Lost and Found: Rediscovering Sari Dienes' Groundbreaking Artwork


Sari Dienes. Photo by Peter Moore © Northwestern University

“Bones, lint, Styrofoam, banana skins, the squishes and squashes found on the street: nothing is so humble that it cannot be made into art.”

So spoke Sari Dienes, who spent 30 years creating mixed-media artwork at her Rockland County home from those and other humble objects.

Dubbed the “doyenne of the American avant-garde,” Sari (the S pronounced as in sugar) lived from 1961 until her death at age 92 at the Gate Hill Cooperative, known as “The Land,” off Willow Grove Road in the Town of Haverstraw.

There she was part of a community that included composers John Cage and David Tudor, choreographer Merce Cunningham, early music revivalist LaNoue Davenport, ceramicists Karen Karnes and M.C. Richards, and experimental filmmaker Stan VanDerBeek.

A descendant of Hungarian nobility, Dienes’ stature in the art world stretched back to the 1950s. She counted Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Yoko Ono among her friends. In fact, Ono and husband John Lennon visited her at The Land in 1976 during one of the community’s legendary picnics.

A retrospective of Dienes' groundbreaking work will be on exhibit March 11-April 23 at GARNER Arts Center, in the Harris Gallery of the Garnerville complex’s new Building 35 exhibition space.

Manhole Wild II, 1955 street rubbing. Copyright © Sari Dienes Foundation/Licensed by Artists Rights Society, New York, NY.

The exhibit, comprising works from the Sari Dienes Foundation, includes prints from the 1950s through 1966, said Barbara Pollitt of Pomona, the foundation’s curator.

Pollitt describes Dienes’ art as “experimental and responsive. Sari, as a Zen Buddhist, believed that the human experience of art was very much a present response to what she called reality. She would do whatever she felt like without having any sense of limitation or hesitancy to experiment. She was quite sometimes a risk-taker in terms of actually using material.”

Dienes created prints using a roller called a printmaker’s brayer to lift ink impressions from sidewalk grates, manhole covers, pieces of wood, ancient rock carvings known as petroglyphs — anything with a textured surface, often juxtaposing the industrial design of manmade things with nature.

“This was part of Sari’s business, to see beauty in things that were seen to be discards. … Everything revealed some kind of artistic revelation, no matter what it was," Pollitt said.

Pollitt met Dienes through her husband, composer Rip Hayman, who she said rescued the artist’s work at The Land after her death.

“We basically saved her 60-year career from the dumpster,” she said. “She didn’t have any family but she had a foundation. … We built a barn in our yard to house the collection, because Sari was impoverished.”

Dienes, whose work has been exhibited at MoMA and The Whitney, worked in a wide range of media, including painting, drawing, textile design, sculpture and ceramics over a career spanning more than 60 years. She co-owned the Ear Inn on Spring Street in lower Manhattan with Rip Hayman.

After the hurricane

Photo of the 2011 GARNER Arts collapse during Hurricane Irene by Cathy McErlean-Goddard.

The GARNER Arts exhibit is something of a rescue mission for Dienes’ legacy: A 2011 retrospective of her work was wrecked by Hurricane Irene, which flooded the center and ruined half the works on display — including Bone Fall, a cascade of bones she collected over a 25-year period.

“This is a big celebration,” Pollitt said. “This is a magnificent moment for the community.” She called GARNER’s Building 35 “just incredible. It is a state-of-the-art exhibition space.”

Pollitt, who edited a recently published book about Dienes titled, Who I Am?!, said Dienes was encouraging to aspiring artists, but carried with her “a sense of impoverished aristocracy” because of her background. Her grandmother was a baroness whose fortune was gambled away by Dienes’ father, according to the foundation.

“She always felt that she deserved more than she was getting, which was right, but it meant she had kind of a chip on her shoulder that was sometimes offensive to people,” Pollitt said.

Viewers of Dienes’ artwork are drawn in by her mysterious and surprising creative process, Pollitt said.

“Why is it that anything in this work that you could think of as a mistake looks like a purposeful stroke?” she posited.

Sari Dienes Exhibition

  • Where: Building 35, Harris Gallery, GARNER Arts Center, 55 West Railroad Ave., Garnerville, N.Y.
  • When: March 11 - April 23
  • Opening reception: Saturday, March 11, 5-7 p.m.
  • Gallery hours: Fridays - 2-5 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays - 1-5 p.m.
  • Admission: Free
  • Information: garnerartscenter.org/exhibitions, info@garnerartscenter.org or call 845-947-7108
  • Visit saridienes.org for more about the artist
Seat of Joy, 1966 rubbing. Copyright © Sari Dienes Foundation/Licensed by Artists Rights Society, New York, NY.

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