Agnes Denes’s work is structured around analytical investigation, conceptual elaboration and visual restitution, encoding data of various kinds – geographical, biological, mathematical, linguistic and philosophical – within maps, diagrams and visual metaphors. For this reason, in the artist’s production, which is entirely animated by the link between image and abstract language (Bonani et al. 2021, 100), and in her annotations, one can glimpse early evidence of an artistic and methodological trend that has developed from the beginning of the 21st century with forms of visual knowledge and data visualisation.
The Manifesto’s declaration of intent reveals the conscious interdisciplinary research that Denes carries out through her artistic practice. The desire to explore different fields through the use of the intellect, mediated by intuition, and to recognise and interpret the relationship between different elements and fields, according to Denes leads to the development of new concepts and fields of investigation (Denes 1969). In this path of ‘eternal research’, the Hungarian artist owes part of her experimentation to the principles of natural science and mathematics and to the tools of technology. These are the disciplines that she explored analytically, returning an image – meant both figuratively and literarily – of knowledge that is synthetic and branched (Selz 1992, 147), and which characterises a holistic view of culture and nature.
Starting in the mid-1960s, Denes began working on Visual Philosophy, a series conceived to “create a flow of communication” between various fields that, according to the artist, were gradually becoming isolated and transformed into “alien systems” (Denes 1990, 919) as a result of disciplinary evolution and specialisation. In fact, Visual Philosophy can be framed within the artist’s vision of the knowledge model taking shape during the 60s. For Agnes Denes, knowledge can be compared to an apex structure that is articulated in multiple directions, which is why the artist calls it the Octopus model. In response to branching out and increased sectorialisation – sometimes resulting in a loss of contact with the summit – Denes proposes ‘an analytical attitude for an overall view’ (Denes 1986, 839). This is the aim of works such as The Dialectic Triangulation: A visual philosophy, a large work divided into three sections in which the artist proposes a representation of philosophical systems and deductive logic through abstract symbols, based on the unity of the triangle.
In 1986, in the scientific journal ‘Computers & Maths Application’, the artist explained the role of symmetry in her work. Symmetry, of which equilateral triangles are a frequent expression, represents a symbolic structure and form, sometimes shown and visible, sometimes concealed as a conceptual substrate and reference system for the invisible patterns of physical existence and the logic of critical and deductive thought (Denes 1986).
The procedure through which Denes works – conceptual abstraction and formal distillation – finds further expression in the Pyramids series: “perfect figures and ethical structures” embodying human knowledge (Denes 2020, 233) and exemplifying Pascal’s mathematical theory of probability, the same law that the artist has applied in some of her land art works.
Thought Complex (1971-1972) is a work along the same lines as The Dialectic Triangulation: A visual philosophy. This is a diagrammatic representation of the processes of the intellect – comparison, validation and opposition – applied to crystallography. In the drawing, a cognitive architecture is constructed like crystalline solids, whose formation and development processes Denes compares to the evolution of thought. The superpositions and intersections of the triangles produce a multi-faceted polyhedron, a figurative ‘nodes and links’ solution commonly used today for configurations of visual knowledge (Lima 2017).
This analytical method, based on thesis and antithesis, is inherent in the artist’s modus operandi, which also defines her production by the exploration of opposing themes and problems. The series of works dictated by mathematical and perfect language is accompanied by several graphic elaborations of an antithetical nature, which could be defined as expressions of ‘asymmetries’, communicative and perceptive. These include Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space-Map Projections (fig.2), geographic maps from a series of studies of distortions obtained by applying cartographic rules to geometric solids and other shapes, such as eggs, shells and doughnuts.
The tradition of maps and charts, which originated as a conventional system of codifying naturalistic information and terrestrial landmarks, here becomes a source for unhinging certainties, accepting relativism and paradox. A few years after the ‘Earthrise’ photograph taken by Apollo 8 in 1968 – an event that produced a shift in the perception of the planet (Rawes 2018, 80) – Denes reconfigured the mass of the globe, “tuning” longitude and latitude with the aim of producing an experimental cartography (Denes 2020, 18) rendering new uncertainties and ‘black holes’ of knowledge visually: “We must create a new language, consider a transitory state of new illusions and layers of validity, and accept the possibility that there may be no language to describe ultimate reality, beyond the language of visions” (Denes 2020, 155).
The artist performs a true cartographic projection through a mathematical reconstruction of meridians and parallels with exact data, dismantling the idea of one single possible earth morphology, thus creating new visualisations of the relationship between land and continents. This was a work of timeliness and great precision that took four years to complete due to the difficulty of translating measurements and distances to different shapes without the aid of computers, using unsophisticated instruments (Homer 2014).
Agnes Denes extends her investigative gaze to ecosystem phenomena and events by collecting raw data that she offers as visual case studies. Bird Project – Visual investigation of system in motion, made in 1979 in Sweden, is a film that records the migratory flow of birds in order to examine the relational system of the species when compared with human beings. The individual-group relationship, adaptability and environmental influence are the parameters taken into consideration by the artist. Denes had expressed a similar interest two years earlier during a trip to Niagara Falls for the work Rice/ Tree/ Burial in which she filmed the power of water and the movement of nature.
The overview and elimination of boundaries that Denes pursues in her artistic research can also be found in the choice of certain formats. The intention to restore the unity and wholeness of her visual elaborations led the artist to structure works in several sections and to imagine paintings without borders of 500 yards or even 1000 yards long (Selz 1992, 147) to contain knowledge ecosystems in just one space.
Her large-format works include Introspection II – machines, tools and weapons (fig.3). Here the artist develops a visual history of technology horizontally, from its origins to the present day, including major innovations arriving at the atomic bomb and the Human Hang-Up Machine – a machine of her own invention consisting of innumerable technical and fantastic components.
Denes has shown an interest in technology on several occasions. She has experimented with x-rays, microscopes, written about artificial intelligence, and attended the AT&T Bell Laboratories. She took part in the exhibition ‘Software: information, technology and its new meaning in art’ in 1970, where, in collaboration with the young computer scientist group R.E.S.I.S.T.O.R.S, she presented two works that were conceived as computational experiments in the research she was conducting on the theory of knowledge and information (Bianconi 2020, 167). In the Trigonal Ballet computer animation an endless loop of evanescent triangles was produced, whereas in Matrix of Knowledge, the artist inserted a series of ‘matrices’ in Creative Reason, Evolution, Politics and systems, Emotions and Passions, and A Man’s Life, in order to invite the user to confront a pre-constituted and ‘condensed’ system of information. However, this also left room for a margin of choice, proposing forms of computer interactivity to the public: “in one programme visitors could create their own lives, where only Birth and Death were unchangeable – prefixed givens” (Denes 2020,119). In Matrix of Knowledge, the artist took a critical look at the effects of the information age, a subject on which she has spoken on several occasions:
The sum of accumulated information doubles every seven to ten years. In the future this overload will increase until abridgments and reductions will appear at the pressing of a button on a systems analyser, decoder, or computer. […] A youth today may read less than 500 books or their equivalent to be well educated. This number could easily jump to 10,000 or 20,000 in the near future. When having to read and learn that much becomes more than the mind can handle, reduction, pre-selection, and elimination will be the answer. But who shall make these decisions-by what criteria? The individuals will certainly not be able to do it. A system will be set up to reduce incoming data at the risk of losing free choice. Mass media is already making choices for us, and specialisation is also leading in that direction by trapping valuable data within each specialty where it remains undigested, hindering accurate deductions and combinations as the flow of communication is blocked (Denes 2020,119).
In this accumulation of information, Denes uses the image as a tool to construct languages of perception (Denes 1986, 839) resulting from the historical change she has experienced during the Information Age. The capacity for synthesis and clarification that she attributes to the image allows her to construct devices enabling people to see and know reality, both in its metaphysical structure and in the reciprocal and multiple relationships that constitute it. What has been outlined above, by examining a small part of the artist’s production, is intended as a brief pathway – just one of the many possible ones that the variety of her work offers – for a retrospective rereading of the topicality of the artistic operation which Denes conducted in the field of visualisation as a communicative tool of complex and invisible dynamics. The formulation of a cognitive, visual and synthetic approach, which the artist has been developing since the 1970s with a lucid and critical gaze, seems to anticipate an ‘Art for the Third Millennium’ – to quote the title of the lectio magistralis dedicated to Denes which was presented at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome in 1998 by Mirella Bentivoglio.
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Lima, Manuel. 2017. The book of Circles. Visualizing Spheres of knowledge. New York: Princeton Architectural Press
Rawe, Peg. 2018. “Planetary aesthetic” In Landscape and Agency. Critical Essay, edited by Ed Wall and Tim Waterman, 78-89. New York: Routledge
Selz, Peter.1992 . “Agnes Denes: the artist as universalist” In Agnes Denes, edited by Jill Hartz, 147-155. Ithaca: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Arts, Cornell University
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images: (Cover-1) Cover Wheatfield – A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan – with Agnes Denes Standing in the Field, ©1982 Agnes Denes, image via (2) Agnes Denes, «Study for Thought Complex», 1970, india ink on graph paper, 30 x 20 cm c.ca. © Agnes Denes, image via (3) Agnes Denes, «Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space-Map Projections. The Doughnut», 1979, graph paper with charcoal, 61x 76 cm circa. © Agnes Denes, image via (4) Agnes Dens, «Introspection I – Evolution, 1968-71, Monoprint, 12x 5 m circa; Introspection II – machine, tools and weapons», 1972, Monoprint, 10 x 6 m c.ca. © Agnes Denes, image via (5) Agnes Denes, «Tree Mountain – A Living Time Capsule-11,000 Trees, 11,000 People, 400 Years», 1992-96, (420 x 270 x 28 meters) Ylojarvi, Finland. © Agnes Denes, image via