Smashing an animal skull with a femur bone, an ape in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey enacts a critical moment in human evolution: the discovery of a tool instantly giving way to a deadly will to power. This drama of the human condition famously unfolds in the shadow of a polished black monolith. Is it a tombstone? An alien intelligence? A Tony Smith?
Early works by Agnes Denes, contemporaneous with both Kubrick’s 1968 film and the Tet Offensive, similarly traverse time in tragicomic human portrayals grounded in science fiction and a sense of the sublime. The recent exhibition “Sculptures of the Mind: 1968 to Now” presented two dozen items, including sculpture, photographic documentation and text- and photo-based conceptual pieces. Two of the earliest works—The World of Thorns (1968) and The Debate (One Million BC-One Million AD), 1969—are glowing, hot pink, electroplated acrylic cubes (about 14 inches) engineered by Denes to achieve reflectivity and luminosity. The World of Thorns contains broken twigs of an acrylic “plant,” reflected through mirrors to infinity. The Debate contains a pair of seated plastic skeletons arguing ad infinitum, also within a house of mirrors.
Near the pink cubes, a glass capsule containing chunks of human bone suggested the archeological find of some future species studying the extinct human race. Titled Human Dust (1969), the piece is one component of Denes’s larger philosophical project “Study of Dust,” and was accompanied by a wall text providing a statistical portrait of the deceased (in fact, an imagined individual, and the source of the human bones was not revealed). Love, politics, art—all return to dust.
Saber Thorns and The Plant (both ca. 1970) are lustrous, menacing acrylic barbed stems that, like the earlier World of Thorns, evoke a “silent spring” anxiety (also at play in Lee Bontecou’s vacuum-formed plastic flowers from the same period). This botanical trilogy presages Denes’s ecological art. By the 1980s, the raw, agnostic sensibility of her Vietnam-era pieces had given way to a more direct engagement with the environment and human values.
For Wheatfield: A Confrontation (1982), Denes planted an acre and a half of wheat on the Battery Park City landfill, calling it “a symbol, a universal concept” representing “food, energy, commerce, world trade, economics. It refers to mismanagement and world hunger.” The wheat field was made iconic through photographs of the World Trade Center looming over the golden field, and of the artist waist-high in wheat like a Pre-Raphaelite farmer, but the exhibition presented a poignant, finer-grained account of the project’s generative power with photographs of insects living among the shafts. The lesser-known, long-term Tree Mountain—11,000 trees planted between 1992 and ’96 in a spiral pattern in Finland—was represented in a plan and a photograph, and suggests the extension of Denes’s environmental art into abstract territory.
Denes, whose collected writings were published in 2008, could be considered, along with Robert Smithson and Joseph Beuys, to be one of the great artist-philosophers of her day. Yet the depth and rigor of her concepts were only hinted at here. The elegant, neon Human Argument IV—Light Matrix (1987/2012)—a 6-foot-high, multicolored, triangular wall piece—is inscrutable without more context. A broad, in-depth evaluation of Denes’s work is long overdue.
Photo: View of Agnes Denes’s exhibition, showing (from left to right) The Human Argument IV–Light Matrix, 1987/2012; The World of Thorns, 1968; and Art Cures Whatever Ails You, 1982; at Leslie Tonkonow.