Absoloutes and Intermediates
The Shed, New York NY (through March 22, 2020)
By JONATHAN GOODMAN January, 2020
Agnes Denes, the Hungarian-born eco-artist based in New York, is likely best known for her 1982 project entitled Wheatfield--A Confrontation, in which she planted and grew two acres of wheat within shouting distance of the Statue of Liberty, in a then-empty part of downtown that has now become Battery Park City. Denes, whose mind lies both in the detail, in the exquisitely rendered drawings found in the show; and in the large idea, as happens in the concept of planting the wheat, also is not without a certain feistiness--witness the title of the wheatfield piece. As an ecologically oriented artist in the 1960s and ‘70s, Denes stood at the head of innovative land-oriented art, but, sadly, it has taken until now, when she is nearly 90 years old, for her achievement to take on the importance it deserves with a major New York show. In retrospect, her work looks both futuristic and slightly old-fashioned, being oriented toward highly detailed technical drawings (oriented toward the future) and grand scenarios, nearly church-like conceptions of installations established outdoors (oriented toward the past). In The Shed, whose showing space is unusually simple, consisting of open, high-ceilinged rectangular floors, the drawings were shown to good advantage, and there was even room for a tall structure, a 17-foot ziggurat created with six thousand compostable white, translucent bricks, reaching almost to the ceiling of the space.
Like Wheatfield, the brick pyramid orients toward a grand view of cultural and natural interactions (the downtown wheatfield being more so). But in whatever the public meaning these two grand projects move, there is also the sense of intense personal involvement and supervision; Denes is a fine artist of notable caliber, and her own hand is as important as the social outlook available in much of her art. The drawings, maquettes, and actual project for some 11,000 trees planted in rows leading up a manmade (small) mountain in Finland--the project is called Tree Mountain (1992-96)--is marked by the same precision and open creativity that is operative in all of Denes’s work. This combination of the intuitive and the rationally specific give the artist a chance to make work as memorable in its details as in its larger outlook. One can see this in the many excellent drawings available in the show--for example, in Liberated Sex Machine (1970), a drawing not without humor, a complex, mechanized treatment of the sexual act is given encyclopedic treatment, so that the schematic image’s many parts--often rods entering slit-like openings--are named and indicated by lines to the specific components of the design. It is funny, but not without a certain bite to its comic view. There is another drawing, a study for the crystal pyramid, that is notable for its exquisite detail; generally, the particularity of the image is central to Denes’s creativity. Another drawing, in which Denes’s ethical and spiritual concerns are made evident by the translation of portions of the bible into Morse code (1969-75), is an abstract-looking image of dots and dashes; sometimes, by distancing ourselves with the visual familiarity of the text, that text takes on greater authority--even if we do not understand the text in its current imagistic state, as would happen for many viewers here.
A mid-size teardrop, which seems to have been composed of the same material as the bricks that make up the tall tower on view, was created especially for the show at The Shed. Its elegant, rounded shape exists in accordance with the work in the rest of the show. We must remember that Denes began as a Sixties artist, committed to feminism and political change. But her work doesn’t always specify politics; often the beauty of her work comes to the viewer without the weight of a publicly declaimed morality. The ongoing tension between the public extension of the artist’s social beliefs and the private achievements of her remarkable hand--or, equally useful, not their tension but merger--has resulted in a career remarkable for its independence and integrity. The thousands of trees marching up the artificial rise in Finland began as a grand, perhaps defiant ecological gesture, but, happily, the project was realized in a permanent fashion; photos indicate it is very beautiful. And we have the marvelous pictures of the shoulder-high wheatfield with the image of the Statue of Liberty behind--in this case a literal realization of a line in one of America’s favorite patriotic songs, as well as a reminder of the merger between nature and culture that we are sometimes capable of achieving. It should be remember that while Denes lives in New York, and her show takes place in The Shed, within an urban setting, she is as truly a land artist. The mathematical precision of her imagination is to be highly praised, although usually her specifics exist in service of a larger undertaking. Personally, I liked the drawings associated with her outdoor projects; their lyricism managed to be visually captivating but also socially intended. The show indicates her skills marvelously well, and it is time for Denes to be known to a larger audience. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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