Agnes Denes’s Manhattan Wheatfield Has Only Grown More Poignant

Alina Cohen
Oct 15, 2019 10:09PM

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield—A Confrontation, 1982. Photo by John McGrall. Courtesy of the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects.

The past couple of months have ushered in some of the highest-profile arguments for climate intervention to date. Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg gained international celebrity after speaking at the United Nations about the urgency of governmental action. Jonathan Franzen wrote of our inability to prevent an impending climate apocalypse. And British activists plotted to fly drones around Heathrow in protest of the airport’s attempt to build a third runway.

In this context, it’s easy to situate Hungarian-born artist Agnes Denes within a roster of environmentalist agitators. For over 50 years, Denes has created land art, drawings, and sculptures that advocate for greater attention to our planet. Her first-ever retrospective in New York City, “Absolutes and Intermediates,” which opened at The Shed last week, positions Denes as a prophetic figure in the history of environmental activism. “One of our goals, in the face of ecological catastrophe and extinction, should be to establish new forms of ecological intelligence, rooted in imagination, empathy, and attentiveness—exactly what Agnes Denes has done,” said Hans Ulrich Obrist at the show’s press preview. Yet in 2019, Denes’s landmark work Wheatfield—A Confrontation (1982) also inspires nostalgia and frustration: Back in 1982, we had a much better chance of reversing the harm we’ve done to the planet.

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield – A Confrontation, Downtown Manhattan – The Harvest, 1982. © Agnes Denes. Courtesy of the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.


In May 1982, with the help of Public Art Fund, Denes planted around two acres of wheat in downtown Manhattan at the old Battery Park Landfill. The process required digging 285 furrows in the ground, by hand. For four months, the artist and her assistants became agriculturalists, tending their plants: ultra-American, amber waves of grain. Two blocks from Wall Street and just across the water from the Statue of Liberty, their urban garden thrived. The project’s title, Wheatfield—A Confrontation, nodded at the tension between the field and the city behind it.

Denes’s idea, she told the New York Times back in 1982, was “an intrusion of the country into the metropolis, the world’s richest real estate.” At the time, the piece was as much a critique of the economy and the city’s real estate system as it was a protest for environmental awareness. According to the artist’s website, the land that comprised the literal trash heap under her field was valued at $4.5 billion. The land has since been built up and developed into Battery Park City.

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield—A Confrontation , 1982. Photo by John McGrall. Courtesy of the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects.

Now, nearly 40 years later, Denes doesn’t believe the meanings embedded in her work have changed. “The issues have not been resolved,” she recently said. “There is still world hunger, mismanagement of resources, mismanagement and misuse of our spaces and environments.”

The artwork distinguished Denes from her land art counterparts. Most were male and working out in the wide-open spaces of the American West. In 1969, Michael Heizer famously cut into Nevada stone to create Double Negative. Robert Smithson created Spiral Jetty (1970), a swirling formation of rock and water out in Utah. Viewing Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels (1973–76) requires a trek into the Utah desert. And James Turrell acquired Arizona’s Roden Crater in 1977 and continues to plot his still-in-construction artwork.

Aerial view of Agnes Denes, Wheatfield – A Confrontation, 1982. © Agnes Denes. Courtesy of the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York,

To be fair, Denes wasn’t the first artist to intervene in New York’s landscape. Walter de Maria had set up his Earth Room (1977)—a SoHo loft filled with dirt—a few years prior. Yet Denes’s work was infinitely more accessible than that of her peers. When she harvested her crop in August, the yield served as horse feed for the city’s mounted police, and the grains traveled to become part of an exhibition, “The International Art Show for the End of World Hunger,” which traveled to 28 cities. “Individuals took away the seeds at the harvest day itself and from the exhibition,” Denes recalled. “They were in thousands of little packets!”

As with all temporary land artworks, Wheatfield—A Confrontation lives on only within memory and photographs that documented the work. And the pictures are stunning. In one of the most frequently reproduced images, Denes stands in the middle of the golden field, staff in her hand. In a striped button-down and jeans, her legs mostly submerged in her crop, she looks like she could be out on the prairie. The high rises behind her create a simultaneously humorous and foreboding contrast: In a match between a solitary person and the hulking architecture, it’s obvious who’d win. Another striking picture captures just the field itself and, beyond, the Statue of Liberty. The symbol of American freedom appears to rise from the crop.

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield – A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan – The Harvest, 1982. © Agnes Denes. Courtesy of the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.

The most poignant documentation, however, features the wheatfield against the backdrop of the World Trade Center. In 1982, the Twin Towers loomed in the background like capitalist villains. Today, it’s impossible to see them without lamenting the lives lost on September 11th, and all the tragedies that have followed: two long wars, international conflict, and mounting religious intolerance. The world in the wheatfield photographs is far from perfect, but it’s difficult not to look at it and wish we could reverse time.

Curators are deeming Denes prophetic for her ability to see climate issues for the quagmire they are. Yet Denes didn’t foretell the future—no one can. Scientists can’t even agree on exactly how our climate will change within the next 50 years. Denes merely identified basic human tendencies, such as competition, greed, and shortsightedness, that have led us into our contemporary climate crisis. Most of all, her work conjures some ever-relevant, 50-year-old Joni Mitchell lyrics: “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

Alina Cohen