Preparing the Ground for a Shift in Thinking: Dennis Oppenheim, 1938-2011
Dennis Oppenheim, who died unexpectedly in January, began his walkabout as an artist in the early 1960s, hanging out on the West Coast exploring the surf life before he arrived in New York City with his Stanford art degree and a vision of wildness in his heart. In a fifty year art career that survived decades in an art world obsessed with the gamesmanship of shifting styles, fixations and flavors of the moment, Oppenheim managed to pursue his own interests, refusing to be pinned like a butterfly into a signature style or affect. The net result is a sprawling, protean oeuvre that occupies museums, collections and public spaces across the globe, from Zurich to Los Angeles to Beijing.
Oppenheim, who was recently recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2007 Vancouver Sculpture Biennale, left landmark work behind him in the categories of Earth Art, Body Art and performance. Turning in the early ‘70s to sculpture, Dennis’ work ultimately migrated beyond the containment of the gallery out into the real world, sometimes with startling effect. Some found his early ‘80s Fireworks Series, quasi-dangerous firework-laden sculptures which the artist referred to as “thought collision factories,” to be hostile, aggressive and threatening. Apparently they didn’t like the idea of being so close to the ecstatic explosion of a giant mind on fire, as when “Launching Structure #2″ forced the evacuation of the Bonlow Gallery on Greene Street in 1982.
Throughout the ‘80s, Dennis continued to produce ever larger and more convoluted “machine pieces,” enormous factory-like works which filled up exhibition spaces with complex arrays of ramps, tracks, ducts, sleds, engines, coils and all manner of industrial and quasi-architectural elements, traces of which are still present in his public works today. He spent much of the ‘90s exploring the otherworldly potential of everyday objects, with coffee cups, power tools and lawn sculpture transformed into mysterious messengers and signifiers from other dimensions. Throughout these decades Oppenheim continued to develop a vocabulary of image transfer, transparent materials, metal armatures and bio mimicry through which he organized shapes to appear as flower petals, tear drops, splashes or other organic and fluid forms.
His trajectory thus seems to follow a purposeful spiral, first bringing earth works into the gallery with documentation, project drawings and conceptually-driven texts, next, over an extended period, keeping the work bottled – just barely – in the gallery, until finally he brings it outside again, this time as full blown monumental works that speak not only to the cognoscenti but also to the person on the street. Large works such as the lyrical Tempest in a Teacup (1992, Andorra Spain) or the nearly psychedelic Bus Home bus shelter produced for the city of Ventura in 2002 brought recognizable yet completely reconfigured objects back from the artist’s private interzone into the lived world of ordinary, non-art world mortals. As he admits in a 2009 interview with Douglas Kelley, he ultimately enjoyed bridging the two worlds of studio art practice and architecture, although he found that, his admiration for the democratic process aside, the process of being judged by a widely divergent body of jury members required a “very thick skin.”
Dennis was always trying to find a perfect balance in his practice, desiring first and foremost to keep it interesting and engaging for himself. He was in hot pursuit not only of material and technical considerations, which at the scale at which he operated were certainly challenging, but of means of mitigating and negotiating the fine line between what is important to the discourse and what is important at a personal level. He did not want to be so cool as to present merely intellectual exercises, a rarefied conversation between artists, but nor did he want it to become so self referential and personal as to become self indulgent. Oppenheim’s guiding light over the years was a kind of rigor offset by the spontaneity required by — and honed through — performance. He was very often his own harshest critic. Indeed, it was precisely this dissatisfaction that seems to drive him to experiment further, to really get it right at least a few times. And as he got older, the idea of “getting it right” shifted, as it does for us all, as he sensed the breath of mortality on the nape of his neck.
In the course of our long friendship, I had the chance to interview Dennis several times. One could not help but be struck by the strange poetry and complexity of his language, a quality which would carry over to the titles and descriptions of various works. You could tell when he was reading more or less theoretical texts, or when he had leapt over that to embrace a more diagnostic, medical or semantic approach, or was onto the next thing that captured his relentless curiosity. During his diagnostic period, the gallery became transformed into a mutant lab from which strange forms percolated and expressed pathogens. This period includes poetic and haunting pieces like Digestion (1988) in which deer with flaming antlers emerge from and melt back into the gallery walls, or Steam Forest With Phantom Limbs (1988) in which blown glass containers with water are heated to emit the missing structures of the title.
Oppenheim believed that artists should “make things that carry with them the residue of where they have been.” He was often described as an artist with shamanic leanings, much like Joseph Beuys, although he told me that he did not really feel that he had earned the right to make such a claim and would prefer it not be part of his mystique. He loved Halloween and something of the direct, rustic and pagan spirit of that holiday seems to have penetrated much of his work, with its simple faces, legible forms and possible spirit possession. One of his early pieces, Towards Becoming A Scarecrow (1971) created on Halloween in Dusseldorf offers the description: “Like a moving snowball the body slowly builds a skin, based on where it has been. After emerging from heavy foliage, I need not look back. The 1000 foot path is clearly read from my outer shell. My body has collected remnants of its past. I have become that direction.”
These traces of otherworldly information and his famous “residues” from abstract journeys percolate throughout his oeuvre. Whether or not he is to be considered a mystical artist, he certainly did walk the Earth preparing the ground and his audiences for a shift in thinking, an acknowledgment that our ordinary lived world harbors the potential to be something more, if that is the way we choose to perceive it. That is the artist’s role, in the long run: to allow us to see life as never before, and in that Dennis was a true master.