By Rita Rushanan
In both the arts and the sciences, there appears a need to understand the universe around us. Through practices of experimentation, a controlled or simplified view is most often necessary for thoroughly grasping large-scale theories and incidents. These are occurrences that rely equally on intuition and knowledge. This notion is best summed up by a portion of the caption for Agnes Denes’ drawing Point=Line=Art=Intellect: “The points and lines that make up a work of art make up the universe.”1
This paper will begin by exploring the philosophical language and processes created by contemporary artist Agnes Denes, especially through her series of drawings and prints, Visual Philosophy, and how they connect to a constructivist view of logic and art-making. Historically, Denes’s work has been described as modernist and alludes to 20th century artists such as Mondrian and Malevich (after all, the title is a direct reference to the writings of Kandinsky). The piece Point=Line=Art=Intellect, in the UMCA collection, instigates scientific inquiry, mathematics as language, and drawing’s involvement in processes of understanding and logic. The prominence of graph paper does emphasize a universalist foundation, but given Denes’s complex oeuvre comprising eco-feminist installations, sculptures, and earthworks, her investigations of knowledge, language, and illustration transcend artistic categorization.
I will compare this work to a print by Julie Mehretu titled Fracture, also from the UMCA collection. Mehretu’s art, though more organic in form and spontaneous in production, similarly explores intellectual systems and layers of rationality. Though Mehretu’s paintings, prints, and drawings often do contain visual elements recognizable as architectural designs, flags, or built structures, this etching is focused on natural elements. Its composition evokes birds’ wings, blurred clouds, and explosions in association with natural disasters, but it also has linear geometric marks such as parallel lines, various intersections and angles, and even yellow lines that resemble the foundational grid of Denes’ drawing. Viewers perceiving the image may comprehend it to reference a range of different natural phenomena at differing scales. The comparison of the two artists’ works demonstrates, as with many theories in science and math, the abundance of parallels between the microscopic and macroscopic worlds of matter and the physical laws that govern and impact them.
Agnes Denes was born in 1931 in Hungary. After surviving Nazi occupation, her family moved to Sweden where she attended school for a few years before her family relocated to New York City when she was a teenager.2 Over 80 years old, she is still an active artist in New York City. In fact, she is so devoted to her work that she now lives in her studio to allow her as much productivity as possible for the remainder of her life, as she simply wishes to “roll out of bed to make art.”3 As a student, Denes had an interest in poetry, but decided to pursue visual arts after facing language barriers from moving around as an adolescent. She began her artistic career with painting but felt it was too limiting, and that she “always had more to say” than could fit on the canvas.3
Emerging from the new art movements of the late 1960s, Agnes Denes has been categorized as a feminist earth and conceptual artist, though most of her work exceeds the boundaries of art to explore the disciplines of philosophy, logic, science, and mathematics. Mostly through large-scale works on the border between performance and ritual, Denes has fostered a devotion to environmental activism. She advocates for both awareness and urgency regarding the impact of industry on natural landscapes and human wellbeing. She uses the phrase “eco-logic” to denote this intersection.4 She is motivated by her “love and compassion for humanity,” and states that she feels “so sorry for us, the problems the world is having.”3
Denes uses drawing as a planning process for many of her large-scale installations and earthworks, but she has also delved into drawing as a project of its own – as a vessel for ideas and an examination of the paradox of knowledge, or the intelligibility of advanced concepts produced by rational thought. She relies on the crisp execution offered through drawing to “give visual form to ideas,” flawlessly balancing abstract communication with aesthetics.3 “There’s an elegance and a kind of succinctness. It’s a beautiful distillation,” says Gary Garrels, senior curator of paintings at SFMoMA.3 Denes’ philosophical productions receive her full intellectual attention. She calls this highly developed portion of her body of work Visual Philosophy, an extended series of drawings conveying “symbolic logic.”3 Denes is concerned with the accessibility of understanding abstract concepts, so instead she says, “I make them so beautiful that you are taken in by the beauty. And while you’re taken in by the beauty, I got you to think.”3 Though Denes’ visual philosophies are highly advanced and successfully developed, her name has not garnered the same broad reach as other 20th century conceptual artists because of these complexities.
Julie Mehretu was born in Ethiopia to an American teacher mother and Ethiopian father. Her family moved to the United States when she was around the age of 7, after escaping dictatorship in Ethiopia. She mainly grew up in Michigan, but had some education in Dakar, Senegal, and received her MFA from RISD.5 Mehretu has expressed that she feels privileged to “move around the world as an American.”6 Mehretu’s diverse background, she says, is “informed by all these elements, but it’s something else altogether. That’s the big issue for me, which I deal with in the language of abstraction.”7 Her work, often large paintings, has a layered and linear style and is relatively conservative in its use of color. The strata characteristic of Mehretu’s work are the crucial elements to the success of her work. Carefully put together, they create an atmosphere of their own.
Subtractive marks and acts of erasure play an equally vital role in Mehretu’s prints and paintings. According to Siri Engberg, the guest curator of Excavations, Mehretu’s work is “as much about erasure as it is about accumulation.” She applies layers only to “rub them away, revealing traces of what came before as a scaffold on which to build marks anew.”8 This notion of scaffolding is easy to spot in any of her paintings that focus on the built landscape. Consideration of negative space is paramount in each of her pieces. Mehretu creates a foundation through her technique of projecting and tracing found maps, cityscapes, and urban plans directly onto her canvas. Her larger paintings employ assistants to help realize these plans, which begin as intricate computer mockups broken up into as many as 20 layers to be interpreted and implemented.6
By contrast, Mehretu considers the series of prints made at or soon after her invitation to work at Crown Point Press in San Francisco to be more “lyrical” arrangements in which she explicitly chose to focus on natural landscapes. She deems the process of printmaking itself to be a method of excavation for her own work.8 It is also worth mentioning that she began this work in 2005, just after Hurricane Katrina, a terrifying demonstration of nature’s complexity and unpredictability. Mehretu’s style is notably synesthetic in its abstraction, producing compositions “that only onomatopoeia can render in text.”9 Mehretu has said that she listens to a variety of music while working, especially hip hop, as well as political and historical podcasts. The relation to rhythm and music furthers the connection of her art to Kandinsky’s synesthetic paintings.9
Point=Line=Art=Intellect is a pen drawing on graph paper completed in 1973, and is published alongside Denes’ Visual Philosophy body of works. The title directly references the writings of Expressionist painter Wassily Kandinsky, namely his 1926 Bauhaus book Point and Line to Plane. Denes’ own writing is comparable to Kandinsky’s direct, descriptive, and theoretical style, though she adds the layer of scientific investigation and interprets the many functions of drawing, not just the emotions they evoke. The caption provided by the artist for this work identifies each of the drawing’s six sections:
“The points and lines that make up a work of art make up the universe:
- Liquid crystals in circular motion
- Liquid crystals in linear motion
- Sub-atomic particles in hydrogen chamber
- Time photograph of motion of stars
- Artist’s statement in Morse code”1
The first five boxes, then, transcribe various forms of scientific illustration that attempts to capture complex or invisible phenomena in visible form. Translation of the Morse code in section 6 reveals the following message: “If the mind possesses universar variditi, art revears a universart truth. I want that truth.” Evidently, Denes very intentionally included the pun “universart” and replaced every “l” with an “r,” letters which have very similar notations in Morse code. She could also be cleverly touching upon information and nuance lost in translation. Additionally, some of the spacing between the letters are not clearly established and obscure the distinction between letters, words, phrases, or sentences, leading to a quite literally jumbled block of text. It is important to note that this translation was interpreted for word and sentence spacing.
This work is appealing for its consideration of the diversity of both mark-making and scientific or mathematical languages. Denes acknowledges that mark-making is not exclusive to drawing, and vice-versa. Furthermore, though Point=Line=Art=Intellect seems to recreate absolute representations of established theories, there are slight imperfections and variations within Denes’s marks. For instance, there are marks from the tip of her ball-point pen and remnants of pencil sketching. Some marks are sticking out of their predestined boxes, and both dots and lines, especially those in “motion,” are given slightly different sizes. Nevertheless, the pen marks suggest the application of a very even pressure. Denes also demonstrates deliberate usage of the graph paper by implementing even spacing throughout. For example, there are exactly six small squares between each of the sections in the drawing. This level of conscious planning most obviously alludes to the verbal instructions accompanying Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings, a vast series of conceptual drawings in which the self-fabricated laws of logic become the overarching theme.
The comprehensive theme of Denes’ philosophical drawings stems from the utopia of absolute knowledge and scientific definition. There is an inherent paradox in which theories with enough establishment are believed to be universally acceptable, even though there is no such thing as infinite concrete proof. This asymptotic approach to perfection parallels Denes’ consideration of lines and grids. As part of an essay for the Pace Gallery in New York, Rosalind Krauss explains that grids assert modernity both spatially and temporally.10 They are flat and anti-representational, both upfront and hiding behind. A gridded artwork simultaneously defines a solid perimeter and expects its composition to be ignored.
Fracture is an etching made with aquatint and spit bite in 2007, two years after Julie Mehretu’s invitation to the printmaking studio Crown Point Press.8 The implementation of aquatint and spit bite into the etching process allows for the range of gray values and deep shadows. Though subdued in color, the variations in opacity and density of the marks create complex layers typical of Mehretu’s compositions. The strongest color appears in the predominantly straight, intersecting orange lines spaced throughout the piece. These lines create a convincing semblance of a splintered version of Denes’ foundational graph paper. Mehretu demonstrates a mastery of her medium by producing a different texture for each type of layer and mark, from the orange lines with an opacity resembling colored pencil, to the bluish washes echoing watery fingerprints. Darker, more prominent streaks look like gashes. The marks themselves form meta-relationships, such as thick lines made up of many thin lines, or many short lines aggregating into larger curved gestures. Some of the lines suggest an observation that Denes might also provide, that mathematically a circle is a polygon with infinite sides.
The composition of Fracture evokes a large, angelic, anthropomorphic bird, with wing-like structures formed of many radiating lines and a round negative shape at the top center that resembles a head in profile tilting upwards. Following the notion of the etching’s damaged landscape, this centrally empty space may be considered the “ground zero” of the composition, and is pivotal to the title, Fracture. Siri Engberg observes that this print offers a more detailed view than her large-scale architectural subjects, able to “resolve the character of her marks with more specificity.”8 Additionally, the explosive expression of Fracture in a way mirrors the articulate randomness portrayed in Point=Line=Art=Intellect, particularly the section with sub-atomic particles in a hydrogen chamber (section 4). The two works operate at opposite ends of a supposedly linear spatial scale, in both cases a scale stretched so far beyond that of human perception that it becomes absurd, requiring an abstract depiction.Each artist tackles the representation of chaos in their subject matter. However, each piece illustrates movement very differently. In an interview, Mehretu discusses the ephemerality of her marks as communicated through the transparent layers and suggestion of wind.9 By depicting themes of dynamic motion two-dimensionally, they inevitably make the movement appear frozen in time. This choice of frame becomes rather personal and precise on the part of the artist.
In Denes’s writing, her utopian views most often relate to Modernism and early 20th-century artists such as Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian who aspired to create a universal language. She also recalls Kandinsky, who wrote frankly on his philosophies of visual mark-making and the psychological reactions conjured by their variations. In an essay for a major catalog of Denes’ oeuvre, Robert Hobbs summarizes these associations:
Although she does not resemble the early twentieth-century modernists who attempted to develop unique master codes, Denes is ultimately as utopian as they are. Her desire to challenge limits and to push representation to the point of universality puts her on a parallel course with such utopians as Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, and Piet Mondrian… who were concerned with presenting images of a new reality.1
Denes is also described as “a modernist in a postmodernist world,” and her logic is characteristically constructivist.1 This is most evident in the idea that intuitive reason leads directly into pure reason via scientific inquiry, a transformation which is related to spiritual strength in the eyes of Russian Constructivists.
Mehretu is only described as a Modernist in passing, which is probably linked to its timespan. An article on her monumental mural commissioned by Goldman Sachs affirms that “Modernist tropes no longer carry their original authority, but she underscores the way they can still provide fragments of meaning.”11 Such fragments come across in Fracture via the orange lines suggestive of a shattered grid. At the same time, this explosive effect is comparable to exploded view drawings employed in mechanical engineering. Still, the freedom to escape is held at bay by the strong perimeter inevitably created by the print’s plate mark.
Denes’ philosophical drawings foster an exploration of the differences between constructivism and structuralism, the former being a geometric movement and style pioneered by Russian artists and centered on overarching language, and the latter being a school of thought on the cumulative nature of society. Through intense studies of philosophy presented through mathematics, Denes generates an awareness of both phenomena. For example, she describes her Pyramids drawings as “ethical structures that deal with social reality.”12 Theoretically, Piaget provides the following summary of Structuralism in his book of the same name:
All structuralists… are at one in recognizing as fundamental the contrast between structures and aggregates, the former being wholes, the latter composites formed of elements that are independent of the complexes into which they enter. To insist on this distinction is not to deny that structures have elements, but the elements of a structure are subordinated into laws, and it is in terms of these laws that the structure qua whole or system is defined. 13
The mention of “laws” certainly parallels Denes’ meticulous use of graph paper that recalls Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings. This excerpt also relates to the issues of completeness and a meta-purpose within Denes’ drawing, since the medium of drawing has historically been defined as incomplete or partial in relation to painting. In her own words, Denes explains that her Pyramids series is “built from the core, the nucleus,” and that they “have a natural strength, the power of innocence and true beginnings.”12 In Structuralism, Piaget further argues:
Since Gödel, logicians and students of the foundations of mathematics distinguish between ‘stronger’ and ‘weaker’ structures, the stronger ones not being capable of elaboration until after the construction of the more elementary, that is ‘weaker’ systems yet, conversely, themselves necessary to the ‘completion’ of the weaker ones. 13
Furthermore, Piaget combines these two concepts by stating that incompleteness is “a necessary consequence of the fact that there is no ‘terminal’ or ‘absolute’ form because any content is form relative to some inferior content and any form the content for some higher form.”13 Thus, with some investigation it seems that the imperfections in Point=Line=Art=Intellect are themselves part of the argument for taking a constructivist approach to describing natural phenomena. In addition, using the Egyptian pyramids as an example, Denes describes the language of mathematics as one of purity, simplicity, and perfection, as if “weeding out the superfluous,” which might relate to the flatness and perceived formality of her drawing.12
Mehretu’s working process can also be viewed through a constructivist lens. She begins with a literal framework, including architectural drawings and fragments of found maps, and carefully builds up the complexity by introducing transparent layers, randomized curves, and brightly colored geometric shapes. The result is a “complex cultural coded social language.”9 At the same time, her work is globalist, with compositions akin to maps, which are a way of creating connections between places. More broadly, the translation between three-dimensional observation and two-dimensional expression is a form of modeling or mapping, the former being an intermediate between an idea and its three-dimensional implementation, and the latter being a two-dimensional simplification of a geographical environment, or even the intermediate stage between a place and a destination.
Considered from this perspective, Mehretu approaches social sciences with the same inquisitive complexity that Denes affords the physical sciences. On the one hand, while Denes questions logical intuition, Mehretu trusts it. Arguably, however, Mehretu’s inquisitive explorations are just as experimental as the academic research to which Denes is so devoted, even if they have different visible manifestations. Ultimately, in surpassing the standard artistic categorizations, both artists subtly reject universalism. Still, they both produce work that is more hopeful than critical. They invoke an awareness of the overwhelming complexity of the universe, challenging generalizations of identity and theory. Both artists work deliberately and with an intense planning process, attempting to imitate some element within or develop a new rumination on the natural world. Each artist’s project thus embodies its own form of modeling the universe.
1 Denes, Agnes, and Jill Hartz. 1992. Agnes Denes. 1st ed. Ithaca, N.Y.: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, pp. 20, 163.
4 Denes, Agnes. 1993. “Notes on Eco-Logic: Environmental Artwork, Visual Philosophy and Global Perspective.” Leonardo 26 (5): 387.
6 Art:21. 2009. Julie Mehretu in “Systems.” Video. https://art21.org/watch/art-in-the-twenty-first-century/s5/julie-mehretu-in-systems-segment/.
7 Abrams, Janet, and Peter Hall. 2006. Else/where: mapping new cartographies of networks and territories. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Design Institute.
8 Mehretu, Julie, and Siri Engberg. 2009. Excavations: the prints of Julie Mehretu. Minneapolis, MN: Highpoint Editions.
9 Woubshet D. 2014. “An interview with Julie Mehretu.” Callaloo. 37 (4): 782-798.
10 Krauss, Rosalind E. 1980. Grids: format and image in 20th century art: essay. [New York]: Pace Gallery.
11 Heartney, E. 2010. “Invisible Networks: Painter Julie Mehretu and other artists have developed a fluid schematic language for expressing the complexity and speed of today’s global interconnectedness.” Art in America. 98 (10): 140-151.
12 Denes, “Notes on Eco-Logic,” 387-395.
13 Piaget, Jean. 1970. Structuralism, pp. 6-7, 140.