Sandwoman: Land Artist Agnes Denes Has a Plan for the Rockaways

Mega dunes and barrier islands

Although Ms. Denes has work in the collections of virtually every important New York museum, she is—unlike some of those other artists—only recently gaining widespread recognition. New Orleans-based critic Nick Stillman has attributed the lag to her forward thinking. “Her early work was perhaps too prescient (especially her pioneering vision of Land art not as monument but as renewal) and eccentric,” he wrote recently in Artforum. “[I]n addition, scientifically inclined female Conceptualists eager to poke fun at male power weren’t exactly carving out an easy path to acclaim.”

She was, as Ms. Tonkonow puts it, ahead of her time. “Her interest in issues like global warming and the future and the earth are more relevant now than they ever were, but she was very early on in identifying them, and unlike the other artists that are really associated with land art, there are very few of them that were specifically interested in the notion of ecology or had a sociopolitical involvement with the land; [for them] it was more of a formal engagement, using the earth as a material.”

Since then, of course, the world has caught up with her. “Everybody does public art now,” Ms. Denes said. “When I did it, it was like ‘What is that?’ and nobody was doing it in 1968 or ’69, and now everybody is doing it. Everybody always gets into the new mode, so you get it altered by new people coming into it, which is fine; that’s the way it should be. ”

Denes in 2000. (Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow)

An exhibition of her work organized by Ballroom Marfa will open at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Project Space in Chelsea in October, but Ms. Denes would rather talk about previous projects, even heartbreaking disappointments, than hype upcoming shows. “There’s a kind of bittersweet quality to having recognition so late in your life,” Ms. Tonkonow said, “when you’ve been working so hard and so consistently and so brilliantly for such a long time, and it manifests itself in different ways in different people.”

“I am an incurably creative person,” said Ms. Denes. “I do everything creatively. People used to watch me—how I peeled an apple or cut an onion or formed a sculpture, because my fingers were so eloquent.”

These days, her fingers are stiff. She no longer makes intricate, diagrammatic drawings. Instead, she is at work on two editions of lithographs, as well as her seventh and eighth collections of writing. “I want to get as much done as I can before I wind up in a wheelchair. That is why I’m working very fast.” She said she wants “to live 500 years, 1,000 years, to do what I need to do. I have so many ideas for helping humanity, so many concepts.”

Ms. Denes knows what it’s like to dodge death. The ledge she slept on at the edge of Niagara Falls crumbled and fell into the churning water shortly after she left. Years later, in 1986, she was going to be part of the seven-person crew that boarded the Space Shuttle Challenger. When an astronaut told her that her spot had been given to a schoolteacher, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, she tried to change his mind. “Wouldn’t you like to see space through the eyes of an artist?” she demanded. She watched Challenger launch, and explode, on the tiny television in her kitchen.

Asked if she would go to space if someone offered her another chance, Ms. Denes paused only an instant before nodding.

“I’m an explorer.”

Sandwoman: Land Artist Agnes Denes Has a Plan for the Rockaways