by Kacey Green
The human mind has a capacity for knowledge that most cannot fathom. However, today many people are reduced to applying their intellectual ability to a specific field of study. Those in mathematics, biological sciences, and engineering are categorized as the logical and analytical type, while people in the arts, languages, and humanities are the emotional and passionate ones. This division of thought, often ingrained in us at a young age, can stunt academic and intellectual growth. So what happens when these fields of study overlap? We get growth. We gain a greater understanding of the world that we live in.
Agnes Denes, a Hungarian contemporary artist, has dedicated her time to exploring in-depth and interconnected subject matter. Her work in environmental art, scientifically-based drawings and prints, and architectural designs intertwine knowledge of science, mathematics, design, artistic representation, and environmentalism. Denes’s work is intentionally philosophical, but recalls the way many scientific researchers find themselves also applying overlapping intellectual disciplines in order to advance their knowledge. Mathematicians David Hoffman, James Hoffman, and William Meeks III, for example, utilized computer graphic programs to uncover a mathematical understanding of minimal surfaces of soap films in a project for the University of Massachusetts. The initial goals and findings of these researchers reflect concepts also explored throughout Denes’s oeuvre. Agnes Denes utilizes drawing to explore a holistic state of mind that in return questions how people perceive the universe as well as how scientists visualize it, and encourages real intellectual growth—across disciplines.
Agnes Denes was born in 1931 in Hungary. When she was about twelve-years-old her family moved to Sweden to escape the Nazi occupation of Hungary. Her family then relocated to the United States where Denes faced many language barriers. Though her original dream was to be an accomplished poet, her issues with communication in school due to her constant moving as a young child pushed her toward the visual arts. In an interview Denes recalls, “the creativity had to come out in some way…. It blurted itself out in visual form.” Since the 1960s Denes dedicated her herself to exploring a plethora of subjects in many different mediums. Her countless series jump from one medium to another, constantly evolving with her subject matter. However, like many conceptual artists of that era Denes deserted the medium of painting. She felt the edge of the canvas restricted her artistic skills and her ideas. Her written work and artwork discuss arts, sciences, languages, economics, environmentalism, and universal thought. She meshes these subjects into one work to make holistic, philosophical art. She is even considered one of the first environmental conceptual artists of the contemporary period.
Agnes Denes’s Point=Line=Art=Intellect (1973) establishes a clear connection between a finished piece of art work and the mathematical components that comprise that artwork. The piece is a pen and ink drawing on graph paper featuring six boxes evenly spaced into two columns and three rows. The top left box, box 1, contains an ink drawing of a galaxy delineated by many ordered points. The top right box, called box 2, contains a drawing of liquid crystals in circular motion, while box 3 depicts liquid crystals in linear motion. Box 4 contains dots and lines denoting sub-atomic particles in a hydrogen chamber. Box 5 maps the motion of the stars. Box 6 represents an artist’s statement in Morse code. Each of the first five boxes involve cosmic and chemical subject matter, while the last box contains a language based subject. However, there is a common denominator in every box: a design based on mathematical, artistic, linguistic, and spatial understanding translated into an ink drawing.
The materials of this piece immediately suggest ideas of mathematics, engineering, and design. The graph paper features precise grid-lines often used in mathematical graphing and computation. The pen and ink graphing tools make Agnes Denes seem like the mathematician herself. She produces well-organized, detailed scientific drawings much like a scientist recording his or her findings.
Furthermore, her choice to use heavily line- and point-based scientific illustrations acts as a foundation on which she builds her work. The point is the beginning of everything: the universe began at one point and expanded to its current dimension. The point then turns into a one-dimensional line. These lines make up the world around us. Lines run down the center of the road to delineate which side to drive on. Lines are found in organizational systems, linguistic systems, and almost every piece of artwork involves a line. However, lines are not usually rigid and scientific in artwork. The line is often organic and unstructured, moving with the spontaneity of the artist’s hand. However, Denes makes use of the structure that lines can provide to parallel the structure of the universe. She captions Point=Line=Art=Intellect with: “The points and lines that make up a work of art make up the universe.” From a combination of point and line we get images that describe our universe. This art work allows humans to process nature and gain knowledge. Art provides a chance for self-reflection, intellectual challenges, change in perception, and a myriad of other ways to enhance personal growth beyond the merely naturalistic use of the line in traditional drawing.
Moreover, by using “=” to transition between “point”, “line”, “art”, and “intellect,” Denes suggests that one is not more important than the other. Instead, when these four components combine together into a system, people can better understand a complex concept. Language utilizes points and lines to visually represent intellect. Without one component, the others fail. Therefore this equality between the four components provides a truer and more holistic understanding of micro- and macro-environments. One specific example of our micro environment from Denes’s piece is the sub-atomic particles depicted in the hydrogen chamber in box 4. This microenvironment exists as its own system but also directly affects the macro-environment that we live in. The galaxy pictured in box 1 consists of trillions and trillions of those sub-atomic particles and cannot exist without them. Famous Russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky discusses the buildup of fundamental elements of art such as line and point in his second book Point and Line to Plane (1926). Denes’s concept and title clearly allude to the point and line’s ability to exist in isolation, but once combined with others to gain infinite meaning. Kandinsky summarizes this ability when he writes “The point is now able to increase its size ad infinitum and becomes the spot. Its subsequent and ultimate potential is that of changing its configuration, whereby it passes from the purely mathematical form of a bigger or smaller circle to forms of infinite flexibility….” Thus Denes connects the micro- and the macro- to visually form a complete universe based on point and line.
Denes’s choice of Morse code to encode her artist statement exposes the interdependence of language, visual artists, and intellect. In another piece of hers, entitled Morse Code Message, she codes Biblical passages in Morse code. Denes writes about this piece:
Morse code represents a language of communication symbolic and universal in nature. Its elements (dots and dashes) transmit messages connecting distant points, events, and states of mind. As symbol or sign, it refers to something other than itself, a signifier and summary of thoughts and beliefs depicting something intangible and invisible.
Denes appreciates the systematic order of Morse code that explains human thought. Each space, dot, and line has a purpose in explaining greater thought. Morse code is a visual representation of invisible thought. By using Morse code, Denes elucidates how language, patterns, geometric form, and visual spacing connect to develop thought. The lines and dots have a logical, mathematical, and artistic basis, allowing them to coexist in multiple intellectual disciplines. Moreover, Morse code uses specific spacing and patterns to translate thought into visual representation and then back into thought. These transmissions between the visible and invisible exist in unity, unquestioned by those using Morse code. Denes makes thought visible, and calls attention to the mediating function of language in defining all communication. Without the visual aspect, Morse code does not exist. Without the invisible thought, Morse code has no meaning. It is a balance between the two intellectual capabilities that creates a system of understanding and communication.
Within the Morse code of Point=Line=Art=Intellect, Denes encodes her own artist statement. Though the message generally communicates its intended purpose, Denes makes some deliberate mistakes. The message says:
If the mind possesses universar [universal] variditi [validity], art revears [reveals] a universar [universal] truth. I want that truth.
Most likely intentional as they are repeated mistakes, these errors show the importance of systematic order to language. Each “l” in Morse code appears incorrectly, missing one dot in each case. Thus every “l” becomes an “r” and creates an unintelligible and incorrect word. The presence of the dot is essential to intellectual comprehension, no matter how miniscule the dot may seem. The point, though it may seem unimportant, in this case is a portion of the whole system and without it the system does not function. Thus, Denes showcases how something like language is not as simple as humans assume because without order, intellectual thought crumbles. However, Denes’s “mistakes” also force us to engage with the language. Her creative manipulation of Morse code inspires us to search for the real truth and overcome potential miscommunication. Therefore the missing point acts as a metaphor for Denes’s philosophical beliefs. Without that one point (piece) within the Morse code system (the “whole”/the universe), misinterpretation and confusion occurs. We must lust for the truth and expel all our energy in trying to understand it. No singular field of study appears more or less important; instead the entire idea of knowledge appears useless without the combined and systematic use of all of the pieces of the whole. If the mind can ensure correctness, existence, or “validity,” then the art that an artist creates can translate that valid truth into physical form. Denes ends by explicitly stating that truth is what her art strives to obtain. Without that “whole,” that truth cannot be found. It is necessary to want that truth and to actively seek it.
In a series directly after the creation of Point=Line=Art=Intellect, Agnes Denes begins deconstructing “fact” by challenging preconceived notions of the universe. In Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space – Map Projections: The Snail, Denes challenges scientific fact and redefines our understanding of global geography. Denes calls her Map Projections series “sculptured reality, based on conflicting and interdependent elements of art and existence, illusion and reality, imagination and fact, chaos and order, irrationality and reason.” Denes believes in this balance between fact and the illusion of fact or the imagined. She calls her images “sculptured reality.” These are projections of earth in non-spherical shapes that challenge the commonly accepted mapping of the planet. Her drawings utilize this manipulation to force the viewer to question how he or she perceives the universe. Intellectual complacency is not allowed when viewing Denes’s work. This tendency to manipulate universal knowledge surfaced a year before in her Point=Line=Art=Intellect. Her Morse code box manipulates the linguistic system to test and deconstruct the necessity of the dots and lines to the message they portray, and vice versa.
Scholar Ricardo Barreto defines Denes as a sculptural artist based on her architectural drawings and sculptural pieces, however Denes can also be defined as a sculptor through her intellectual manipulation of the viewer. Barreto explores Denes’s inclination toward the many layers and different perspectives of one subject. In her Pyramid series, Denes designs pyramids consisting of humans, hieroglyphics, lines, and numbers. She skews the pyramidal shape in some of her works by adding a curvature to the design. These architecturally designed pieces appear almost as one-dimensional sculptures because of the stress on spatiality. Denes also has produced physical sculptures, such as her Wheatfield – A Confrontation (1982) and Tree Mountain (1983). Wheatfield was a planted and cultivated wheat field placed on prime lower Manhattan real estate that challenged the environmental threat that large city waste and greed presented, while Tree Mountain is a large “virgin” (completely man-made, new) forest in Finland designed by Denes. Wheatfield and Tree Mountain are her most prominent pieces of artwork, defining her largely as a sculptor (really also, installation or earth artist) and thus supporting Barreto’s claim. However, Denes is a philosophical sculptor. She pursues new visual perspectives through her manipulations of space and design, visible in Point=Line=Art=Intellect and Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space – Map Projections: The Snail. These drawings create a new reality that force the viewer to redefine how he or she understands something as common as a map of the earth, thus sculpting the viewers’ mind and even the world that we perceive.
In 1987, during a mathematical study at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, three scientists utilized computer design software to investigate aspects of soap films which reflect many qualities of Agnes Denes’s work. The study focused on testing the infinite shapes that soap films can create by plugging a mathematical equation into the computer, so that the computer visualizes the theoretical shape. Illustrated here is one of sixty-five photographs they produced of the computed theoretical shapes. The curved, intersecting planes and spaces reduce the surface of the shape, optimizing the amount of physical space used. These findings can be applied to a multitude of disciplines, but are primarily helpful for physical chemists, biochemists, and engineers. However, the holes of space and intersecting planes also make the shapes almost physically impossible to reproduce in reality. The shape would cause the soap shape to be extremely unstable and pop very quickly.
The computer program provides visualization of a physically impossible, but theoretically possible subject. Much like Agnes Denes’s use of Morse code, one aspect of the system does not exist without the other. The Getting to the Surface images need to use technology to visualize and make physical a concept that has no other conception other than a mathematical proof. In both cases the use of an artistic medium – whether graphic design programs or ink on paper – visualizes human thought. Hoffman and associates rely on the graphic design system to produce an image that is understandable and reproducible for other fields of study, making the relationship between disciplines clear. This correspondence between the art world and the scientific or linguistic world provides a greater comprehension of the way the physical universe can only be understood through conceptual filters.
Callahan, Hoffman, and Hoffman, the published writers working on the mathematical study, state that one of the main goals of their work is to explain the necessity of pictures to the mathematical world. In conjunction with other goals, the researchers say that their findings will provide for “easier and more fruitful connections [that] can be made with other scientific disciplines. Computer graphics makes relevant mathematics more accessible.” The group begins by addressing how inaccessible and difficult it can be to work with mathematicians. The researchers say that mathematicians often do not explain or address the implications of their work, thus making them difficult to understand. Though their critique of their colleagues is light and friendly, aiming to bridge this gap of knowledge between scholars is a true challenge. This attempt at a connection between disciplines parallels Denes’s major goal. This clearer understanding of complex mathematics strives to bring a better understanding of the universe. The want to have a cohesive, holistic understanding of the world around us drives this scientific progress. Therefore this mathematical study is a sort of real-world application of Denes’s philosophy, which she uses her drawings to express.
The researchers’ aesthetic accomplishments, though possibly not intentional, act as another positive outcome of the study. Their work is mainly used in polymer physics, but the series of photographs also operate in an artistic way. The mere fact that these files are kept in the art collection database of the University Museum of Contemporary Art categorizes them as not only scientific breakthroughs, but also digital artwork. One of the authors’ main goals, stated early in their text, was to make mathematics more accessible. The world of mathematics is often daunting, particularly when you add an advanced layer of physics and computer engineering. However, the team of researchers utilized the pictures produced from the computer design program to act as a learning tool. The pictures clarify points of confusion and make explaining their findings easier. In addition, both Getting to the Surface and Point=Line=Art=Intellect blur the line between fine art and scientific diagrams. The context of the piece decides how the artwork is seen. Both pieces could be used in a variety of ways, but they do not force viewers to choose. At first glance, Denes’s work appears scientific, but once explored fully one gains a better understanding of its artistic context. The same may be true of the soap film photographs. They develop an appreciation of the aesthetic and the logical that creates a more harmonious balance between disciplines.
This interdisciplinary thinking is the key to future advancement in any field of study. Scientific discovery without application has no meaning nor purpose. Art without purpose leaves viewers confused and emotionally empty. It is an innate quality of humans to search and strive for meaning here on earth. Humans endeavor to understand the natural world and create significance out of it. With that desire, we must involve ourselves with and appreciate the work of others in every aspect of life. Whether we create a personal endeavor to understand ourselves better or seek a greater knowledge of society and nature, the search is universal. Connecting others’ work to our own creates purpose and adds dimension to our thoughts. It creates advancement. It creates answers. As writer Jacques Ellul explains in his in-depth analysis of technology’s effect on the art world:
Science enables us to restructure the external world, art to interpret our experience of that world. Both are sources of evolution, yet also means of evaluating that evolution, and both produce a sort of permanent revolution.
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