Agnes Denes

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Agnes Denes
Born 1931 (age 86–87)
Budapest, Hungary
Nationality American
Education New School, Columbia University
Notable work Visual Philosophy, Wheatfield, Tree Mountain
Movement Conceptual Art

Agnes Denes (Dénes Ágnes; Budapest, 1931) 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 philosophy writings, to complex hand and computer rendered diagrams (which she terms Visual Philosophy), sculpture, and international environmental installations, such as Wheatfield -- A Confrontation (1982), a two-acre wheatfield in downtown Manhattan.[1]

Biography and Early Career[edit]

Born in Budapest, Hungary in 1931,[2] her family survived the Nazi occupation and moved to Sweden in the mid-1940s. When she was a teenager, they relocated again to the United States. She has said that the repeated change in language caused her to focus on the visual arts - having "suddenly been silenced."[3] She studied painting at the New School and Columbia University in New York, and exhibited and sold some of her work.[3] She soon abandoned painting, due to the constraints of the canvas, and focused broadly on ideas she could explore in other mediums.[1] "I found its vocabulary limiting"[3]

In the early 1970's, she joined the A.I.R. Gallery as a founding member and in fact, she left an uptown gallery to join.[4]

She has since participated in more than 450 exhibitions at galleries and museums throughout the world, and has written 6 books.[5] At some point in the late 1960s-1970s, she was married and has one son, Robert T. Frankel.[6]

Selected works[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.[1]


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[7]
Rice/Tree/Burial 1968, Eco-Logic, Sullivan County, New York; re-created 1977 at Artpark [8]
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,[1] 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,” Ms. Denes said, “and communicating with the future.”"[1][9]

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 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.[10] In 1978, she continued the project by chaining together trees in the forest in the park to symbolize interference with growth.[11] On August 20, 1979, Denes buried her haiku poems at 47°10’ longitude, 79°2’32’’ latitude set to be opened in the twenty-third century. The capsule also includes microfilmed responses of university students to questions about the nature of humanity.[11] Along with the rice, time capsule, and ceremonial chaining of trees in the park, Denes filmed footage of Niagara Falls for this iteration of Rice/Tree/Burial to “add natural force as the fourth element and fuse the other three”.[12] Her poetry that she included as well as personal accounts of her experiences working on this series in the park is featured in the 1977 Artpark Program in the Visual Arts.

Researcher Jennifer Seaman Cook argues that Artpark’s public funding for experimentation was instrumental in the development of Denes’ work, precursing her 1982 field of wheat project overlooking the Twin Towers from Battery Park. The Artpark residency program gave artists the space to experiment with these themes in land art and other emergent media.

Wheatfield -- A Confrontation, 1982, by Agnes Denes.jpg
Wheatfield, a Confrontation 1982 Manhattan, Battery Park City landfill [13][14][15]
Arguably her best known work. It was created during a six-month period in the spring, summer, and fall of 1982 when Denes, with the support of the Public Art Fund, planted a field of golden wheat on two acres of rubble-strewn landfill near Wall Street and the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan (now the site of Battery Park City and the World Financial Center).[16]
Tree Mountain-a living time capsule 1996, Ylöjärvi, Finland[17][18][19]
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 [20][21][22]
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.[23]
A conceptual masterplan 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.[24]
One in a series of large earth sculptures, The Living Pyramid, is the first Denes sculpture in New York City in over 3 decades. Sculpture is scheduled from May - August 2015.

Visual Philosophy[edit]

Ms. Denes as a highly original thinker and visualizer whose work rewards the close attention it demands. -Grace Glueck, New York Times.[25]

Agnes Denes drawings in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution Museums

Beginning in 1968, she began an intensive exploration of philosophy through art. The result was "an amazing body of work, distinguished by its intellectual rigor, aesthetic beauty, conceptual analysis, and environmental concern." -Jill Hartz, retrospective editor, Cornell University[6]

  • 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]


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]
  • Sculptures of the Mind 1968-2012 [1][30]


  • See three titles under Visual Philosophy, above.
  • Book of Dust: The Beginning and the End of Time and Thereafter 1989 Published by 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 [2]
  • The Human Argument, 2008 Spring Publications, Putnam, Connecticut.[31]
  • Poetry Walk—Reflections: Pools of Thought, 2000 Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Art Museum.[3]

Retrospective Cataloges[edit]

  • Agnes Denes: Perspectives, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1974 [4]
  • Agnes Denes: Sculptures of the Mind / Philosophical Drawings by Amerika Haus Berlin, 1978[32]
  • Agnes Denes 1968 -1980, Gary Garrels curator, Hayden Gallery, MIT, Boston, 1980[33]
  • Agnes Denes: Concept into Form, Works : 1970-1990, Arts Club of Chicago, 1990[34]
  • Agnes Denes by Jill Hartz, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, 1992 [5]
  • The Visionary Art of Agnes Denes: An Exhibition of 85 Works, Gibson Gallery, 1996 [6]
  • Project for Public Spaces, a Retrospective, Samek Art Gallery, Bucknell University, Lewisburg PA; 2003[35]

Public Collections[edit]

Denes has over ten works in the Museum of Modern Art's collection.[36] In the Metropolitan Museum, the artist has five pieces in the permanent collection.[37] At the Whitney Museum of American Art, Denes has three pieces in the permanent collection.[38] Beyond that, the artist has work in forty-three additional museum permanent collections.[39] She is currently represented by Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.[40]


  • Four fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts
  • Four grants from the New York State Council on the Arts
  • CAPS grant (1972)[41]
  • National Endowment Fellowships (1974 and 1975)[41]
  • The DAAD Fellowship, Berlin, Germany (1978)
  • American Academy of Arts and Letters Purchase Award (1985)
  • Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts at MIT (1990)[42]
  • Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome (1998)[43]
  • Jill Watson Award for Transdisciplinary Achievement in the Arts from Carnegie Mellon University (1999)[44]
  • Anonymous Was a Woman Award (2007)[45]
  • Ambassador’s Award for Cultural Diplomacy (2008) from the American Embassy in Hungary.


  1. ^ 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. 
  2. ^ "Museum of Modern Art bio page for artist Agnes Denes". 
  3. ^ a b c Agnes Denes: The Artist as Universalist, essay by Peter Selz, Professor Emeritus University California Berkeley in Agnes Denes, Edited by Jill Hartz, 1992
  4. ^ Lovelace, Carey. "Aloft In Mid A.I.R." 
  5. ^ "Agnes Denes Studio Biography". 
  6. ^ a b Hartz, Jill; Leavitt, Thomas (1992). Agnes Denes. Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University. ISBN 0295972777. 
  7. ^ "Sculpture Magazine, May 1999, Vol. 18, No. 4 - Sculptural Conceptualism: A New Reading of the Work of Agnes Denes by Ricardo D. Barreto". 
  8. ^ Boettger, Suzaan (November 2008). "Excavating Land Art by Women in the 1970s". Sculpture. 27 (9): 38–45. 
  9. ^ "Artist's Website - Description with 14 Photos of Rice/Tree/Burial". Archived from the original on 2013-06-20. 
  10. ^ "Artpark 1974-1984 - Art in America". Art in America. Retrieved 2018-03-23. 
  11. ^ a b Artpark. TIME CAPSULE TO BE BURIED AT ARTPARK. Lewiston, New York: Artpark, 16 Aug. 1979. Print
  12. ^ Artpark 1977: The Program in Visual Arts. Artpark. 1977. pp. 24–27. 
  13. ^ "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. 
  14. ^ "On Public Art - Agnes Denes". Critical Inquiry (Summer 1990, Volume 16, Number 4). 
  15. ^ "Artist's Website - Description with 9 Photos of Wheatfield". Archived from the original on 2013-06-20. 
  16. ^ "The Woman Who Harvested a Wheat Field Off Wall Street". Retrieved 2018-06-15. 
  17. ^ "Agnes Denes". Archived from the original on 23 November 2008. Retrieved 2008-10-23. 
  18. ^ "Artist's Website - Description and 2 Photos of Tree Mountain". Archived from the original on 2013-06-20. 
  19. ^ "Artist's Website - Description and Diagram of Tree Mountain". Archived from the original on 2013-06-20. 
  20. ^ "Marquette University - Agnes Denes: Projects for Public Spaces". Archived from the original on 2008-05-09. 
  21. ^ Denes, Agnes. "My work as an environmental artist". Retrieved 2008-10-26. 
  22. ^ "Artist's Website - Description and Diagram of Forest for Australia". Archived from the original on 2013-08-03. 
  23. ^ "Artist's Website - Description and 12 photos of sketches from North Waterfront". Archived from the original on 2013-10-06. 
  24. ^ "Socrates Sculpture Park, The Living Pyramid". Socrates Sculpture Park. Retrieved June 13, 2015. 
  25. ^ "New York Times, July 4, 1997 - Art in Review, by Grace Glueck". The New York Times. 1997-07-04. 
  26. ^ "WorldCat Search for Paradox and Essence". 
  27. ^ "WorldCat Search for Sculptures of the Mind". 
  28. ^ "WorldCat Search for Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space". 
  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". 
  32. ^ "WorldCat Search Sculptures of the Mind". 
  33. ^ "WorldCat Search Agnes Denes 1968 -1980". 
  34. ^ "WorldCat Search Agnes Denes : concept into form, works : 1970-1990". 
  35. ^ "WorldCat Search for Agnes Denes : projects for public spaces". 
  36. ^ "Museum of Modern Art Online Collection". 
  37. ^ "Metropolitan Museum Online Collection". 
  38. ^ "Whitney Museum Online Collection". 
  39. ^ "Agnes Denes CV at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects". 
  40. ^ "Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects - Member Galleries - ADAA". Retrieved 2018-04-11. 
  41. ^ a b Artpark 1977: The Program in Visual Arts. Artpark. 1977. p. 88. 
  42. ^ "MIT Visiting Artists Roster". Archived from the original on 2013-01-17. 
  43. ^ "Winners of the Rome Prize for Work and Study Abroad". The New York Times (April 19). 1997-04-19. Retrieved 2008-10-24. 
  44. ^ "Bates College bio of Agnes Denes". 
  45. ^ "ArtForum, Dec 13, 2007". 

External links[edit]