Intermediates

OCT 9, 2019 – MAR 22, 2020

The Shed

545 W 30th St, New York, NY 10001

https://theshed.org/

Deanna Sirlin is an artist and writer from Brooklyn, New York currently living and working outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Sirlin is Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section.

www.deannasirlin.com

Agnes Denes, 2018.

Photo: Jeremy Liebman Courtesy The Shed