Sometimes the best travel recommendations come from strangers. When I was recently in New York City, another guest at the BnB lodging encouraged me to see the Agnes Denes show at The Shed. “Not to be missed,” he said. (Now, I’ve wasted time and money on other “not to be missed” recommendations – apparently some reviewers and I disagree at the New Yorker – but I had just happily attended The Outsider Art Fair, because of recommendations by three different friends.)
I was intrigued. Here was an opportunity to see a retrospective at a relatively new, significant arts center….and I’d never heard of the artist.
Perhaps I wasn’t familiar with her work because it’s not easily explained, or categorized. It ranges from Philosophical Drawings to the visual representation of mathematical theorems to site specific environmental projects. The Shed did an excellent job of curating the work into (mostly) manageable sections. (I’ll admit some of the philosophical and mathematical renderings were a bit overwhelming in their complexity and detail. Yes! You read that correctly. She draws philosophical arguments.)
The Map Projections were more accessible to me. They are playful, as well as complex, using the earth’s dimensions to mathematically distort it into various shapes.
The curatorial statements indicate her work is dedicated to bettering humanity’s future and that it has an environmental focus. This is detailed in her many unrealized, as well as several completed outdoor projects.
Tree Mountain: A Living Time Capsule is a wonderful example of her complex thinking, unbounded creativity, and care for people and the planet. It’s a massive earthworks and environmental installation, where 11,000 trees were planted by 11,000 people. Click here for a brief (one minute!) video from The Shed, explaining the project.
She may be best known for her project Wheatfields for Manhattan . In 1982, she and a team of assistants prepared an abandoned waterfront site in lower Manhattan (near the financial district) where they planted and harvested 1.5 acres of wheat.
It seems unfortunate that I’d never heard of her work before this retrospective at The Shed. Agnes Denes reminds me of a contemporary Leonardo da Vinci. She explores ideas, possibilities (there’s a whole section on housing for the future called Future Cities) and proposes projects to improve and sustain life on earth. Her works defy easy categorization as they work across multiple genres and disciplines.
The environmental projects, conceived in the 1980’s, provide excellent models for similar kinds of projects. It’s important that The Shed is highlighting this work. Perhaps we accept the ‘better late than never’ view, and hope individual, civic and political awareness is raised and inspired. (If, indeed, art can or should be political. I suppose that’s a topic for another time.)
Here is another brief video from The Shed, summarizing Denes’ work, and touching on a few images from the show. The exhibition, Absolutes and intermediates, runs until March 22.