Forbes review by Jonathan Keats of Nothing is So Humble features Sari Dienes


From Pantyhose To Manhole Covers, These Printmakers Are Transforming Overlooked Objects Into Artistic Masterpieces

Jonathon Keats

When the Dalles Dam was constructed on the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, the rising waters washed away countless ancient Native American petroglyphs. Anticipating this catastrophic loss, a Hungarian woman named Sari Dienes traveled to Oregon in the mid-1950s. Working with the University of Washington, she made a set of monumental rubbings that are now the sole enduring record of several hundred sacred images.

Dienes brought considerable expertise to Oregon, though not as an archaeologist. Her skill at making rubbings originated in New York City, where she’d taken her practice as an abstract artist out of the studio and into the streets. Enlisting colleagues including Jasper Johns and John Cage as assistants, Dienes would lay down paper or cloth atop manhole covers and subway gratings, making direct impressions of the urban fabric with an ink-laden brayer. These textures became elements in sprawling compositions that literally grounded the formal language of Abstract Expressionism. For Dienes, the move was not only aesthetic but also philosophical. “Nothing,” she contended, “is so humble that it cannot be made into art.”

Sari Dienes (1898-1992), HPFS, c. 1953. Ink on Webril, 32 3/4 × 36 in. (83.2 × 91.4 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Print Committee 2017.199. © 2020 Sari Dienes Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Sari Dienes (1898-1992), HPFS, c. 1953. Ink on Webril, 32 3/4 × 36 in. (83.2 × 91.4 cm). Whitney … [+]

Sari Dienes

One of her urban rubbings is now on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, as part of a modest but notable exhibition that takes her proclamation as its title. Nothing Is So Humble showcases myriad ways in which artists have made prints using ordinary things over the course of the past seventy years. Examples include a relief print of sliced potatoes made by Ruth Asawa in 1951-52, a collagraph of wood scraps made by Zarina in 1969, and impressions of pantyhose made by Julia Phillips in 2016. Each of these works reveals attributes of common objects that might otherwise be overlooked while also transforming those qualities into an independent aesthetic experience.


Prints occupy the artistic terrain between sculptures and paintings, leaving the trace of three-dimensional artifacts on a two-dimensional picture plane. This space between the physical and the imagistic is especially apparent when the source remains recognizable. The transformation of the humble into the numinous is not unique to prints. (After all, a sculpture may be made out of junk, and a drawing can be inscribed with a stub of pencil.) What is special about prints is that they mirror the complex relationship between the human body and the senses.

Julia Phillips (b. 1985), Expanded VI, 2016. Relief collagraph with blind embossing, 29 7/8 × 22 3/8 in. (75.9 × 56.8 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from Stephen Dull 2019.295. © Julia Phillips

Julia Phillips (b. 1985), Expanded VI, 2016. Relief collagraph with blind embossing, 29 7/8 × 22 3/8 … [+]

Julia Phillips


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Prints of recognizable objects can also provide insight into the relationship between figuration and abstraction. For instance, Phillips’ stunning compositions are clearly made by stretching nylon hosiery, but hosiery is hardly their subject. The sensation of looking at her work is the opposite of perceiving a man in the moon or a scorpion in the scatter of stars. The act of abstraction entails sense-breaking, the converse of apophenia. Perhaps it can even be an antidote to QAnon conspiracy-mongering.

With her rubbings of recognizable Manhattan infrastructure, and her juxtaposition of urban textures on the page, Sari Dienes pioneered the practice of denaturing the commonplace. However the rubbings she was concurrently making on the shores of the Columbia River provide an important counterpoint. Confronting material that was anything but humble, she responded with artistic humility, allowing her rubbings to become proxies for the petroglyphs, the only lasting trace as the physical source of the images was eroded away.

“Four Years”: Sari Dienes at Kunstmuseum Basel curated by Josef Helfenstein

Four Years

Gifts and Acquisitions

Neubau / 05.09.2020–21.03.2021 / Curator: Dr Josef Helfenstein

In the four years since Josef Helfenstein took the helm as director of the Kunstmuseum Basel in 2016, we have recorded almost a thousand accessions to the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel, the public art collection of Basel; the Kupferstichkabinett (Department of Prints and Drawings) alone has added over eight hundred works. Presenting a selection from these riches, the exhibition at the Neubau also offers insight into the institution’s collection-building efforts.

The Öffentliche Kunstsammlung has been growing steadily for centuries. Generations of museum leaders, donors, and artists contributed and still contribute to its flourishing. Yet it is the rare exception when a new accession attracts the attention of the wider public.

Basel has been blessed with a tradition of vigorous philanthropic commitment to the common weal since the sixteenth century, complemented by a strong affinity for culture and scholarship that has benefited the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung at several crucial junctures. A period of dedicated collection-building focused on the international modernism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries began after the First World War. Our holdings continued to grow after the Second World War in no small part thanks to the largesse of private benefactors including Raoul LaRoche, Maja Sacher-Stehlin, Marguerite Arp-Hagenbach, Richard Doetsch-Benziger, Max Geldner, and Martha and Robert von Hirsch, who gifted or bequeathed their—in some instances, sizable—private collections to the museum. Financial donations, meanwhile, made it possible for the museum to enlarge its galleries; in particular, the munificence of Maja Sacher-Stehlin enabled us to establish the Museum für Gegenwartskunst in 1980. A second new exhibition building, the Neubau, was inaugurated in 2016 thanks to the providence and generosity of Sacher-Stehlin’s granddaughter Dr. h.c. Maja Oeri.

Working with limited funds, all directors in the Kunstmuseum Basel’s history assiduously sought to enlarge its collections at a high level of quality, retrospectively closing gaps while also looking to the future in integrating contemporary positions. Tendencies in art history as well as social developments have always informed the museum’s collection-building policies. A key challenge for today’s acquisition program is to honor the collection’s longstanding international renown while diversifying our holdings and expanding the traditional canon, including by enlarging our stock of works by outstanding women artists.

One field in which we were able to welcome major new accessions in the past four years, in part thanks to financial support from foundations, is American postwar art, with acquisitions of important works or ensembles by Lynda Benglis, Sari Dienes, Theaster Gates, Sam Gilliam, the Guerrilla Girls, Martha Rosler, and Kara Walker—all of them artists who had been missing from the canon of the Basel collection. 

The Kunstmuseum owes many of these accessions to the generosity of donors, who often give works that would exceed our financial resources. Some of the new arrivals promptly made their Basel début in our collection presentation, including the Christoph Merian Foundation’s sensational gift of seven eminent works by Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Alberto Giacometti, Fernand Léger, and Jean Dubuffet from the Probst Collection in the spring of 2019, which have been on view in the Hauptbau’s second-floor galleries since July 2020. The collection presentation also features paintings by Lucas Cranach, Caspar Wolf, Auguste Renoir, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

Moreover, the Kunstmuseum’s holdings would not be anywhere near as abundant as they are without the largesse of the artists themselves. It is a tradition that goes back to the nineteenth century, when Samuel Birmann, in his will, established an endowment fund that even today enables us to acquire works by Swiss artists. Among the most celebrated gifts made by artists are those of Pablo Picasso (1967) and Jasper Johns (1994). We are enormously pleased that this tradition is alive and well today.

The Kupferstichkabinett, too, has benefited handsomely from the munificence of donors in the past four years. Several patrons who had unstintingly supported us before demonstrated their devotion to the Kunstmuseum with fresh gifts, some of which have closed major gaps in the collection. A salient example is Dr. h.c. Eberhard W. Kornfeld’s second donation of prints by Rembrandt—this time, a set of thirty-one etchings of outstanding quality, which will be on display in a separate focused presentation in the main building that is scheduled to open in October. With two drawings by Hans Weiditz the Younger and Antonio Tempesta, the Kupferstichkabinett also boasts significant new additions to its holdings of sixteenth-century art.

MoMA Degree Zero Drawing at Mid Century Through June, 2021

Tomb, c. 1950

  • MoMA, Floor 2, 2 South The Paul J. Sachs Galleries

For Tomb Dienes combined her two signature practices, ink rubbing and the use of found objects. Influenced by the Surrealist process of frottage, Dienes first made rubbings of natural objects and household items during a residency in upstate New York in 1953. She quickly deployed this technique outside the studio, creating haunting imprints of colonial tombstones in New England cemeteries. After taping a large piece of paper onto the headstone, she used a roller to apply ink to the sheet to transfer the decoration; the uneven impression captures the idiosyncrasies of the surface and her interaction with the stone.

Dienes viewed her rubbings as more than documents of her environment: “My use of rollers and natural surfaces . . . is a kind of jumping off place for my imagination.” Tomb embodies her inspired amplification of the technique: after Dienes completed the rubbing, she stapled a weather-worn fabric American flag over it and encased the design within two sheets of torn mat board, heightening the sense of decay already palpable in the imprint. In juxtaposing a tombstone with a symbol of American patriotism and democracy, Dienes radically upended the traditional meaning of both icons, inviting numerous new interpretations. Among other possibilities, the work may describe the Hungarian-born artist’s relationship with her adopted country or respond, more specifically, to threats to American democracy at the time, from the Korean War to McCarthyism.

Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum
of Modern Art, New York
(New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)

MoMA reopening features Sari Dienes Soho Sidewalk

Soho Sidewalk c. 1953                                                                

The Museum of Modern Art

We are pleased to inform you that Sari Dienes’ work is currently on view in the Museum’s newly reinstalled collection galleries.

The collection galleries explore a wide range of topics, from a specific medium or discipline, to a particular place, moment in time, or shared creative idea. They have been conceived by teams of curators from all fields and at all levels collaborating closely. An ongoing program of frequent reinstallation will feature a wide range of artworks in new combinations—a reminder that countless ideas and histories can be explored through the Museum’s rich collection.

We hope you will have an opportunity to visit our expanded galleries soon.

Opening Party | October 18, 7:00-11:00 PM: The largest event of the opening sequence; a celebratory party for all MoMA family and the art world at large.

With best wishes,

Christophe Cherix    

Chief Curator of Drawings and Prints                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Museum of Modern Art     11 West 53 Street New York, NY 10019         

to view the entire Sari Dienes collection at MoMA:

Atmospheric Changes: Sari Dienes at Jill Newhouse May 7- June 1, 2019

SARI DIENES: Atmospheric Changes

May 8 – June 1, 2019
Opening reception: Tuesday, March 7, 6 – 8pm

Closed on Saturday, May 25 for Memorial Day

Wednesday – Friday: 11am – 5pm
Saturday: 11am – 3pm
or by appointment

Jill Newhouse Gallery
4 E 81st Street
New York, NY 10028

Pavel Zoubok Fine Art is pleased to present SARI DIENES: Atmospheric Changes, an intimate exhibition of paintings and works on paper from the late 1940s and early 1950s by this pioneering American artist.

While best known for her signature frottages, or rubbings of the 1950s and 1960s, the broader trajectory of Sari Dienes’ (1898-1992) oeuvre tells a more expansive story about her relationship to modernist styles and strategies during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Like many artists of her generation, Dienes explored the aesthetic terrain of the unconscious mind vis-a-vis Surrealism during the 1930s and 1940s, employing strategies such as decalcomania, automatic drawing, hybrid imagery, and chance operations in her work. But by the mid-40s, she too felt the gravitational pull of gestural abstraction with the advent of Abstract Expressionism, being as she was, at the epicenter of its flowering in postwar New York City.

The current exhibition features a select group of works that reflect this fundamental shift, not only in Dienes’ work, but in the larger history of American art. In works such as Forest Edge and Web Maze, pictorial spaces that recall the dream-like atmospheres of surrealist decalcomania (a technique involving the pressing of paint between sheets of paper.) are punctuated with “drips”, pours and gestural washes of color that form web-like networks that vibrate with energy. The circuitous and seemingly random line of these enigmatic compositions belie a rigorous grounding in mark-making, a hallmark of her training with the Purist painter, Amédée Ozenfant.

Sari Dienes was born in Debreczen, Hungary in 1898. During a career that spanned some six decades, she worked in a wide range of media, creating paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, ceramics, textile designs, sets and costumes for theatre and dance, sound-art installations, mixed-media environments, music and performance art. Prior to her arrival in New York City in 1939, she lived in Paris and London, where she studied with Fernand Léger, Amédée Ozenfant, André Lhote and Henry Moore. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally since the early 1940s, with notable exhibitions at the storied Betty Parsons Gallery and later as a founding member of the Feminist collective, A.I.R. Gallery. Her work has been included in major museum exhibitions, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Rhode Island School of Design, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the Wadsworth Atheneum. Recent exhibitions at The Hammer Museum, The Menil, The Drawing Center, Pavel Zoubok Gallery and Marc Selwyn Fine Art, as well as new scholarship, have brought renewed interest in her life and work.

For images and additional information please contact Kris Nuzzi at

Gorky Master Drawings New York Exhibition includes Spinal Swirl by Sari Dienes 1949

Pavel Zoubok presents:

Master Drawings New York – Arshile Gorky: Drawings from a 1931 Sketchbook

Master Drawings New York
Arshile Gorky: Drawings from a 1931 Sketchbook

January 26 – February 2, 2019
Preview day: Friday, January 25, 4-8pm
Daily: 11am – 6pm
Sunday, January 28, 2-6pm

Temporary Location:
Jill Newhouse Gallery
4 E 81st Street
New York, NY 10028

Pavel Zoubok Fine Art is pleased to announce our participation in Master Drawings New York (January 26 – February 2, 2019) with a special exhibition of early drawings by Arshile Gorky (c. 1902-1948). The twenty pen and ink drawings that form the core of our presentation come from an incomplete sketchbook of 1931, purchased from the private collection of legendary dealer and champion of Surrealism, Julien Levy, during the 1970s.

While some of the drawings had been reproduced in Levy’s major monograph on the artist, published by Abrams in 1966 and in a small exhibition and catalogue of Gorky drawings at M. Knoedler & Company in 1969, the whereabouts of this important group have until recently been unknown. The drawings reflect not only the strong influence of Picasso, but the seeds of a decidedly Surrealist sensibility that would usher Arshile Gorky into the cannon of that movement. Together, they tell a compelling story about the process and development of a great artist, one that he regarded as intimately tied to tradition and historical continuity, and about modernist art between the wars.

For images and additional information please contact Kris Nuzzi at

Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends MoMA

May 21-September 17, 2017

Soho Sidewalk c.1953 Sari Dienes

In 1959, Robert Rauschenberg wrote, “Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in that gap between the two.)” His work in this gap shaped artistic practice for decades to come.

The early 1950s, when Rauschenberg (1925–2008) launched his career, was the heyday of the heroic gestural painting of Abstract Expressionism. Rauschenberg challenged this tradition with an egalitarian approach to materials, bringing the stuff of the everyday world into his art. Working alone and in collaboration with artists, dancers, musicians, and writers, he invented new, interdisciplinary modes of artistic practice that helped set the course for art of the present day. The ethos that permeates Rauschenberg’s work—openness, commitment to dialogue and collaboration, and global curiosity—makes him, now more than ever, a touchstone for our troubled times.

Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends, the first 21st-century retrospective of the artist, presents work from six decades of his widely celebrated career in fresh ways, bringing together over 250 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, and sound and video recordings. Acclaimed artist and filmmaker Charles Atlas is collaborating on the exhibition’s design to foreground Rauschenberg’s work with dance and performance. MoMA’s presentation is structured as an “open monograph”—as other artists came into Rauschenberg’s creative life, they come into the exhibition, mapping the exchange of ideas. These figures include John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Sari Dienes, Jasper Johns, Billy Klüver, Yvonne Rainer, Paul Taylor, David Tudor, Cy Twombly, Susan Weil, and many others.

The exhibition is organized by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Tate Modern, London.

Organized by Leah Dickerman, The Marlene Hess Curator of Painting and Sculpture, The Museum of Modern Art, and Achim Borchardt-Hume, Director of Exhibitions at Tate Modern, with Emily Liebert and Jenny Harris, Curatorial Assistants, Department of Painting and Sculpture, The Museum of Modern Art.