Agnes Denes - Biography and Legacy
Hungarian/American Environmental Artist and Writer
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.