Sari Dienes: Incidental Nature

Elderly woman crouched over street with paint roller in hand, rolling blue color across webril laid over sidewalk in front of building with wooden barrel with the word "Cedar" printed on its side.

Candid photograph of artist Sari Dienes painting her work Spring (about 1950) in front of the Cedar Tavern, New York, NY. © 2023 Sari Dienes Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Detail from photograph by Peter Moore © Northwestern University

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"Spirit lives in everything. It has no age, no color, no sex." - Sari Dienes

An original member of the Neo-Dada movement (1950s-1960s), Sari Dienes (b. 1898 Debrecen, Austria-Hungary; d. 1992 Stony Point, New York) is an under-represented artist who placed emphasis on the everyday object and prioritized the artist’s process over the completed product. A mentor to Robert Rauschenberg and inspiration to Jasper Johns, Dienes was an august figure in the New York art scene for decades. This exhibition will bring to light three elements of her life’s practice: 1950s street rubbings, work inspired by her several trips to Japan, and portraits of her peer group.

In reaction to the Abstract Expressionist movement, which upheld the genius of the individual male artist and viewed the canvas as a sacred space, Sari Dienes instead took her materials out of the studio and into the streets, most times accompanied by a coterie of friends. In the Sidewalk Rubbings series, the artist laid up to 30 feet of Webril – a tough fabric used to create medical casts -  down New York City sidewalks, often at 3 am, and aided by artist-friends, would use a brayer roller and highly pigmented ink to capture the texture and random patterns in the environment. Dienes’s interests weren’t restricted to only the artificial elements of the city streets but also the organic detritus like leaves, sticks, and even the pattern that blades of grass created.

This interest in making the exterior world her canvas embodied what she learned studying Zen Buddhism. Considering Zen not just a religion but a lifestyle, Dienes traveled to the country which she felt was inherently imbued with the Zen: Japan. Following the tenets of the religion drove much of her work and a selection of works created in Japan will be on display.

Finally, the relational aspect of Dienes’s work could essentially be considered part of her technique. Known for hosting soirees and fostering relationships amongst the city’s many artists, Dienes was a venerable figure, drawing together now-famous artists to participate in her process. In this exhibition, sound artist John Cage, mail artist Ray Johnson, and assemblage pioneers Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns all appear in portraiture, rubbings, and homages.

Curated by Associate Curator, Kelli Bodle

Photo by Jacek Gancarz
Photo by Jacek Gancarz
Photo by Jacek Gancarz
Photo by Jacek Gancarz
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Additional Sponsor Text

This exhibition has been made possible by the Museum's Leadership Donors.