A photograph of Sari Dienes published in the November 15, 1954, issue of Life magazine shows a demure, well-coiffed woman strolling through quaint old graveyards to make “tombstone tracery” rubbings from old stone monuments. But if the “Miss Dienes” of the article was capturing the “stylized stone art of bygone America,” the artist Sari Dienes continually pushed herself, and an ever-widening circle of friends and collaborators, into new forms of art making. Her work Tomb pairs one of these grave marker rubbings with a small American flag; it’s centered within a torn mat board, as if it had been clawed away to reveal the underlying image. This combination of traditional techniques with radically new ones characterizes all of Dienes’s work.
A Hungarian émigré in 1930s Paris and London, Dienes studied and later taught art, working with Amédée Ozenfant and helping to found his Academy in London. When the outbreak of World War II stranded her in New York during a 1939 visit, she settled there for good, becoming a mentor to several generations of downtown artists. Dienes’s early work shows the influence of the Surrealist practices of the artists she knew in Europe and in New York, but already demonstrates her interest in using materials in unique and unexpected ways. In her drawing Broken Vessel, for example, watercolor in varying tones and weights drips down the paper, free of the drawn outlines and following its own path.
Dienes made etchings at Atelier 17 in New York, the famed workshop run by fellow European exile Stanley William Hayter, but by the 1950s she had found another way to make prints that was more in keeping with her experimental practices. She spread long sheets of paper or other material on surfaces, including city sidewalks, and rolled ink onto them in order to capture the underlying details. This process combined Dienes’s careful eye for composition with elements of chance—Soho Sidewalk reflects the section of downtown Manhattan pavement that Dienes selected as her source, but captures cracks, uneven surfaces, and other details that the artist could likely not have predicted.
Dienes needed help making these large-scale, labor-intensive works, and got it from other artists like Jasper Johns, who was three decades her junior. Dienes often returned the favor—she called Robert Rauschenberg in 1959 to offer him a stuffed bald eagle she had found, which became a key element of his work Canyon. Her fearlessness, energy, and drive to try new things inspired these and other artists, and she continued to play an active part in the New York artworld for decades to come, joining the A.I.R. women’s cooperative gallery in 1973, and pushing boundaries in her work and life until her death at the age of 93 in 1992.
Esther Adler, Associate Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints, 2021