Breaking Free from the Edge of the Canvas ; Agnes Denes Aims to Stretch Her Creativity as Far as Possible

By Kino, Carol | International Herald Tribune, December 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Breaking Free from the Edge of the Canvas ; Agnes Denes Aims to Stretch Her Creativity as Far as Possible


Kino, Carol, International Herald Tribune


The conceptual artist Agnes Denes, 81, is still aims to stretch her creativity as far as possible.

As a child in Budapest in the 1930s Agnes Denes decided she would be a poet, but history got in the way. She and her parents survived the Nazi occupation of Hungary, moved to Sweden after the war and then to the United States a few years later, when she was in her teens. Along the way "I lost my language because we traveled so much," Ms. Denes, 81, said in a recent interview. So she became a visual artist instead.

"The creativity had to come out in some way," she said. "It blurted itself out in a visual form."

After marrying at least once (she prefers not to discuss her personal past) and having a son, Ms. Denes began building a career as a painter. But she soon found the medium too limiting. "What bothered me mostly was the edge of the canvas," she said in her heavily accented English. "I always wanted to go beyond it. I always had more to say."

In the late '60s she broke away from painting completely and soon turned to a wide variety of other mediums, taking on an ever- expanding universe of interests and ideas. In 1968, for example, she created what some believe to be the first ecologically conscious earthwork, "Rice/Tree/Burial," a performance piece that involved planting rice seeds in a field in upstate New York, chaining surrounding trees and burying a time capsule filled with copies of her haiku. "It was about communication with the earth," Ms. Denes said, "and communicating with the future."

And at around the same time she embarked on more precise and formally oriented body of work, which she called Visual Philosophy - - diagrammatic drawings inspired by her interest in mathematics, philosophy and symbolic logic. "It would be very hard on people to look at stern mathematical concepts," Ms. Denes said, explaining that she had studied each discipline closely to make the work. "But I make them so beautiful that you are taken in by the beauty. And while you're taken in by the beauty, I got you to think."

Leslie Tonkonow, her primary dealer, said that from the start "Agnes distinguished herself in terms of the breadth of subjects that she was exploring and the imaginative way she was doing it, and the fact that her work was incredibly cerebral and intellectually driven but, at the same time, incredibly aesthetic."

"It's difficult to get your head around all the things she's done," Ms. Tonkonow added. "I do honestly think that's why she hasn't been a household name."

Which is not to say she hasn't earned ardent supporters, including Agnes Gund, the philanthropist and president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art, who has collected her drawings for years. Some are now in the Modern's collection; she is also in the collections of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Whitney Museum of American Art and other museums around the world.

But now her work, in all its variety, is being introduced to new audiences in shows on both coasts of the United States, "Sculptures of the Mind: 1968 to Now," a solo exhibition at Ms. …

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