Critics’ Picks

Agnes Denes, Human Dust, 1969, black-and-white photograph, 8 x 10".

Agnes Denes, Human Dust, 1969, black-and-white photograph, 8 x 10".

New York

Agnes Denes

Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects
401 Broadway Suite 411
October 29, 2009–January 23, 2010

Agnes Denes’s photographs are independently evocative, elegant compositions, yet they also serve to document a complex series of philosophical inquiries. The rigorous spiritual underpinnings of her projects are collected in the artist’s 2008 book, The Human Argument. In the project “Study of Dust (An Investigation Involving the Philosophy of Change),” Denes reads man through his bones, as a set of statistics, and from the viewpoint of the universe, all connected by the binding force of dust. Accordingly, her Human Dust photographs from 1969 portray stark, textured piles of calcified human remains arranged in pyramids, crisp images that formally evoke the scatter art of Robert Morris, Richard Serra, and other contemporaries. An accompanying text stands alongside a composite of twenty-eight of these haunting, sepia-toned, pseudo-scientific photographs, suggesting statistics’ incapacity to measure a life. In addition to the photographs, this exhibition includes intricate geometric diagrams that are at once earnest explorations of the human condition and parodies of logic’s inability to codify the human experience.

Denes collapses spiritual impulses and ecological concerns in Rice/Tree/Burial, first enacted in 1968 and staged more elaborately in 1977, wherein she performs and documents the symbolic acts of burying writing, chaining trees, and planting rice at a deliberately chosen site. The earlier series consists of eight small photographs, alternating images of the artist and the nature with which she interacts. Unlike the first iteration of the project, the 1977 series offers discrete groupings of dispersed acts: close-ups, landscapes, and other images of Denes and her assistants performing the piece’s rituals.

The most colorful photographs in the exhibition, Wheatfield—A Confrontation, offer documentation from a Public Art Fund project wherein Denes planted two acres that resulted in a harvest of over one thousand pounds of wheat in the Battery Park Landfill (now Battery Park City) in 1982. These are bright, saturated images, containing blue skies, green grass, and golden wheat. The aerial view of the piece distills the power of Denes’s cinematic eye, offering a colorful, textured set of appealing abstract shapes that are only freighted with meaning when contextualized within Denes’s philosophy and practice.