The Art of Agnes Denes May Be as Big (and Long-Lasting) as Her Legacy

In her mixing of art, mathematics, and environmentalism, Denes has been making “future works” since the 1970s.

March 10, 2020

Wheatfield—a Confrontation by Agnes Denes, 1982.

Courtesy of the Public Art Fund, New York. Photo by John McGrail.

For five decades, conceptual artist Agnes Denes has brought scientifically driven works to the world. Inspired by philosophy, mathematics, linguistics, and other fields, Denes produces intricately annotated drawings, geometrically precise sculptures, and large-scale public art commissions—the most famous of which was a field of wheat planted in downtown Manhattan.

The Hungarian-American artist has had a lifelong appreciation of the physical universe around her and a deep respect for our ailing planet. This led Denes to make art about humanity’s destruction of the natural world before most other people were even paying attention. A self-taught polymath, she has studied cloud formations, investigated comets, observed overcrowded bird habitats, and even engineered a method to remove methane from the atmosphere with algae (unfortunately, not at the scale we need).

A retrospective of 130 works of the now 89-year-old, Agnes Denes: Absolutes and Intermediates, is on exhibit until March 22 at the Shed in New York City. Environmentalism “is a key to her art,” says senior curator Emma Enderby, who organized the encyclopedic one-woman show. “Agnes says [to us], ‘We live in nature; we are nature. We have to get our relationship to it where it should be.’” 

Agnes Denes: Absolutes and Intermediates installation view

Courtesy of the Shed. Photo by Dan Bradica.

Already known in the art world for her scientific illustration–like Philosophical Drawings, Denes burst onto the world stage in 1982 with Wheatfield—a Confrontation, a two-acre field of wheat growing on undeveloped land at Manhattan’s southern tip. Just blocks from Wall Street, the epicenter of global capitalism, and within sight of the Statue of Liberty, towering stalks of golden grain swayed in the wind that summer against a backdrop of skyscrapers and city streets.

By creating an impossible paradox on the urban landscape, Wheatfield raised questions about land use, mismanagement of natural resources, and ecological concerns. When the growing season ended, Denes and her team harvested the field with a tractor, distributing wheat seeds to the public during a 28-city international tour—the artist’s symbolic answer to the crisis of global hunger and food inequalities—and donating the hay to the New York City’s mounted police for its horses.

Wheatfield—a Confrontation by Agnes Denes (also pictured), 1982.

Courtesy of the Public Art Fund, New York. Photo by John McGrail.

Another of Denes’s monumental earthworks, Tree Mountain—a Living Time Capsule—11,000 Trees—11,000 People—400 Years is located about a two-hour drive north of Helsinki, Finland. Elliptical in shape, Tree Mountain is an artificial mound that rises from a former gravel pit, sloping gently to a summit of nearly 100 feet.

Commissioned by the Finnish government and announced on World Environment Day in 1992, Tree Mountain continues to provide habitat for animals and a natural filter for groundwater. Planted by 11,000 people from all over the world, the trees grow in a mathematically derived swirling pattern. Denes also chose a variety of pine for the project that can live up to 400 years. Her hope is that the forest will act as a witness to future generations, telling them we were a society that cared for the environment. After the project’s completion in 1996, Denes wrote that Tree Mountain “is designed to unite the human intellect with the majesty of nature.”

Tree Mountain—A Living Time Capsule—11,000 Trees11,000 People—400 Years (triptych) by Agnes Denes, 1992  1996.

Courtesy of the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects

At the Shed, Denes’s ongoing “Pyramid Series” occupies an entire floor. The works, which she began constructing in 1970, embody the artist’s near obsession with the four-sided, triangular pyramid. In her hands, the classic form is multiplied, stacked, and sorted into a multitude of three-dimensional formats. Some pieces take on familiar shapes from the plant and animal worlds—for example, Fish Pyramid and Egg.

Denes provocatively presents other pieces in the series as architectural models for cities that can be built underwater or in outer space for refugees from the climate crisis. In Model for Teardrop—Monument to Being Earthbound, she uses magnets and 3D printing to construct a teardrop-shaped object that hovers above a round base, to represent a space colony orbiting the Earth.

Absolutes and Intermediates by Agnes Denes, 1970.

Courtesy of the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects

As a proposal for a community located safely outside of the planet’s poisoned atmosphere, it would require huge advances in magnets and superconductors to become a reality. But as an example of Denes’s far-reaching vision and imagination, it’s the reason Enderby calls so many of her projects not unfinished works, but “future works.”

Agnes Denes: Absolutes and Intermediates is on view at the Shed in New York City until March 22, 2020.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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