Could Agnes Denes' Wheatfield Be Even More Relevant Today?

February 2, 2020

During the 1960s, the environmental movement started consolidating alongside other social movements active at the time. Various artists started embraced those ideas and that is how Land Art was formed as an autonomous practice. Namely, during this decade there was an apparent need to critically articulate the art system and the practitioners interested in environmental issues realized that the only way to deliver their message was to set their works up in nature, outside the walls of said institutions.

Agnes Denes, the first woman of Land art in the United States, took a concise politically charged position and expressed herself not only through spatial interventions/installations and sculpture but also philosophical writings and diagrams which she described as Visual Philosophy. Unlike her male peers such as Robert Smithson or Alan Sonfist, who used unchangeable and often inorganic materials for their works, Denes used living materials that changed gradually with time and affected their surroundings.

The most prolific piece this artist released was the iconic Wheatfield - A Confrontation made in 1982 for which she created, as the title suggests, a wheatfield at the site of the former landfill.

Agnes Denes Wheatfield A Confrontation 1982
Agnes Denes - Wheatfield—A Confrontation, 1982. Two acres of wheat planted and harvested by the artist on the Battery Park landfill, Manhattan, Summer 1982. Commissioned by Public Art Fund. Courtesy the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects

The Wheatfield by Agnes Denes

By the time this piece was produced, Agnes Denes was recognized as a devoted environmentalist with a deep interest in the social and political implications of global warming. Therefore, she purposely decided to plant Wheatfield - A Confrontation not just anywhere in the city, but in front of the financial district framed by the Twin Towers and Wall Street to underline the source of social inequality and the global economy that exploits the earth.

Denes's vast wheatfield was eventually planted on a two-acres-long landfill, a property worth $4.5 billion at the time (which perfectly suited the work due to the apparent irony). Before the intervention, the site was an embodiment of ecological concerns, while after the transformation, it indicated systematic mismanagement, class differences and world hunger especially in the context of Reagan’s administration and the prevailing class discrepancy.

Denes was also interested in creating an experience rather than the actual artwork, underlining the possibility of idyllic rural landscape appearing in the urban area where the city’s landmark sites such as the Statue of Liberty appears as drifting into or out of a field.

Agnes Denes - Wheatfield - A Confrontation, 1982, Battery Park New York

The Preparations and Aftereffects

Agnes Denes was commissioned by the Public Art Fund to produce a large scale public art project for the Manhattan area. After the location was confirmed and the required permits were granted, the artist had to clear out the grand landfill. With the help of two assistants and a large group of volunteers from the neighborhood, she started an expansive process of preparation for planting that resulted in two hundred truckloads of trash taken out of the landfill. The following step was to dig out almost three hundred furrows and that had to be done manually as well as the actual insertion of the grains.

The plantation was maintained for four months, and the workers devotedly cleared wheat smut, weeded, fertilized, and sprayed against fungus; an irrigation system was also set up to provide a sufficient amount of water for the plants. The wheat was harvested later that year, yielding over one thousand pounds of healthy, golden grains. Some crops were distributed as a food supply for the New York’s mounted police, while the rest traveled to twenty-eight cities across the world in an exhibition titled The International Art Show for the End of World Hunger, organized by the Minnesota Museum of Art between 1987 and 1990.

Agnes Denes Absolutes and Intermediates
Agnes Denes, Installation view of Agnes Denes: Absolutes and Intermediates, October 9, 2019 – March 22, 2020, The Shed New York. Photo: Dan Bradica

The Understanding of The Denes Wheatfield In The Age of Climate Crisis

For its seasonal ties, living materials and the processes such as planting and harvesting, Wheatfield – A Confrontation differs from other Land art pieces.

There are similarities to the ones made by Alan Sonfist; for instance, his project Time Landscape (1965-1978-Present) is focused on the dense planting of indigenous species that were growing before the British colonization of the American soil. The artist used the rectangular field in lower Manhattan released a specific botanical time capsule that reflects various surrounding processes regarding national identity, the notion of soil, and preservation of nature.

Although Sonfist’s intervention was also conceived in the urban environment, Denes’s went further in taking more political stance that can be affiliated with the feminist agenda to a certain extent - the circle of life, traditional women roles of nurturing and taking care.

Following that notion is also the fact that Wheatfield – A Confrontation was thought of as of great communal value - it was a participatory project that involved the local community and was practically made accessible to everybody. The artist briefly emphasized her intention with the following statement:

Wheatfield was a symbol, a universal concept; it represented food, energy, commerce, world trade, and economics. It referred to mismanagement, waste, world hunger and ecological concerns. It called attention to our misplaced priorities.

Like many other temporary land artworks, today this land art piece exists only within memory of the New Yorkers and photographic documentation of the project. Denes recreated the piece in Milan in 2015, indicating the changing nature of a European city that is now developing under the same circumstances as New York did in 1982.

Wheatfield – A Confrontation is more relevant than ever before in the light of the global debate concerning climate crisis, especially the recent fires that swept almost entire of Australia. On the grounds of those changes, the urban space has to be reconsidered and every possible piece of land used for equal distribution of food and water.

Although it requires more space for articulation, it is important to underline the seemingly visible liaison between politics/economy and the environment through the plain fact that both Denes’s project and the Tower Twins which once stood nearby no longer exist. Although the reasons of their vanishing are quite different, this nonexistence can be perceived as an allegory of contemporary capitalism that inflicts overconsumption, exploitation, unequally and ecological catastrophe.

On view at The Shed in New York at the moment is Agnes Denes: Absolutes and Intermediates, a comprehensive show bring together more than 150 works in a broad range of media spanning Denes’s 50-year career. Make sure you see it by March 22, 2020! You can also get the accompanying catalog here.

agnes denes wheat field battery park manhattan agnes denes wheat field battery park manhattan  Editors’ Tip: Agnes Denes: Absolutes and Intermediates

Agnes Denes: Absolutes and Intermediates accompanies the largest exhibition of the artist’s work in New York to date, held at The Shed in fall 2019 as part of the arts space’s opening season. Presenting more than 130 works, this comprehensive publication, presented in an embossed slipcase, spans the 50-year career of the path-breaking artist dubbed “the queen of land art” by the New York Times, famed for her iconic Wheatfield―A Confrontation (1982), for which she planted a two-acre wheatfield in Lower Manhattan on the Battery Park Landfill, in the shadow of the then recently erected Twin Towers.

Featured image: Agnes Denes - Wheatfield—A Confrontation, 1982. Two acres of wheat planted and harvested by the artist on the Battery Park landfill, Manhattan, Summer 1982. Commissioned by Public Art Fund. Courtesy the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects.