A World She's Grown

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield—A Confrontation. Two acres of wheat planted and harvested by the artist on the Battery Park landfill, Manhattan, Summer 1982. Commissioned by Public Art Fund. Courtesy the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects. Photo: John McGrall.

Celebrating the Radical, Transformative Work of Agnes Denes

by Rebecca Bengal

Agnes Denes, 2018. Photo: Jeremy Liebman. Courtesy The Shed.

Agnes Denes, 2018. Photo: Jeremy Liebman. Courtesy The Shed.
When you talk about Agnes Denes’ public works, it feels necessary to reclaim the now-overused word “visionary” 

... and restore it to an artist who truly embodies its meaning. Denes, the 88-year-old pioneer of Land Art, has long devoted herself to art in conversation with the earth in radical, transformative, and future-thinking ways –– as evidenced in the long-overdue retrospective Agnes Denes: Absolutes and Intermediates, on view at NYC's The Shed through March 22, 2020.  

Installation View: Agnes Denes: Absolutes and Intermediates, The Shed, New York, October 9, 2019 - March 22, 2020. Photo: Dan Bradica. Courtesy The Shed.

Born in Budapest, Denes was raised in Sweden and educated in the United States; she has lived and worked in New York City for 60 years, where she was also one of the feminist founders of the longtime artist-run organization A.I.R. She is perhaps best known for her 1983 project “Wheatfield,” in which she turned two acres of lower Manhattan into a golden harvest, growing tall brilliant grasses and chaff in the shadow of the World Trade Center.

That project harkened back directly to “Rice/Tree/Burial,” one of her earliest large-scale works which debuted in Sullivan County, New York in 1968.  Denes later expanded on the piece – which involved a large-scale rice planting, chaining of trees in a sacred forest and the burial of a time capsule – by camping for seven days on a crumbling ledge near Niagara Falls in 1977. “Wheatfield” also prefigured some of her more recent environmental commissions, such as “Model for a Forest for New York,” in which Denes envisions a future for an island landfill near Queens, as a last respite from the city’s condos and shopping malls.  

On view until March 2020, the retrospective at The Shed reveals the diverse scope of Denes’ artistic trajectory, including her post–Hurricane Sandy models of “mega-dunes” to fortify New York against future storms, her “philosophical drawings” and pyramid sculptures, and the hologram film she made to depict plant growth process – which was, in 1980, the first 360-degree integral hologram ever created.

Some of the sprawling exhibit’s true standouts, though, are the documentation of some of the artist’s best-known public works, artistic constructs with long-term ecological implications. 

Rice/Tree/Burial. Artpark, Lewiston, new York, 1977-79. Gelatin silver prints courtesy the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects.

Agnes Denes, Model for A Forest for New York, 2019. Plywood, MDF, foam, natural branches, paint, sand, plastic. 54 1⁄4 x 42 1⁄8 x 7 inches. Photo: Stan Narten. Commissioned by The Shed; courtesy the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects.
Wheatfield–A Confrontation

The full name of Denes’ most famous project underscores the tension at the heart of the artist’s relationship to her adopted city, “the richest, most professional, most congested, and without a doubt, most fascinating island in the world,” she wrote. For “Wheatfield—A Confrontation,” which she began in May 1982 as a commission by the Public Art Fund, Denes chose a symbolic location at the foot of the World Trade Center just a block’s distance from Wall Street and looking out onto the Statue of Liberty in the harbor. 

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield—A Confrontation. Two acres of wheat planted and harvested by the artist on the Battery Park landfill, Manhattan, Summer 1982.
Commissioned by Public Art Fund. Courtesy the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects.
“It was insane. It was impossible.” 

"It was insane, It was impossible," Denes writes. But, by and by, her call for humans to rethink their priorities and their relationship to nature started to take visual shape. Videotape and film documentation of the project unspool the story of a farmer’s harvest: dumping dirt and topsoil onto flattened landfill, creating an irrigation system, the planting and the tractors. Surviving an unusually rainy season, months of city pollution, and the winter’s first snows, Denes’ crop weathered the elements, eventually yielding 1,000 pounds of healthy wheat, planted at installations around the world  – the hay was given to NYPD horses, and the seeds, she writes “were carried away by the people.” 

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield—A Confrontation. Two acres of wheat planted and harvested by the artist on the Battery Park landfill, Manhattan, Summer 1982. Commissioned by Public Art Fund. Courtesy the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects. Photo: John McGrall.
She lies down in the tall grasses, looking ecstatic. 

 

It was both a political and an artistic statement. An extended interview with Jane Pauley on “Today,” playing on loop in the gallery, makes clear just how impactful this large-scale re-introduction of plant life was in New York City, how it allowed this normally saturated corner of Manhattan to briefly breathe and grow. Films and photographs of Denes roaming through the whipping fields of wheat record the artist’s sheer glory in communing with a world she’s grown—she lies down in the tall grasses, looking ecstatic. 

To anyone walking the real estate-clogged streets of present-day Battery Park City, the thought of Denes’ urban heartland is a balm—the amber waves of grain in full view of the Statue of Liberty. Peel away the layers of billboards and high-rises and pavement, and it is possible to imagine the prairie as she did, a place that echoed the farms, and before that, the land of the Lenape Indians who were its first human inhabitants. 


Tree Mountain

In 1983, decades before the phrase “climate crisis” entered the lexicon, and before reforestation was as widely promoted as a strategy of reversing human impact of the environment, Denes conceived of her massive, longitudinal project “Tree Mountain—A Living Time Capsule—11,000 Trees, 11,000 People, 400 years.”


A work of art with ecological and global implications, “Tree Mountain” was officially dedicated in Finland in June 1996, and Denes intended it as an elliptical structure whose shape and size could be adapted to other landscapes. Her designs depict spiraling rows of trees, a virgin forest planted on what once was a gravel pit, land that would slowly be reclaimed and returned to nature, restoring oxygen to the air and making a home for wildlife. 

 

 Tree Mountain – A Living Time Capsule—11,000 Trees, 11,000 People, 400 Years (Triptych), 1992—96, 1992/2013. Chromogenic print, 36 × 36" (overall). Courtesy the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects.

 

Denes insisted that the project remain undisturbed; she views “Tree Mountain” as “a living time capsule.” The trees, she writes in an essay accompanying the retrospective, “live on through the centuries—stable and majestic, outliving their owners of custodians who created the patterns and philosophy, but not the tree.”


Agnes Denes: Absolutes and Intermediates is on view at The Shed, 545 W 30th Street in NYC through March 22, 2020.