Hungarian born Agnes Denes is an American conceptual artist, based in New York and living in SoHo since the 1980s. Known for works, that merge her interests in mathematics and science with conceptual art, she includes intricate diagrams in her installations. Her wide range of media includes computer rendered diagrams, anatomical studies, graphs, sculpture, and international environmental installations in California, Finland, Australia, and New York.
Denes family escaped from Nazi Germany and went to Sweden. From there they emigrated to the United States when she was a teenager. She studied painting at the New School and Columbia University. In 1970, she joined the A.I.R. Gallery as a founding member. She came to abandon painting for other ways to make her art, focusing on land art and earth works.
From the 1960s to the present day, Denes’ Land art in her “Public Works” series has dealt with land reclamation and environmental remediation. One of her early ambitious earth works is the 1968 “Rice/Tree/Burial” in rural New York. It was the first large scale site-specific piece with ecological concerns. It involved planting rice in a field and covering the surrounding trees in chains.
Her most celebrated work was “Wheatfield – A Confrontation,” which transformed a barren plot of land near New York City’s former Twin Towers into fields of grain. For four months in 1982, she cultivated and harvested a two-acre field of wheat in Lower Manhattan. In August when she harvested her crop, the yield was used to feed the city’s police horses. The landfill would eventually become Battery Park City.
For the collaborative work “Tree Mountain – A Living Time Capsule – 11,000 Trees, 11,000 People, 400 Years,” (1992-1996), Denes and 11,000 volunteers planted 11,000 pine trees in a mathematical formation on top of a man-made mountain at the Pinzio gravel pits in western Finland. “I want it to be maintained for four centuries, so that the ecosystem establishes itself and it becomes the first manmade – well, womanmade – virgin forest.”
In 1998, she created in Melbourne, Australia “A Forest for Australia” which was the reforestation of an Australian water treatment site with 6,000 native saplings planted in the form of five spiraling steps.
Her 2005 “Pyramids of Conscience” were acrylic pyramid-like sculptures with polluted water in one structure and pure water in the other. “The Living Pyramid” 2015 was created for the Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, Queens and was her first land art creation in New York since “Wheatfield.” It is a 30-foot-tall structure sown with different kinds of grass seeds that sprouted in the spring.
Unlike the grandiose works made in inaccessible locations by male artists, such as Michael Heizer or Robert Smithson, Denes’s works are not solitary or inaccessible but rather public works available to many. Her earth works are ecologically minded and are about how we look at the earth itself.
A recent recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, she has participated in more than 450 exhibitions throughout the world. She had a long-overdue retrospective, “Absolutes and Intermediates,” at the New York performing arts venue The Shed in 2019-2020, her largest in New York City to date.
Her drawings and prints are displayed in numerous museums in Stockholm, Germany, France, Israel, and New York, including Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.