7 Defining Characteristics of Agnes Denes

Agnes Denes is a pioneering conceptual artist famous for her work in environmentalism. Her monumental artworks have drawn media attention for decades.

Jul 23, 2023By Maria Kruglyak, MA History of Art, BA History

things agnes denes is known for


Agnes Denes is a conceptual artist that found international fame as a pioneer of environmental art in the 1960s and 1970s. Throughout her career, she has built numerous monumental works that draw attention to the global ecological disaster. She has become famous as an artist fighting against climate change, but her works are also highly philosophical and investigative. Read on to find out all about why Agnes Denes is one of the most famous conceptual artists alive today.


1. Agnes Denes Made the First Large-scale Environmental Artwork 

Haiku-Burial, Rice/Tree/Burial by Agnes Denes, 1968, via Cornell70


In 1968, shortly after graduating from Columbia University, Agnes Denes created one of the first environmental art events with Rice/Tree/Burial in Sullivan County, New York. In the context of the environmental movement in the US, the piece is the first with clear intentions of being a wake-up call to the ecological disaster of climate change. It remains famous today as the first impactful work that raised public awareness around environmentalism.


Denes’ purpose was to change the way we perceive our actions and their relationship to one another: Eco-Logic as she called it. The conceptual performance art piece included three phases: rice planting, trees bound by chains, and burying a haiku poem in a time capsule. These three acts of planting, chaining, and burying (rice/tree/burial) were representative of evolution as it is today. The rice planting spoke of beginnings and birth, the chained tree of the way we interfere with natural processes around us, and the haiku spoke of the death of human creativity. The carefully documented performance was followed by a questionnaire given out to the participants.


Rice/Tree/Burial by Agnes Denes, 1968, via Cornell70


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In the words of Peter Selz, the work is probably the first large-scale site-specific piece anywhere with ecological concerns. While Denes wasn’t the first artist working with Land Art, Rice/Tree/Burial was the first work to actively address philosophical-ecological concerns. The piece expanded the concept of Land Art from the aesthetic to the sociopolitical and philosophical while remaining symbolic and conceptual.


2. She Was A Pioneer of Environmental, Land, and Ecological art

Agnes Denes with Wheatfield––A Confrontation, 1982, via Aware


Rice/Tree/Burial made the young Agnes Denes a pioneer of several artistic movements and more environmental works were soon to follow. She became one of the core artists of the Land Art movement, transforming it towards social action. Other land artists such as Joseph Beuys, Alan Sonfist, and Maya Lin also began working with questions of the environment shortly thereafter.


Denes was also a pioneering conceptual artist, contemporaneous with the artist who built the movement’s philosophy, Sol Lewitt. A lot of her work was therefore based on research in philosophy, science, mathematics, and questions of the human condition. She was also one of the early adopters of the developing technology. She began using computers in her work in the early 1970s, making hologram artworks and computerized large-scale printing techniques. Thanks to the breadth and research focus of Denes’ oeuvre, the artist remains famous among art theorists and historians as well as the general public.


3. Her Philosophical Reflections are Featured in Museum Collections Worldwide

Evolution II: Paradox and Essence by Agnes Denes, 1976, via Aware


Agnes Denes’ research projects can be found in museum collections all over the world from MoMA and the Hirschhorn Museum to Moderna Museet in Stockholm and Centre Pompidou in Paris. Most of these are sculptures, drawings, and prints that investigate possible new world orders and what it means to be human.


Key series include Philosophical Drawings (1969-1980) and Map Projections (1973-1979) which use mathematical structures as an investigative practice. In Denes’ view, we can find a way to navigate a future through new methodologies of living that are built on understanding and innovation. This becomes clear with her Future City drawings which contain numerous geometric studies on how to build self-contained and self-supporting cities.


4. She Frequently Uses Pyramids

Snail Pyramid: Study for Self-contained, Self-supporting City Dwelling of the Future by Agnes Denes, 1984, via Agnes Denes Studio


A recurring shape throughout Agnes Denes’ works is the pyramid. Similar to Buckminster Fuller’s icosahedron and Ken Isaac’s cube, it forms the basis of her building logic. According to Denes, it is the pyramid that can solve the problems of the future and become a model for a new world.


4,000 B.C. by Agnes Denes, 1973, via Documenta 14


The combination of utopianism and mathematics has led some to call Denes Buckminster Fuller’s ideological daughter. Fuller was a scientist and philosopher credited for shaping most of the 1960s and 1970s environmental, artistic, scientific, and hippie community thought with his theory surrounding dome structures. Denes has instead provided the basis of artistic expression with a sociopolitical aim that came to the fore in the 1990s. Some of these works are published in the six books that she has authored.


The pyramids have also formed real-life structures in her sculptures and site-specific installations. Some are made out of fir trees as her forest monuments, some out of crystal while others are made out of the earth, soil, and living plants. An example is Pyramids of Conscience from 2005. Made out of Plexiglas, they are filled with elements reflecting the destruction of nature like oil or polluted water.


5. Her Most Famous Work Featured A Wheat Field

Wheatfield––A Confrontation by Agnes Denes, 1982, via Architectural Digest


In 1982, Agnes Denes made the work that she’s become most famous for today called Wheatfield––A Confrontation. During the period of four months, she planted and harvested two acres of wheat on the Battery Park landfill in Manhattan, just a few blocks away from Wall Street and the World Trade Center. The result? Over 1000 pounds of healthy, golden wheat in contrast to the gold spun at the stock market.


The Battery Park landfill was famously worth $4.5 billion, drawing the attention of passersby, media, and the art world to the way we treat and think of food, waste, energy, commerce, and finance. This work helped Denes become known worldwide. The piece was a metaphor for globalization and its effects that are not only positive but also cause many inequalities, food shortages, and other problems. In the artist’s own words: 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 two 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.


The project was supported by the Public Art Fund and the harvested seeds were distributed worldwide in the years that followed. At the end of the 1980s, Denes exhibited the harvest in the traveling exhibition called The International Art Show for the End of World Hunger organized by the Minnesota Museum of Art.


6. She Has Made Environmental Monuments Around the World

Tree Mountain—A Living Time Capsule—11,000 Trees—11,000 People—400 Years (triptych) by Agnes Denes, 1992-1996, via NRDC


Agnes Denes worked with many mediums throughout her career, but she kept coming back to using earth and plants. Some of these were monumental and would be protected by the state, such as Tree Mountain––A Living Time Capsule realized in Ylöjärvi, Finland in 1992-1996. The work presents the first-ever man-made virgin forest in Finland. It consists of 11000 trees planted by 11000 people from all over the world and protected for 400 years by decree from the President of Finland. The forest’s form is a mathematical derivation based on Denes’ earlier philosophical pyramid explorations.


The first forest that Agnes Denes planted was also a pyramid. Forest for Australia from 1998 included 6000 trees in varying heights planted into five spirals, making a pyramid step when the trees reach their full height. The work was meant to alleviate land erosion and featured an endangered tree species. Instead of bringing actual change, it was meant to highlight the necessary change and awaken the public.


The Living Pyramid by Agnes Denes, 2015-17, via Documenta 14


Another monumental piece of Agnes Denes’ work is The Living Pyramid installed at Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, New York in 2015 and the Documenta 14 exhibition in 2017. The nine-meter-high pyramid is a breathing living thing made out of wood, soil, and plants. The viewers were invited to join in planting seeds. As with Denes’ forests, the plants used for the Living Pyramid are more symbolic than ecologically sustainable.


7. Agnes Denes is Known as a Conceptual Socio-Political Artist

Another Confrontation by Agnes Denes, 2022, Kurfürstendamm, Berlin, via Tagree


Many of Agnes Denes’ works since the beginning of her career in the 1960s have made international headlines. Sometimes it’s because of their monumental size seen in pieces like Wheatfield and Living Pyramid, and at other times it’s because of their philosophical vigor. Explaining her own practice, Denes wrote: I plant forests on abused land, and grow fields of grain in the heart of megacities. These works are intended to help the environment and benefit future generations with a meaningful legacy.


Today, the artist is not only considered one of the pioneering artists of major movements but also one of the most prolific and impactful artists of our time. In the past six decades, she has participated in more than 450 exhibitions at the most prestigious art institutions around the world.


Agnes Denes’ most recent work titled Another Confrontation is a piece of video art that was shown at big public advertisement screens around the world including the Piccadilly Lights in London and Kurfürstendamm in Berlin. It uses documentation from Wheatfield––A Confrontation combined with slogans such as PLANT HOPE-HARVEST PEACE, bringing the wheatfield that brought her fame in the 1980s back into public attention.

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By Maria KruglyakMA History of Art, BA HistoryMaria is an art researcher, writer, and editor specializing in contemporary and modern art. Her research focuses on community and activist art practices, East Asian art histories, and the use of language concerning marginalized and cross-cultural art movements. She holds an MA in History of Art and Archeology from SOAS, University of London, and a BA in History specializing in Intellectual History from King’s College London. Maria is the founder and editor of Culturala, an independent art and cultural theory journal.