The first exhibition devoted exclusively to Agnes Denes’s expressive uses of the pyramid form surveys the artist’s interpretations, inventions, and expansions of this iconic structure, a central theme in her work from the 1960s to now. Denes’s pyramids, created in an unusually wide variety of mediums and materials – ranging from calcareous human remains to a mountain planted with 11,000 fir trees near Tampere, Finland – are literal, conceptual, philosophical, architectural, mathematical, and imaginary manifestations in two and three dimensions.
In the Introduction to her book in progress, The Book of The Pyramids, she writes:
The Pyramids appear in my work in a variety of forms from the Snail, Egg, and Fish Pyramids to pyramids of thought processes, mathematics, and forests. They have little to do with their Egyptian ancestors; rather, they represent social structures in the form of a visual philosophy that conveys ecological, social, and cultural issues. Their purpose is to respond to humanity’s crucial concerns, and to seek benign solutions to them.
The exhibition includes approximately twenty examples of the exquisitely rendered drawings that helped to establish Denes’s reputation as a concept-based artist, distinguished by works expressing her highly evolved aesthetic and social concerns. The drawings vary greatly in scale from intimate notebook-sized compositions in ink on graph paper to monumentally scaled renderings in liquid silver on silk vellum. Also on view are examples of the many prints she has made over a forty–year period, displaying her innovations in experimental graphic processes.
Among the photographic works in the exhibition are vintage prints from the series Human Dust (1969), in which the artist documented the desiccated residue of cremated human remains that she gathered into pyramidal forms, accompanied by a poetic text that imagines the life of a man reduced to a series of statistics. Also, exhibited for the first time is the unique black and white photographic construction entitled Map Projections: Pyramidal Projection (1973).
Projected images of the philosophically driven, ecologically engaged land art pieces she has created throughout the world since the late 1960s are on view. Representations of proposed works such as A Forest for New York City, envisioned by the artist for the 117-acre Edgemere landfill in Queens, N.Y., are also included.
The pyramid is the organizing structure for such major site works as Tree Mountain – A Living Time Capsule – 11,000 Trees – 11,000 People (1992–96), a massive earthwork and land reclamation project near Ylöjärvi, Finland, and A Forest For Australia (1998) at the Altoona Treatment Plant in Melbourne where the artist planted 6,000 trees from endangered species into 5 spiraling step pyramids. The exhibition also introduces the artist’s newest work, The Living Pyramid (2015), commissioned by Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, N.Y. Created from several tons of soil, planted grasses, and wild flowers, it will span forty feet at the base and stand thirty-five feet high at the edge of the Hudson River. It’s towering, curving form echoes the organic architecture that first appeared in Denes’s Pyramid drawings of the 1970s and 1980s. In his essay for the catalogue that accompanied Denes’s 2012 exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, curator Jeffrey Uslip describes them as “… architectural stand-ins for the fate of humanity. Often morphing, contorting and shifting into biomorphic forms, they represent future cities – structures supporting life within the unmanageable environment, foreseen by the artist more than forty years ago.”
The Living Pyramid will be open to the public from May 17 to August 30, 2015. It is Denes’s first major site work in New York City since 1982 when, at the invitation of the Public Art Fund, she planted and harvested two acres of wheat on the lower Manhattan landfill that is now the site of Battery Park City, creating Wheatfield – A Confrontation, one of Land Art’s most radical and significant works. In recognition of this, Agnes Denes has been invited to install a greatly expanded re-enactment of Wheatfield in Milan, Italy, in connection with Expo Milano 2015, the universal exhibition with the theme of Feeding the Planet: Energy for Life. From March through October of this year, Wheatfield will occupy twelve acres of the Porta Nuova district of the city, presented by the Fondazione Riccardo Catella, in partnership with the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi and Confagricoltura.
Born in Budapest in 1931, Agnes Denes was raised in Sweden and educated mainly in the United States. She has participated in more than 500 solo and group exhibitions at museums and galleries worldwide as well as such international surveys as the Biennale of Sydney; Documenta 6, Kassel, Germany; the Venice Biennale; and the SITE Santa Fe Biennial. Works by the artist are in the collections of major institutions throughout the world, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; the National Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Israel Museum, Jerusalem; Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden; FRAC Lorraine, Metz, France; and the Nürnberger Kunsthalle, Germany.
A pioneer of both conceptual and environmental art, Denes has completed public and private commissions in North and South America, Europe, Australia, and the Middle East, and has received numerous honors and awards including four fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and four grants from the New York State Council on the Arts; the DAAD Fellowship, Berlin, Germany (1978); the American Academy of Arts and Letters Purchase Award (1985); M.I.T's highly prestigious Eugene McDermott Achievement Award “In Recognition of Major Contribution to the Arts” (1990); the Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome (1998); the Watson Transdisciplinary Art Award from Carnegie Mellon University (1999); the Anonymous Was a Woman Award (2007); and the Ambassador’s Award for Cultural Diplomacy for Strengthening the Friendship between the US and the Republic of Hungary through Excellence in Contemporary Art (2008).
The exhibition is our fourth one-person presentation of works by the artist.
Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects is located on the sixth floor of 535 West 22nd Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10:00 am to 6:00 pm.