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Agnes Denes in conversation with Alexandra Schwartz

Page view from From Conceptualism to Feminism: Lucy Lippard's Numbers Shows 1969–74 (Afterall Books, 2012) showing Agnes Denes' work.

Born in Budapest and raised in Stockholm and New York, Agnes Denes is associated with a number of art movements, including Conceptual art, Environmental and Land art. Emerging in the late 1960s, she became known for her large-scale site-specific works and Earthworks, including Rice/Tree/ Burial (1968) in Sullivan County, New York. She met Lippard in New York at sociopolitical meetings in the early 1970s, and was invited to participate in ‘c.7,500’. Wheatfield – A Confrontation (1982), a field planted on two acres of landfill near Wall Street, Manhattan, is one of her best-known works.

Alexandra Schwartz: Do you remember how you got involved in ‘c.7,500’?

Agnes Denes: Lucy [Lippard] invited me. AS: Did you know her socially?

AD: Oh, yes. She had invited me and other women to have consciousness- raising meetings in her studio. It was early on, around the early 1970s. It was interesting. A lot of women artists and others attended. I had to have my consciousness raised to realise I was discriminated against. Lucy was always a political being, I never was. When the Sundance Institute invited me to be on a political panel, I said, ‘But I’m not a political artist’. And they said, ‘But you did Wheatfield – A Confrontation, that was a very political act.’ I thought about it, and they were right. You don’t see your own work the same way as others do. Creating a wheat field on land worth $4.5 million, in the heart of a megacity, a block from Wall Street and facing the Statue of Liberty, was a political act. It addressed world trade, economics, greed and mismanagement, world hunger and ecological concerns.

AS: Do you remember how you decided what to send Lucy for ‘c.7,500’?

AD: I no longer remember. I think she trusted my judgment of what was important. I contributed Psychograph [1970], and works from the early Philosophical Drawings, all from 1969 to 1970, such as The Loss of Meaning, The Human Argument, Thought Complex, Paradox & Essence: Evolution, Studies of Truth, Studies of Time, Global Perspective and Dialectic Triangulation: A Visual Philosophy. All these works dealt with complex philosophical concepts; for example, The Human Argument starts with an elegant drawing of creating a truth table and a lie table in logic. There’s always been a truth table in logic, but in my adding a lie table, we create a satire. The lie is not just reversing truth, but arguing backwards from knowing to not knowing, from sophistication to innocence. It makes fun of logic and makes logic incoherent or illogical. It’s an important little piece, the beginning of the Pyramid Series from 1966, that runs through my work in a variety of forms till today, dealing with environmental and philosophical concepts.

AS: So you just reproduced an existing drawing for the exhibition?

AD: Well… not just. It was bringing together the early Philosophical Drawings. A very important condensation, as I see it now. I offered forms of existing works with added information. Important, multilayered concepts like these works need many airings for comprehension. What I offered for the exhibition was taken from existing visualisations of philosophical concepts.

AS: Did you make the drawing just for the index catalogue or also for the show?

AD: Both. I gave her the whole Psychograph project, all 36 sheets. The work tested famous artists through psychoanalysis. Psychograph was a complicated work that examined responses from well-known artists of the time, as evaluated by two psychologists, a man and a woman. Looking at artists through psychoanalysis was a unique idea. I wrote twenty or twenty-five questions that I gave to them (Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, Doug Huebler, etc.) and to Lucy, who was the only critic.

It was exhibited as a 17-foot single piece, so that you could read the questions and responses and compare how different artists responded. I removed the names to make sure no one got offended and listed them in a column. Still, some weren’t too happy with the evaluations. People were guessing whose responses and evaluations were whose.

AS: So there wasn’t an actual graphic element to this project…

AD: The project itself was the graphic element. There were just my questions, which I designed, and their responses, and then the evaluation by the psychoanalysts underneath each one. It was interesting how the psychoanalysts mostly agreed with each other, and they had never met.

AS: Did knowing that it was a show only of women affect what you decided to contribute?

AD: No, that would not affect me at all. I never even thought about that. In any case, that would not have made any difference. I taught my works to be grown-ups and behave themselves in any exhibition they are put into. They had to fend for themselves and stand out by their personal value.

AS: ‘c.7,500’ was Lippard’s feminist Conceptual show. Did you think of yourself as a Conceptual artist? Did that term mean anything to you?

AD: I knew about Conceptual art, I just never tried to categorise myself as an artist. That’s what the art world does to you, critics and such. But to look at it from another point of view, in those days the Conceptualists were all men, and they would not allow me into their group. They were jealously guarding their terrain.

Lucy was living with Seth Siegelaub at the time, and he organised this Conceptual art show. I don’t remember the title, it was four or five Conceptual men. I said to Lucy, ‘How come that he wouldn’t ask me to be in it?’ I just assumed that I should be. And she said, ‘You go and ask.’ Goaded by her, I reluctantly went to Seth and asked ‘Would you like to come visit my studio?’ And he said, ‘Heavens, what on earth for?’. That was the attitude at the time.

AS: Did you consider yourself a feminist at the time?

AD: Of course you are a feminist if you are a woman and proud of what you do. But you don’t look in the mirror and say to yourself, ‘I am a feminist.’ There are some hard-core feminists who make it a political issue.

I wasn’t. I’d never looked at myself thinking that I was this or that. I never separated art according to gender, only quality and talent.

However, it is a fact that discrimination still exists, and men are taken more seriously, make more money, with intermittent exceptions in most fields. That’s just the way things are, and if you stop at that, and worry about it, you are wasting your time.

When everybody was out picketing and blocking museum entrances, I said I’d rather go to my studio and make great art to stop discrimination.

AS: Do you remember whether you saw ‘c.7,500’? AD: Where was it shown?

AS: It was at CalArts, the Wadsworth Atheneum, Moore College, the Walker Art Center and several other places.

AD: Not in those places. If it was shown in New York, I would see it. If Lucy had an opening where she had asked artists to be there and speak. But I can’t remember.

AS: Do you think a lot of the work was done specifically for show?

AD: Well, my work Psychograph was aimed at the show. For the catalogue I did a condensation of my work out of respect for Lucy, and actually designed that piece for her. I’ve been in several exhibitions since and did projects with Lucy, and hopefully will do more in the future. I have high regard for her.

This interview was conducted on 20 November 2008.