Agnes Denes

The Visionary Art of Agnes Denes

Solo Exhibition at the Roland Gibson Gallery, SUNY, Potsdam, NY 1996
Selected quotes on the work of Agnes Denes and selections from her writings compiled for the catalog
by Gallery Director Dan Mills

"Denes seems to straddle science and art in a way reminiscent of Leonardo—the effort to totalize nature in a single system and to make the visible as a sign of the invisible to be comprehended", Murray continues: "In expending her ambitious reach, Denes has encompassed many of the themes expressed in the long tradition of commingled art and science. And like the great artist before her, she continues to grasp for a still greater purchase on the total knowledge of humanity. It is this bold purpose that sets the true artist apart—to express something of the unique vision of humankind. For Denes and the kindred artists who preceded her and who are at work today, science affords a toehold on comprehension."

"The relentless abundance and range of Denes' public eco-projects and esoteric "metaphysical"/mathematical Conceptual structures are amazing, encompassing media from environmental installations to meticulously detailed drawings. More than any other artist working within these coordinates, her work is based on a concern with scientific and mathematical knowledge. The fact that she works with such Conceptual issues—a part of the art world normally inhabited by male artists—may explain why her work has not received its proper due, but to my mind, her combination of scientific rigor, social and environmental concerns, and involvement with Conceptual issues may make her the true heir to the legacy left by Robert Smithson."

Art historian Donald Kuspit quoted in Jeanette Murray, "The Scientific Tradition in Art", Encyclopedia Britannica: Yearbook of Science and the Future, Chicago, l989, and "Agnes Denes" in Arforum, February 1996, p 82.

"The work makes us look again, to become more curious and aware. At the same time, we join with the artist in the complexity and celebration of the mystery of life. Such reaction to her work may seem poetic, but Agnes Denes is a visionary."

Roy Slade, Director of Cranbrook Academy of Art, Bloomfield Hills, MI, quoted in Agnes Denes: Perspectives, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1974

"Denes's particular contribution is to focus our attention on knowledge of the natural laws and intellectual aberrations that define the possibilities and limitations of our lives, while, at the same time, creating often breathtaking works of art. Unlike any other artist, except perhaps Leonardo da Vinci with whom she has been compared, she is using her artistic skills and vision to engage in dialogues with the universe—to discover its natural and manmade truths and patterns and arrive at responses, both poetic and practical, that may benefit life on our planet and beyond."

Thomas W. Leavitt, Director of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell University, in his introduction to the book, Agnes Denes, l992.

"Denes is a visionary artist with those rare qualities that take visionary from the realm of idealist or dreamer—an image that does not do justice to her steady, penetrating eye—to that of a seer with an all-encompassing vision. Denes has staked a unique place in the history of art.. defying easy categorization.. Her audacity has led her to be called a modern-day Leonardo, compelled by the need to expand the boundaries of art."

Lowery Sims quoted from Penetrating the Folds of Time…:The Visionary Art of Agnes Denes in "Agnes Denes", Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1992

Lowery Sims is Associate Curator of 20th Century Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, author of numerous articles on art and winner of the 1991 Frank Jewett Mather Award for art criticism

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. In her work, she has exposed and even encouraged contradictions so that people can begin to see and understand the paradoxes which they normally accept without questioning them. Her universal forms and concepts provide new paradigms for the human condition, for understanding its relationship to chance, chaos, pollution, late capitalism, and nature. Her determination to test limits and provoke people into regarding the world in new ways is perhaps most clearly evident in her proposal to integrate her Morse Code Message (distillation of the Bible) with a host of inaudible sounds:

"It is not easy to describe this work. In my art as well as in my "music," I seek the invisible, inaudible and the unknown to be perceived by our senses. The sounds are not created through conventional means, although occasionally I use instruments. My intent is to make us listen with our "inner ear" and see with the "mind's eye." I created these sounds to sensitize our consciousness to those secret processes of existence that abound around us, hidden from the eyes and ears either by their spatio/temporal limitations or by their elusive nature. These may be sounds from deep within the earth or eerie faraway sounds of deep space. They can be earth sounds coming from the soil where processes go unnoticed; sounds of germination and growth, rain soaking into the soil causing roots to generate and seeds to burst; in areas where chemical processes operate and icicles form, or distances of light years become echo chambers that reverberate with the high, clear sounds of an expanding universe. Sounds that go beyond the ear's audio capacity are brought into hearing range, then made tangible in visual form. The patterns created by the sounds look like the primal seed that bursts, giving birth to the universe, to galaxies that form and change shape, explode, or merge."

Her desire to challenge limits and to push representation to the point of universality puts her on a parallel course with such utopians as Wassily Kandinsky, Kasimir Malevich, and Piet Mondrian."

Robert Hobbs is Professor of art history at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is an art historian and critic, museum director and curator.

"Agnes Denes is one of the truly innovative artists of our era whose work defies classification. Her concerns and explorations have spanned philosophy, the natural and physical sciences, mathematics, linguistics and psychology. She has approached these disciplines not only with rigorous investigation, but also with artistic intuition, creating exquisite drawings which give precision to the imagination. Many critics have compared her drawings and concepts to Leonardo's for the postulation of visual constructs that are profound visions of the universe. Denes's work indeed re-unites the artistic and scientific cultures, which began to separate in Leonardo's time. For the communication of her messages she has worked with many media, including drawing, writing, sculpture, photography, poetry and music as well as direct involvement with the environment."

"Agnes Denes is widely recognized as an artist who is able to transform her brilliant original ideas and concepts into innovative visual images and integral texts on an enormously wide range of topics and disciplines. By applying her visual philosophy to analytical writings, she has enriched our insights into problems of human and global survival."

Art historian Peter Selz from his statement for an exhibition brochure for "Agnes Denes: Philosophy in the Land" at the Joyce Goldstein Gallery, New York, 1995.

"Agnes Denes is widely recognized as an artist who is able to transform her brilliant original ideas and concepts into innovative visual images and integral texts on an enormously wide range of topics and disciplines. By applying her visual philosophy to analytical writings, she has enriched our insights into problems of human and global survival."

"At a time when absolute objectivity seems no longer possible, Agnes Denes postulates the feasibility that art can deal with the ultimate questions concerning humanity."

Art historian Peter Selz from his essay "Agnes Denes: The Artist as Universalist" for the retrospective book Agnes Denes, Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 1992, and "Agnes Denes: The Visual Presentation of Meaning" Art in America, March/April 1975.

Agnes Denes is a law unto herself. In an art world glutted with 15-minute "trends" and "celebrity artists" whose claim to fame have more in common with the brand marketing of cigarettes than the traditions of Leonardo, Denes is a constant reminder that the practice of art is the province of ideas not egos… Denes's work maintains its intellectual rigor without holding the viewer at arm's length... one senses the artist's single-minded passion for knowledge and recalls those rare moments—usually after intense concentrated mental effort—when ideas rise up from the unconscious and break through to consciousness in a flash of light. In these "eureka!" moments a special translucence and vividness envelopes everything, as though one's vision were suddenly sharper. Denes's drawings glow with this same translucent energy—the fresh-born "rightness" of an idea lifted from the unconscious in a burst of intense insight.. Denes's drawings encode a singularly modern state-of-mind; a new multi-channel consciousness that may well be necessary for survival in the twenty-first century. Observes Denes: "There may be no language to describe ultimate reality, beyond the language of vision."

Art Critic Randy Rosen in catalog essay "Thoughtlines: A Visual Dialogue with the Third Millennium" for the exhibition "Agnes Denes—Concept into Form, Work 1970-1990", Alvarez Galeria de Arte, Madrid, Spain, l990.

Agnes Denes's Pyramids crystallize her conceptual art into a single structure, visually succinct and intellectually complex: they are the ultimate distillation of her scientific interests and philosophy of life. Denes's art is extraordinarily multifaceted, ranging from environmental projects to map projections, including conceptual statements that in effect range over the whole of human knowledge. Her work is both two- and three-dimensional, grand and intimate in scale, and inherently visionary. In my opinion she is a kind of Blake in mathematical form. Her intellectual images share, with Blake's physical images, a certain mystical integrity. For me, the pyramids state the essential paradoxes with which her art deals in uniquely concentrated form... Denes is a Platonist, dealing with ultimate intelligibles and their vicissitudes, as she makes clear in the Perfect Pyramids... Clearly, Denes's account of the "degeneration" of the perfect social pyramid into a perfect ruin is allegorical in import. In fact, it is not unlike Plato's account of the Republic's loss of perfection.. What makes Denes's articulation of the abstract pyramid as a representational picture—an intriguing surface of human numbers—an extraordinary artistic existential statement, is that the pyramid comes to represent fate, subsuming all the particularities of existence.

Donald Kuspit from his essay "Paradox Perfected: Agnes Denes's Pyramids" for retrospective book, "Agnes Denes" Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

Donald Kuspit is Professor of Art and Philosophy at S.U.N.Y. Stony Brook, A.D. White Professor at Cornell University, editor of Art Criticism and contributing editor of Artforum.

"Over the past quarter century, Agnes Denes has conceived and created an amazing body of work, distinguished by its intellectual rigor, aesthetic beauty, conceptual analysis, and environmental concern. The work is also remarkable for its insightful explorations into the truths, ironies, and paradoxes of our existence on Earth... Artists of world repute have carved entire careers from a single area of her art, but probably no contemporary artist has delved more deeply than she into the mysteries of the human experience...As with all truly original artist, Denes is ahead of her time...Her originality extends beyond style, medium, and subject matter to the very definition of art and the determination of its boundaries.."

Re: Tree Mountain": .. This will be the first time that an artist has been commissioned to restore environmental damage with an artwork that is global in scale, international in scope, and unsurpassed in duration. This work, like many of her other pieces is imbued with ecological, socio-political, and existential meanings."

Thomas W. Leavitt, Director Emeritus, from introduction to "Agnes Denes" a monograph, created for the retrospective of the artist's work at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell Univ. Ithaca, New York, 1992. His career as museum director spanned thirty-four years.

It seem no exaggeration to say that Agnes Denes enjoys the special challenge that comes along with making art about universal concepts. Since the late l960's, her art has roamed selectively, intuitively, even aggressively, through a broad range of disciplines, from mathematics and philosophy to physics, with short but significant sideroads into such areas as biology, cultural history, and agriculture. Her concerns are with general relativistic conditions, among them time and change, truth and distortion, paradox and probability, and certain systemic developments like human evolution and the food chain. These are the sorts of subjects that cut across the range of disciplines. They allow Denes to demonstrate in her work the essential, open-ended, and interconnected character of art, reality, and human knowledge. This ambitious aim has fired her creations, whether drawings, prints, or environmental pieces...

An interest in making images speak in sharp and specific pictorial terms about abstract ideas and general conditions—i.e., social alienation and collectiveness—stamps the creations of Agnes Denes. Her career is fascinating expression of Leonardo da Vinci's statement, "To know and to will are two operations of the human mind."

Art historian Ronny H. Cohen from an essay "Agnes Denes: Triumph of the Will" in Print Collectors' Newsletter, 1982.

"..With such philosophical concepts, it is intriguing to examine the role that sight plays in Denes's art. Because Denes is interested in vision, philosophy, and science, she has been compared to Leonardo. Both artists enlarge on the traditional boundaries of art, and both are concerned with art as a way of thinking about the world. The main difference between the two is in the realm of vision. Leonardo, who was not at all Platonic, regarded sight as a key way to investigate and understand the world. His empiricism differs from Denes's emphasis on visual schema as a testing ground for her philosophic concepts. One might say that Leonardo begins with visual phenomena, whereas Denes usually commences with an elaborate thought process, which is then distilled to a visual construct. After she has done a thoroughgoing investigation and refined her concept to an essence, then that essence can be understood as a visual construct or the transcendental schema referred to earlier. Her art is thus the proof of an involved conceptual process—it is both an end result and the mode of investigation. In addition to a comparison based on sight, we might point out that while Leonardo wanted to place art on a par with the liberal arts, Denes is interested in allying it with philosophy. And while Leonardo invented out of a need to make new things, Denes creates to simplify and to cut through the morass of information now available in order to arrive at new concepts.."

Professor Robert Hobbs in "Agnes Denes's Environmental Projects and Installations: Sowing New Concepts", in Agnes Denes (monograph), Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, l992, page 163-170;

"Agnes Denes's work is an ambitious and encompassing enterprise transacted by an artist of enormous vision..."

"Denes was one of the first artist to be involved with the relationship of science to art, and was also a pioneer of ecological art. She was one of the initial artists to turn to environmenal issues, beginning with the meaphor on growth and transformation in Rice/Tree/Burial in upstate New York in 1968...."

Peter Selz is a professor Emeritus of art history at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of eleven books on 20th century art.

"Yet by visualizing her questions in the form of material objects of great beauty (a beauty not only of concept but of material and execution), Denes risks contemporary taboo which sees "the beautiful" as concession to reactionary sensibilities. If advanced art has for some time been wary of beauty as an ingratiating diversion from social reality, then Denes proposes it as a means through which our present and future might be confronted after all. In this context beauty is a price paid to attract our attention, to establish serious intent: it is used to help "suspend our disbelief" and thereby to win time to reveal what Denes asks us to reexamine. We are enticed to think, to act, and to build."

"Denes observes wryly that the more scientific she has become the more people think she is a mystic. To dispel the misconception that her work is about mathematics or philosophy, she used to exhibit her working Notebooks to share her process of thinking, a reason why she continues to write texts and books. But to be more direct is why she has sought a purely visual philosophy and why she says that if she could simply invite us into her mind she would never have to make another drawing."

John Hallmark Neff, museum director and Director/Art Advisor of the Art Collection of First Chicago, quoted from Agnes Denes: An Appreciation, "Agnes Denes: Concept into Form Works, 1970-1990".

Selected Quotes by Agnes Denes

Teardrop--Monument to Being Earthbound*

"We live in an age of complexity, when knowledge and ideas are presented faster than can be assimilated, while disciplines are becoming progressively alienated from each other through specialization. The hard-won knowledge accumulates undigested, blocking meaningful communication. Clearly defined direction for humanity is lacking. The turn of the century and the next millennium will usher in a troubled environment and a troubled psyche… Making art today is synonymous with assuming responsibility for our fellow human beings."
© Agnes Denes

"...For the first time in human history, the whole earth is becoming one interdependent society with our interests, needs and problems intertwined and interfering. The threads of existence have become so tightly interwoven that one pull in any direction can distort the whole fabric, affecting millions of threads. A new type of analytical attitude is called for, a clear overview or summing up, in which essences carry pure meaning and all things can be considered once more simultaneously..."
© Agnes Denes

"I believe that the new role of the artist is to create an art that is more than decoration, commodity, or political tool—an art that questions the status quo and the direction life has taken, the endless contradictions we accept and approve. It elicits and initiates thinking processes... My concern is with the creation of a language of perception that allows the flow of information among alien systems and disciplines, eliminating the boundaries of art in order to make new association and valid analogies possible."
© Agnes Denes

"In a time when meaningful global communication and intelligent restructuring of our environment is imperative, art can assume an important role. It can affect intelligent collaboration and the integration of disciplines, and it can offer skillful and benign problem solving. A well-conceived work can motivate people and influence how things are perceived."
© Agnes Denes

"Artistic vision, image and metaphor are powerful tools of communication that can become expressions of human values with profound impact on our consciousness and collective destiny."
© Agnes Denes

"Wheatfield - the Philosophy: Manhattan is the richest, most professional, most congested and, without a doubt, most fascinating island in the world. To attempt to plant, sustain and harvest 2 acres of wheat here, wasting valuable real estate and obstructing the "machinery" by going against the system, was an effrontery that made it the powerful paradox I had sought for the calling to account. It was insane. It was impossible. But it did call people's attention to having to rethink their priorities and realize that unless human values were reassessed, the quality of life, even life itself, was in danger... Wheatfield was a symbol, a universal concept..."
© Agnes Denes

"Our cultural explosion, our vast numbers, our technology and the resources we consume create imbalances affecting all other life-forms on earth. The genetic evolution of these life-forms is much slower than our cultural evolution and cannot keep up with the changes we have created... Damage has been done to the earth, the environment and to human principles... As we have accelerated the extinction of plant and animal life, we have accelerated our own by allowing unchecked growth processes in all aspects of our existence.."
© Agnes Denes, Book of Dust, 1978

"The Pyramids embody human knowledge and the paradoxes of existence. They serve as complex metaphors for our time, vehicles through which analytical propositions can be visualized."
© Agnes Denes

"On this edge new forms are found and isolated. A reality of changing illusions emerges in flawless, pure forms that remain "perfect" (their own essence) for a moment, instantly metamorphosing into new systems and process whose origin and destiny are predetermined."
© Agnes Denes

"The Pyramids begin to stretch and sway, as they break loose from the tyranny of being built, knitted into form... they are pure technology, visual mathematics with yet another kind of "perfection," that of the flexibility of natural systems. They have a look of freshness and vulnerability... They are the future and the future is always vulnerable and unused."
© Agnes Denes

"The paradoxes of our existence: alienation in togetherness, uniformity in specialization, illusions of freedom in group mentality, ignorance in the midst of information overload, greed in the face of neglect, self-aggrandizement in response to ineffectuality. It is comparable to going into the ice age and the heat wave of the greenhouse effect simultaneously."
© Agnes Denes, Book of Dust, 1978

"In our world, a lack of intelligent self-evaluation and failure to understand one's contribution to society have led to jaded values and misguided priorities. The individual needs to regain respect and integrity that stems from self-esteem based on an understanding of his value, to become more altruistic and less greedy, therefore more willing to make sacrifices for the whole... Unlike ants and bees whose behavior is programmed, humans need to appreciate, understand and take pride in their role and value to society, which creates a healthy feeling of self-worth, a love of self and of mankind. We have a choice."
© Agnes Denes

"Pattern finding is the purpose of the mind and the construct of the universe. There are an infinite number of patterns, some of which are known; those still unknown hold the key to unresolved enigmas and paradoxes." l967.
© Agnes Denes

"For me art must be a constant probe, a desire to locate the center of things—the true inner core of inherent but no yet understood or exposed meaning to be split open for exposure and analyses—to puncture the heart of matter and see what oozes out, and if nothing does, still not assume that it was hollow or empty, for nothing is truly empty, even the silent universe is alive with hidden creativity. To do art is to question—creativity is obsessive and so is our desire to know our importance or insignificance in the universe." l978
© Agnes Denes

"I believe that art is the essence of life, as much as anything can be a true essence. It is extracted from existence by a process. Art is a reflection on life and an analysis of its structure. As such, art should be a great moving force shaping the future."
© Agnes Denes

"The symmetries operating in my work are subtle and complex. Some are more easily discernible than others, some operate on the surface of perceptions on the visual level, others are deeply hidden in the ideas and philosophies underlying my work. Whether obvious or subtle, visible or elusive, these symmetries are inherent and real. The fact that they were never consciously sought, since the work was not created with this goal in mind, makes their presence even more exciting."
© Agnes Denes

"In mathematics symmetries are precise, well-defined operations such as rotation, translation and inversion. In the sciences these operations are applied to an idealized physical world where they abound, ranging from bilateralism in people to celestial motion to time-reversible laws. Even broken symmetry, so popular among physicists today, has precise meaning. Logic, which manipulates concepts mathematically, has exact symmetries. In art and music they appear on many levels serving esthetic functions..."
© Agnes Denes

"In my work everything, including symmetry, is created through a conscious use of instinct, intellect and intuition. When I visualize (give form to) processes such as math and logic, or when I apply X-ray technology and electron microscopy to organic and crystal structures, one might say I reveal well-defined symmetries and antisymmetries. When I deal with abstract concepts definitions blur and the symmetries go beyond ordinary mathematical confines."
© Agnes Denes

"Unlike ants and bees whose behavior is programmed, humans need to appreciate, understand and take pride in their role and value to society, which creates a healthy feeling of self-worth, a love of self and of humanity. We have a choice."
© Agnes Denes

"We seem as honor-bound to our misconceptions as we are bound to this Earth and can never see things as they really are or measure our destiny because we interfere with what we experience. We observe multitudes of minute and conflicting truths from which we piece together our reality and reason, much like insects, whose compound eyes supply their aberrated view. Perhaps this is why we have difficulty understanding the universe and our role in it, and admitting that all through life, even at the end, the truth is elusive."
© Agnes Denes

Note: Quotes from Agnes Denes are from her published books, essays, exhibition catalogs and lectures ranging from the past 40 years. All the above quotes are copyrighted and cannot be reproduced or be used without permission from the authors.
© 2011 Agnes Denes

*The sculpture consists of a circular base and a teardrop-shaped top, which levitates above the center of the base afloat on an elastic cushion of magnetic flux. The top is gently and mysteriously moved about by air currents and held in place by superconductive elements. When lit, the teardrop resembles the flame of a candle.
© 1983 Agnes Denes