Treasures from the Vault: Agnes Denes

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

Pyramids have a beautiful geometric simplicity that has captured the imagination of artists and artisans for centuries; pyramidal structures have been found in civilizations on different continents dating far back to antiquity. Agnes Denes, whose career has spanned over five decades, explored her first triangles in the late 1960s. The form has since reappeared in her work as pyramids founded in mathematics and even forests.  

Born in Hungary in 1931, Denes’ family fled to Sweden to avoid the German occupation. As a teenager, she came to the U.S. Between 1959 and 1966, she attended the New School for Social Research, City University of New York, and Columbia University.    

Like many artists of her generation, Denes abandoned painting in the late 1960s. Some artists moved outdoors and used natural materials and the earth as their palette in what is sometimes called land art earthworks; Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels are some well-known examples. Often the remnants of the work are documentary photographs, film, preparatory drawings, and prints. Unlike her contemporaries who were attracted to wide open, rural spaces, Denes sought out urban sites to make stark juxtapositions that highlight our relationship with the environment. She is credited with creating the first site-specific work focusing on ecological issues.   

Probably the most famous work by Denes is Wheatfield—A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan (1982). Over a period of four months, the artist and her assistants cultivated the soil and handplanted two acres of wheat in Battery Park, then a vacant landfill located two blocks from Wall Street with the Statue of Liberty in plain sight.   

Denes’ works are replete with contradictions and irony that compel us to consider our values and priorities. An iconic documentary photograph of Wheatfield shows the artist nearly waist high in the wheat field, set incongruously against the world’s financial epicenter. Does Wheatfield occupy land best used as a potential source for food or a piece of real estate worth 4.5 billion dollars? Denes’ team successfully harvested nearly 1,000 pounds of wheat, which she donated. Wheat seeds were given away to the public during the exhibition, The International Art Show for the End of World Hunger (1987-1990), that toured 28 cities around the world.   

In contrast to the organic nature of Wheatfield, the museum’s lithograph Probability Pyramid (1978) bears the hallmark exactness of geometry and architectural modeling. At the bottom of the sheet, Denes inscribed Egyptian hieroglyphics and a mathematical formula, each a mode of communication with their own specialized vocabularies. French mathematician Blaise Pascal used the triangle in solutions for probability theory and is the likely source. In her lithograph, Denes gave visual representation to a probability formula, making the content inextricably bound with form. Denes explained, “I feel that difficult concepts can only be understood if they’re put into visual form, and that is the most difficult thing: visualizing invisible processes.”i 

A lithograph of a pyramid made up of tiny, individual squares set against a plain, white background.
Agnes Denes, American, b. 1931. Probability Pyramid. Lithograph on paper, 1978. Gift of Charles Weinraub, 1995.13. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

The pyramid has elegant sloping contours that are printed in light blue and flocked with silver, which lends it a slight metallic sheen. This seductive quality tempers her machine-like precision that is akin to today’s AutoCAD drawings. Rectangular stones replace the number system that would otherwise populate Pascal’s mathematical pyramid. Again, Denes presents us with paradoxes: the solid, physicality of the pyramidal structure versus the immateriality of an abstract, mathematical formula.   

The pyramidal form continues to recur in Denes’ public art pieces. Tree Mountain–A Living Time Capsule (1984-96) is a monumental earthwork on reclaimed land, the former site of a gravel mine in Ylöjärvi, Finland. Funded by the United Nations and commissioned by the Finnish government, Tree Mountain is a collaboration between humans and nature. It involved the participation of 11,000 people who planted 11,000 silver fir trees on a manmade mountain. Planting was done in a spiral pattern developed from the Golden Section and the artist’s design. Denes’ work also involves the dimension of time as all earthworks are ephemeral and subject to change as they evolve with the rhythms of nature. Tree Mountain will be in existence for over 400 years due to the life span of the trees and through land protection and maintenance agreements.     

Denes has participated in over 450 exhibitions and, at age 89, she was the subject of her first retrospective in New York. Her work can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, among others. 

i Emma McCormick Goodhart, “If the Earth Were a Hot Dog: A Conversation with Agnes Denes,” Frieze, 31 October 2019. (  Accessed 20 May 2021. 

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