Agnes Denes

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Agnes Denes
Born(1931-05-31)May 31, 1931
EducationNew School, Columbia University
Notable work
Visual Philosophy, Wheatfield, Tree Mountain
MovementConceptual Art

Agnes Denes (Dénes Ágnes; born 1931 in Budapest)[1] is a Hungarian-born American conceptual artist based in New York. She is known for works in a wide range of media—from poetry and philosophical writings to extremely detailed drawings, sculptures, and iconic land art works, such as Wheatfield—A Confrontation (1982), a two-acre field of wheat in downtown Manhattan, commissioned by the Public Art Fund, and Tree Mountain—A Living Time Capsule (1992-96) in Ylojärvi, Finland.[2]

Early life and early career[edit]

Born in Budapest, Hungary in 1931,[3] her family survived the war, the Nazi occupation, and moved to Sweden on their way to the United States. Still a teenager, she created her first environmental/philosophical work, Bird Project, in Sweden, comparing migrating bird colonies to people — the migrants of the world. She studied painting at the New School and Columbia University in New York.[4] She began her artistic career as a poet. Her poetic practice eventually became works of a unique intellectual content and form she later called Visual Philosophy.[5] She has said that the repeated changes in language led her to focus on the visual arts. She soon abandoned painting, due to the constraints of the canvas, and focused broadly on ideas she could explore in other mediums,[2] saying, "I found its vocabulary limiting."[4]

In the early 1970s, she joined the A.I.R. Gallery as a founding member.[6] She has since participated in more than 600 exhibitions at galleries and museums throughout the world, and has written 6 books.[7] She has one son, Robert T. Frankel and twin grandchildren, Ian and Alessa Frankel.[8] She lives and works in New York City.

Selected works[edit]


Rice/Tree/Burial 1968, Eco-Logic, Sullivan County, New York; re-created 1977 at Artpark[9]

As a pioneer of Land Art, Agnes Denes created Rice/Tree/Burial in 1968 in Sullivan County, New York. Acknowledged as the first site-specific performance piece with ecological concerns,[2] it was enacted ten years later on an expanded scale at Artpark in Lewiston, New York. This performance piece involved planting rice seeds in a field in upstate New York, chaining surrounding trees and burying a time capsule filled with copies of her haiku. "It was about communication with the earth," Denes said, "and communicating with the future.""[2][10]

Agnes Denes at Artpark, 1977-1979[edit]

During her time at Artpark, Denes recreated her Rice/Tree/Burial piece from 1968. In 1977, she planted a half acre of rice 150 feet above the spot where Niagara Falls has originally formed. The land itself that she worked on was known to have been an industrial dumping ground, which affected the quality of the rice.[11] In 1978, she continued the project by chaining together trees in the forest in the park to symbolize interference with growth.[12] On August 20, 1979, Denes buried a time capsule at 47° 10′ longitude, 79° 2′ 32″ latitude set to be opened in the twenty-third century. The capsule includes microfilmed responses of university students to questions about the nature of humanity.[12] Along with the rice, time capsule, and ceremonial chaining of trees in the park, Denes shot photographs of Niagara Falls for this iteration of Rice/Tree/Burial to "add natural force as the fourth element and fuse the other three".[13]

Wheatfield — A Confrontation 1982 Manhattan, Battery Park City landfill[14][15][16]

After months of preparations, in May 1982, a 2-acre wheat field was planted on a landfill in lower Manhattan, two blocks from Wall Street and the World Trade Center, facing the Statue of Liberty, sponsored by the Public Art Fund. Two hundred truckloads of dirt were brought in and 285 furrows were dug by hand and cleared of rocks and garbage. The seeds were sown by hand and the furrows covered with soil. The field was maintained for four months, cleared of wheat smut, weeded, fertilized, and sprayed against mildew fungus, and an irrigation system was set up. The crop was harvested on August 16 and yielded over 1,000 pounds of healthy, golden wheat.[17]

Tree Mountain-a living time capsule 1996, Ylöjärvi, Finland[18][19][20]
Mountain full of trees in the snow
Tree Mountain in the winter

A monumental earthwork reclamation project and the first man-made virgin forest, situated in Ylöjärvi, Western Finland. The site was dedicated by the President of Finland upon its completion in 1996 and is legally protected for the next four hundred years.

A Forest for Australia reforestation of Red Gum, She Oak, and Paperbark trees in Melbourne Australia 1998[21][22][23]

6000 trees of an endangered species with varying heights at maturity were planted into five spirals by the artist, creating a step pyramid for each spiral when the trees are fullgrown. The trees help alleviate serious land erosion and desertification threatening Australia.

Nieuwe Hollandse Waterlinie Master Plan, 2000

A 25-year master plan to unite a 100 kilometer-long string of forts dating from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Incorporating water and flood management, urban planning, historical preservation, landscaping, and tourism into a single plan.

North Waterfront Park Masterplan, Berkeley, California, 1988-91. Site plan and art concept.[24]

A conceptual master plan was developed for the conversion of a 97-acre municipal landfill, surrounded by water on three sides in the San Francisco Bay, into an oasis for people and nature.

The Living Pyramid, Socrates Sculpture Park, Long Island City, NY, 2015.[25]
pyramid with plants
The Living Pyramid, Agnes Denes, documenta 14, Kassel, Nordstadtpark

One in a series of large earth sculptures, The Living Pyramid, was the first land art work by the artist in New York City in over 3 decades. Commission by the Socrates Sculpture Park, it was on view from May through October 2015, and recreated in 2017 for documenta 14 in Kassel, Germany.

Visual philosophy[edit]

Beginning in 1968, she began an intensive exploration of philosophy through art. The result was, according to Jill Hartz of Cornell University, "an amazing body of work, distinguished by its intellectual rigor, aesthetic beauty, conceptual analysis, and environmental concern."[8]

  • Paradox and Essence (Philosophical Drawings), 1976, Published by Tau/ma Press, Rome, Italy, in English and Italian. Edition of 200; 60 pages[26]
  • Sculptures of the Mind, 1976, Published by the University of Akron Press, Akron, Ohio. Edition of 1,000, 250 signed and numbered; 50 pages[27]
  • Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space: Map Projections (from the Study of Distortions Series, 1973-1979), 1979. Published by Visual Studies Workshop Press, Rochester, New York. Edition of 200 hardback copies in silver foil, signed and numbered by the artist; edition of 600 in paperback; 100 pages, color and black and white throughout, 29 original drawings specially created for the book, 22 transparent pages.[28]
  • Original drawings for Isometric Systems, from the Museum of Modern Art Collection
  • Early Philosophical Drawings, Monoprints, and Sculpture 1970-1973[29]


  • Sculptures of the Mind 1968-2012[30]


  • See three titles under Visual Philosophy, above.
  • Book of Dust: The Beginning and the End of Time and Thereafter, 1989 Visual Studies Workshop Press, Rochester, New York. Edition of 1,100 of which 200 are signed with an original artwork. Insert ("The Debate - 1 Million B.C. - 1 Million A.D.); 200 pages, 16 full-page duotones
  • The Human Argument, 2008 Spring Publications, Putnam, Connecticut.[31]
  • Poetry Walk—Reflections: Pools of Thought, 2000 Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Art Museum.


  • Agnes Denes: Perspectives, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1974[32]
  • Agnes Denes: Sculptures of the Mind / Philosophical Drawings by Amerika Haus Berlin, 1978[33]
  • Agnes Denes 1968 -1980, Gary Garrels curator, Hayden Gallery, MIT, Boston, 1980[34]
  • Agnes Denes: Concept into Form, Works : 1970-1990, Arts Club of Chicago, 1990[35]
  • Agnes Denes by Jill Hartz, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, 1992[36]
  • The Visionary Art of Agnes Denes: An Exhibition of 85 Works, Gibson Gallery, 1996[37]
  • Project for Public Spaces, a Retrospective, Samek Art Gallery, Bucknell University, Lewisburg PA; 2003[38]
  • Agnes Denes: Work 1969 - 2013, curated and edited by Florence Derieux, FRAC Champagne-Ardenne, Firstsite Colchester, Mousse Publishing, 2013-2016
  • Agnes Denes: Absolutes and Intermediates, edited by Emma Enderby, The Shed, 2019[39]

Public collections[edit]

Denes has more than ten works in the Museum of Modern Art's collection.[40] In the Metropolitan Museum, the artist has five pieces in the permanent collection.[41] At the Whitney Museum of American Art, Denes has three pieces in the permanent collection.[42] Beyond that, the artist has work in forty-three additional museum permanent collections.[43]

Critical response[edit]

What ties it all together is Ms. Denes's insistence on marrying ambitious intellectual ideas with exquisite formal execution. In contrast to many of her conceptual and land-art peers, she has always been deeply involved with drawing.

— Carol Kino, New York Times.[2]

In the history of art there have been a few artists' artists—individuals who have emphasized in their work the raising of provocative questions and who have also tested the limits of art by taking it into new, unforeseen areas and by using it for distinctly new functions. Agnes Denes is one of these special artists.

— Art historian Robert Hobbs, 1992[44]

A gallery exhibition can only suggest how far and wide the polymathic Ms. Denes has ranged over material and mental worlds during the past four decades. It would take a full-scale museum retrospective to do that.

— Ken Johnson, New York Times 2012[30]


  • Four fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts
  • Four grants from the New York State Council on the Arts
  • CAPS grant (1972)[45]
  • National Endowment Fellowships (1974 and 1975)[45]
  • The DAAD Fellowship, Berlin, Germany (1978)
  • American Academy of Arts and Letters Purchase Award (1985)
  • Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts at MIT (1990)[46]
  • Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome (1998)[47]
  • Jill Watson Award for Transdisciplinary Achievement in the Arts from Carnegie Mellon University (1999)[48]
  • Anonymous Was a Woman Award (2007)[49]
  • Ambassador's Award for Cultural Diplomacy (2008) from the American Embassy in Hungary.
  • Art Innovation Impact Award, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.(2020)


  1. ^ Phaidon Editors (2019). Great women artists. Phaidon Press. p. 119. ISBN 978-0714878775.
  2. ^ a b c d e "New York Times, Nov 28, 2012 - Stretching Her Creativity as Far as Possible by Carol Kino". The New York Times. 2012-11-28.
  3. ^ "Museum of Modern Art bio page for artist Agnes Denes".
  4. ^ a b Agnes Denes: The Artist as Universalist, essay by Peter Selz, Professor Emeritus University California Berkeley in Agnes Denes, Edited by Jill Hartz, 1992
  5. ^ Agnes Denes's Visual Philosophy, essay by Klaus Ottmann, Chief Curator of The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, in Agnes Denes: Absolutes and Intermediates, edited by Emma Enderby, The Shed, 2019
  6. ^ Lovelace, Carey. "Aloft In Mid A.I.R."
  7. ^ "Agnes Denes Studio Biography".
  8. ^ a b Hartz, Jill; Leavitt, Thomas (1992). Agnes Denes. Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University. ISBN 0295972777.
  9. ^ Boettger, Suzaan (November 2008). "Excavating Land Art by Women in the 1970s". Sculpture. 27 (9): 38–45.
  10. ^ "Artist's Website - Description with 14 Photos of Rice/Tree/Burial". Archived from the original on 2013-06-20.
  11. ^ "Artpark 1974-1984 - Art in America". Art in America. Retrieved 2018-03-23.
  12. ^ a b Artpark. TIME CAPSULE TO BE BURIED AT ARTPARK. Lewiston, New York: Artpark, 16 Aug. 1979. Print
  13. ^ Artpark 1977: The Program in Visual Arts. Artpark. 1977. pp. 24–27.
  14. ^ "New York Times, June 6, 1982 - A Critic's Guide to the Outdoor Sculpture Shows by Grace Glueck". The New York Times. 1982-06-11.
  15. ^ "On Public Art - Agnes Denes". Critical Inquiry (Summer 1990, Volume 16, Number 4).
  16. ^ "Artist's Website - Description with 9 Photos of Wheatfield". Archived from the original on 2013-06-20.
  17. ^ "Works 7". Archived from the original on 2013-06-20. Retrieved 2019-03-15.
  18. ^ "Agnes Denes". Archived from the original on 23 November 2008. Retrieved 23 October 2008.
  19. ^ "Artist's Website - Description and 2 Photos of Tree Mountain". Archived from the original on 2013-06-20.
  20. ^ "Artist's Website - Description and Diagram of Tree Mountain". Archived from the original on 2013-06-20.
  21. ^ "Marquette University - Agnes Denes: Projects for Public Spaces". Archived from the original on 2008-05-09.
  22. ^ Denes, Agnes. "My work as an environmental artist". Retrieved 2008-10-26.
  23. ^ "Artist's Website - Description and Diagram of Forest for Australia". Archived from the original on 2013-08-03.
  24. ^ "Artist's Website - Description and 12 photos of sketches from North Waterfront". Archived from the original on 2013-10-06.
  25. ^ "Socrates Sculpture Park, The Living Pyramid". Socrates Sculpture Park. Retrieved June 13, 2015.
  26. ^ WorldCat Search for Paradox and Essence. OCLC 4125880.
  27. ^ WorldCat Search for Sculptures of the Mind. OCLC 3003272.
  28. ^ WorldCat Search for Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space. OCLC 5937572.
  29. ^ "Artist's Website - 11 Photo of Early Philosophical Drawings". Archived from the original on 2013-06-20.
  30. ^ a b "New York Times, Nov 22, 2012 - Agnes Denes: 'Sculptures of the Mind: 1968 to Now', by Ken Johnson". The New York Times. 2012-11-22.
  31. ^ WorldCat Search for Human Argument. OCLC 212204452.
  32. ^
  33. ^ WorldCat Search Sculptures of the Mind. OCLC 78052519.
  34. ^ WorldCat Search Agnes Denes 1968 -1980. OCLC 6779916.
  35. ^ WorldCat Search Agnes Denes : concept into form, works : 1970-1990. OCLC 26595027.
  36. ^
  37. ^
  38. ^ WorldCat Search for Agnes Denes : projects for public spaces. OCLC 52534749.
  39. ^ Agnes Denes Absolutes and Intermediates ARTBOOK | D.A.P. 2019 Catalog The Shed Books Exhibition Catalogues 9781732494701.
  40. ^ "Museum of Modern Art Online Collection".
  41. ^ "Metropolitan Museum Online Collection".
  42. ^ "Whitney Museum Online Collection".
  43. ^ "Agnes Denes CV at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects".
  44. ^ "Sculpture Magazine, May 1999, Vol. 18, No. 4 - Sculptural Conceptualism: A New Reading of the Work of Agnes Denes by Ricardo D. Barreto".
  45. ^ a b Artpark 1977: The Program in Visual Arts. Artpark. 1977. p. 88.
  46. ^ "MIT Visiting Artists Roster". Archived from the original on 2013-01-17.
  47. ^ "Winners of the Rome Prize for Work and Study Abroad". The New York Times (April 19). 1997-04-19. Retrieved 2008-10-24.
  48. ^ "Bates College bio of Agnes Denes". 26 September 2007.
  49. ^ "ArtForum, Dec 13, 2007".

External links[edit]