Agnes Denes’s Iconic Wheat Field Is Sprouting at Art Basel. Here Are 3 Things You Should Know About It

An interpretation of "Wheatfield - A Confrontation," which was originally grown in Lower Manhattan, will grow throughout the summer in Basel, Switzerland.

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield – A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan – Blue Sky with the World Trade Center (1982). © Agnes Denes. Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects.

Situated at the southernmost tip of Manhattan, set against the backdrop of the Financial District’s towering skyscrapers and with sweeping views of New York Harbor, the Battery (formerly Battery Park) is a highly manicured green space for city workers, dwellers, and tourists alike. Though now considered an iconic facet of New York’s skyline, in decades past the Battery looked quite different. It was once the site of the Battery Park Landfill. But in 1982, conceptual artist Agnes Denes completed an unlikely and unforgettable artwork there: she planted a field of wheat. The field was a stark contrast to the glass, steel, and concrete of lower Manhattan, and just two blocks from Wall Street.

A groundbreaking piece of land art, Wheatfield – A Confrontation was comprised of 200 truckloads of soil and 285 hand-furrowed rows planted with traditional wheat laid across two acres. It was commissioned by the Public Art Fund, the second commission in “The Urban Environmental Site Program” series that sought to draw attention to overlooked, abandoned, and empty spaces along New York’s waterfront. Denes later noted that initially she had been invited to create a public sculpture but, in her words, she “decided we had enough public sculptures, enough men sitting on horses,” and thus the idea of a wheat field was born.

This week, the field has been sowed again, this time at the 2024 edition of Art Basel in Switzerland. An homage to this iconic work has been installed within the city’s central Messeplatz entitled Honouring Wheatfield – A Confrontation.

Close up portrait of Agnes Denes in 1982 as a 51-year-old woman standing in a wheat field looking at the wheat closely. She is wearing a pale plaid button down shirt.

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield – A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Lower Manhattan – with Agnes Denes in the Field (1982). © Agnes Denes, Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects

The original Wheatfield – A Confrontation was not Denes’s first major foray into land art. Denes, who was born in Budapest, Hungary, before emigrating with her family to the United States via Sweden, had by the 1980s developed a conceptual practice focused on environmentalism, ecology, and explorations of philosophy through art making. Earlier important works included Rice/Tree/Burial (1969), first realized privately in Sullivan County in Upstate New York, and later re-enacted at Artpark in Lewiston (near Niagara Falls) in the late 1970s. A performance piece that involved planting rice, chaining the surrounding trees, and creating and burying a time capsule that contained copies of Denes’ haikus, the piece, or “ritual,” heralded the artist’s pursuit of a “visual philosophy.”

View of green-stage wheat planted in green Euro palettes as part of Agnes Denes, <i>Honouring Wheatfield - A Confrontation</i> (2024), installed on the Messeplatz as part of Art Basel. Photo: A. Olsen.

Agnes Denes, Honouring Wheatfield – A Confrontation (2024), installed on the Messeplatz as part of Art Basel. Photo: A. Olsen.

While subsequent pieces like Tree Mountain – A Living Time Capsule (1996) in Ylöjärvi, Finland, or The Living Pyramid (2015) in Queens, New York, garnered international attention, Wheatfield – A Confrontation remains Denes’s most well-known work to date. Its continued relevance has led to two reprisals, including in Dalston, East London, in 2009, and in Milan, Italy, in 2015, before its outing this summer in Basel.

Close up view of green-stage wheat planted in green Euro palettes as part of Agnes Denes, detail of <i>Honouring Wheatfield - A Confrontation</i> (2024), installed on the Messeplatz as part of Art Basel. Photo: A. Olsen.

Agnes Denes, detail of Honouring Wheatfield – A Confrontation (2024), installed on the Messeplatz as part of Art Basel. Photo: A. Olsen.

The new work takes over roughly 1,000 square meters of the concrete-lined plaza, covering it in hundreds of Euro pallets carrying seed-laced soil and green shoots. The moveable palettes are an adaptation illustrating Denes’ more recent consideration of “vertical fields” that could potentially become necessities for growing for future generations.

Marking this new work and in tribute to the original, below are three need-to-know facts about Wheatfield – A Confrontation.

Part of the Work’s Meaning Can Be Found in Its Prime Real Estate

View of Wheatfield - A Confrontation (1982) while the wheat is still green and behind it you can see the two world trade center towers and the tops of other skyscrapers.

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield – A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Lower Manhattan – Green Wheat, 1982. © Agnes Denes, Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects

At the time of its creation in 1982, the land Wheatfield – A Confrontation was planted on was valued at $4.5 billion, which in today’s dollars would be just north of $14.5 billion. Heightened by the neighboring buildings of the Financial District and the hubbub of Wallstreet where billions of dollars flow each and every day, the comparatively humble wheat field operated as a universal symbol recognizable across class and culture. In a statement written the year the work was made, Denes said, “It represented food, energy, commerce, world trade, and economics. It referred to mismanagement, waste, world hunger, and ecological concerns. It called attention to our misplaced priorities.”

Juxtaposed with nearly unfathomable wealth, the work poetically pulled focus to the core values and needs of humans and confronted the myriad ways contemporary society was falling short. It also called for direct action, to rethink and reassess priorities both on an individual as well as collective, societal level. From the field, the Statue of Liberty was also viewable across the New York Bay, which figured into Denes’ choice of locale for the work, and functioned as a cogent reminder of the country’s early aspirations—and what they might be moving into the future.

The Work Took a Monumental Amount of Work and Maintenance to Produce

photograph of wheat field on the foreground and cityscape in the background

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield – A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan – With the Statue of Liberty Across the Field (1982)
© Agnes Denes, Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects.

Though the wheat was planted on May 1, 1982, cleaning and establishing the site was the first major obstacle in bringing the work to life. The area had been used as a landfill, most notably for construction debris and garbage from the building of the nearby World Trade Center which was completed a decade earlier. Denes—with only the help of two assistants (one of whom was a gardener who worked for the city) and a crew of local volunteers—cleared the parcel of rocks and trash before dozens of truckloads of dirt from outside the city were brought in and laid out. From here, the 285 furrows, long narrow trenches typical for farming wheat and other crops, were dug and subsequently sewn with the grain seed, all of which was done by hand.

Once seeded, however, the work was far from over. For the next four months as the wheat grew, it was meticulously cared for. This included setting up an irrigation system, weeding, fertilizing, and clearing the plants of “wheat smut,” a type of fungi several grain-bearing crops are susceptible to. Not a single day went by where the wheat field was left unattended, and for the many months it was growing it became a part of the fabric of the city, with even the ships coming towards the Hudson River regularly saluting the field with their horns as they came and went.

The Wheat Did Not Go to Waste

Photo of a man on a red tractor going across a wheat field with the twin towers and other financial district skyscrapers in the background against a pale blue sky with clouds.

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield – A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan – Financial Center (1982). © Agnes Denes, Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects.

The wheat from Denes Wheatfield – A Confrontation was harvested on August 16, 1982, and everything was used and given a purpose. The harvest bore nearly 1,000 pounds of wheat, which was collected and then taken on tour and exhibited all over the world, with the first stop being at the Minnesota Museum of American Art, St. Paul, in the exhibition “International Art Show for the End of World Hunger,” (1987–90). At each stop on the wheat’s journey, Denes offered out packets of the seeds, which she donated, for people to take as a form of solidarity.

In addition to the traveling wheat, the hay that was left over from the harvest was also donated, but instead locally to the New York City Police Department Mounted Unit to feed their horses. The careful and complete utilization of the wheat crop further emphasized Denes’ aims to confront the status quo; not simply a gesture or performance isolated from the greater world, in its conclusion the wheat field fulfilled its thesis, to actively provide sustenance both literally and metaphorically.


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