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Dennis Oppenheim Photo

Dennis Oppenheim

American Conceptual artist, performance artist, earth artist, sculptor and photographer

Born: September 6, 1938 - Electric City, Washington
Died: January 21, 2011 - New York City
Movements and Styles:
Conceptual Art
Earth Art
Performance Art
"Most of my work comes from ideas. I can usually do only a few versions of each idea. Land Art and Body Art were particularly strong concepts which allowed for a lot of permutations. But nevertheless, I found myself wanting to move onward into something else."
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Dennis Oppenheim Signature
"I am not a political artist."
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"I think that my state of mind that I harbored as a graduate student at Stanford, was one that is not unfamiliar today and found in lots of young people. The feeling was that art is what you don't know. Everything else is art history."
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"This is something other than studio art, and it seems to necessitate a dialogue with the real world."
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"I started to sabotage my original ideas. I didn't think they were tough enough. I had the feeling that my activity on land had to carry with it some form of violence."
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Summary of Dennis Oppenheim

Dennis Oppenheim's art career grew and changed from a legendary scarcity of objects and refusal of the gallery system; to oversize and overwhelming motorized installations; to a contemporary turn towards large-scale Surrealism, with his life size "architectural mirages". He was an integral figure in advancing the definition of art - as idea, intervention, fleeting moment, large monument - and expanding the realm of art outside the gallery. More than any other contemporary artist, Oppenheim was pivotal in contributing to the foundational and defining moments of multiple art movements, most notably Performance, Conceptual, and Earth Art. Throughout his career, Oppenheim jumped between movements, materials, styles, and themes; maddening critics who tried to define him. Oppenheim stated, "I've always wanted to operate within the entire arena. Signature style has been suspicious to me; it reads as a limitation."


  • Throughout his career, Oppenheim's work critiqued elitist art institutions. He once stated, "A museum is not a place I am dying to visit in any city. My interest in art is in an art that is yet to be made." This aversion to working inside the white cube of the gallery is an idea that has continued to influence significant artists working in Land art and Public art including Alan Sonfist, Christo and Jean-Claude, and Maya Lin.
  • Oppenheim was part of the early generation of Land artists, along with Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria, Nancy Holt, and Michael Heizer. They pioneered this new form of art in the 1960s, in which the earth itself served as medium. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Oppenheim's early interventions into natural landscape took the form of removal, returning to the ancient sculptural principal of carving, by, in the artist's own words, "taking away rather than adding".
  • The process of removal was also important to Oppenheim's investment in the dematerialization and de-commodification of the art object. His ephemeral, time, and idea-based works, which resisted circulation in the art market of the 1960s and 1970s, were often produced by a literal, playful, and documented removal of the object, as in his Indentations series.
  • All through a disparate and multimedia practice, the specific, corporeal, discrete bodies of both artist and the viewer were always integral to Oppenheim. He has used his body as art (via exposing his skin to the sun), made sculptural interventions in which the viewers' embodied actions activate the work (as in his viewing platforms, which an audience stands on and looks out from and not at), and made public artworks that intentionally disorient those that encounter them through playing with scale, orientation, and perception (as in his large scale architectural pieces).
  • In 1979, Rosalind Krauss wrote 'Sculpture in the Expanded Field', a foundational essay describing how sculpture had shifted from being a monument, to an object on a plinth, to an intervention or installation in landscape or architecture. Oppenheim was a key figure in rethinking and expanding sculpture to be site-specific, in public, part of landscape, and part of architecture, throughout his career.

Biography of Dennis Oppenheim

Dennis Oppenheim Photo

Dennis Oppenheim was born in Mason City, Washington (later renamed Electric City) which he explained "was really primarily a construction site for the construction of [the Grand Coulee] dam [and] it certainly is not a city. It's not even a town. It's kind of a ghost town without a town. It does not exist." The family lived there while his father worked as an engineer on the dam, but soon after Dennis' birth they returned to their home in Richmond, El Torito, near Berkeley, in the San Francisco Bay area. Richmond was primarily a shipyard-building town during the war, and one of its main employers post-war was Standard Oil.

Important Art by Dennis Oppenheim

Dead Furrow (1967/2016)

This work existed only in sketches, as a scale model, and as an indoor structure for viewing a gallery space in Belgium, until it was finally realized out-of-doors in physical form at the Storm King Art Center in 2016, where it was able to fulfill one of Oppenheim's original key requirements: that the work have a mile of clear space in every direction.

In 1967, Oppenheim proposed a series of Viewing Stations, that is, platforms intended for viewing the surrounding vistas. Thus, although the platforms were to be sculptural constructs, the primary content of the work was to be the natural landscape itself. As Oppenheim explained, these viewing stations were designed as "works to view from," rather than objects to look at, thus completely inverting the relationship between the art object and its function. Further, by positioning themselves on top of the platform, said viewer also becomes an object to be viewed by others, and their desire to look becomes central to the work's function, thereby emphasizing the embodied aspect of looking itself. The structure of the central platform was inspired by the shape of Mesoamerican temples (such as the structure in Monte Albán, Oaxaca, Mexico, dating to about 500 B.C.). These ancient sites and the cultures that created them fascinated Oppenheim. At these sites, rituals of worship were intimately linked to performances of seeing and being seen that implicated human participants, deities, and the natural world.

The title of this work, Dead Furrow, refers to the trenches that are created after a field is plowed. The PVC pipes in this work aim to replicate these dead furrows. By using an industrial material to recreate a pattern usually created in the terrain, Oppenheim creates a transitional zone between the natural environment surrounding the platform, and the man-made structure of the central platform. In this way, he demonstrated an early understanding of the potential tensions that exist in any attempt to introduce an artistic intervention into a natural setting. This desire to "fit" his sculptural interventions conscientiously into the surrounding environment would go on to define much of his oeuvre throughout his life. It is also interesting to note that Oppenheim was considering these relationships right at the beginning of his career, before his more serious involvement with Earth Art. Oppenheim's widow, Amy Plumb Oppenheim, recently confirmed, "He had this in mind before he met with Robert Smithson and the Land artists. He had this in mind when he was still in Hawaii."

Indentation-Removal (1968)

In 1967 and 1968, Oppenheim was involved with a series he called Indentations. The artist would find an object lying in the dirt (often in vacant lots in New York City, Amsterdam, and Paris). He would photograph the object as he found it, before removing the object and taking a second photograph of the indentation its removal had left in the ground. As Art Critic Thomas McEvilley notes, "The indentation, that is, the absence rather than the presence of an object, was the artwork." While the artwork becomes a space to look from and not at in Dead Furrow, with Indentations the artwork becomes the space left behind after the object is gone.

At the time that Oppenheim was creating these Indentations, many other artists in Europe and North America were engaged in a similar rejection of Modernist aesthetics and its obsession with the object, by conceiving of art as a removal rather than an addition. For instance, for an exhibition at the Iris Clert Gallery in April 1958, French artist Yves Klein removed everything in the gallery space except a large cabinet, opting to show nothing at all. McEvilley explains, "Rather than adding yet another object to the already crowded world, the artist would begin to clear things away, in an analogy to clearing away illusions." At the same time, artists working in Minimalism were following the critic Clement Greenberg who had advocated for reducing the artwork to its essential elements, while artists working in Conceptualism were doing away with physical process and art objects altogether. These concurrent efforts to redirect focus away from the art object came to be known as the "dematerialization of art" (coined by art critic and curator, Lucy Lippard).

The ideas of dematerialization, removal, and the anti-object were central to another series of works by Oppenheim in 1968, titled Decompositions. In these works, Oppenheim created piles on the gallery floor of powdered versions of the materials from which the gallery walls were made, including sawdust and powdered gypsum. By invoking the idea of a physical demolition of the gallery, Oppenheim was also engaging in a critique of the art institution. McEvilley refers to the series as "an attack on [the gallery's] ideology of preciousness and separateness, dissolving its walls to let in the outside world".

Annual Rings (1968)

This image provides documentation of a performance/earthwork that Oppenheim carried out along the U.S.-Canada border, on either side of St John's River. By plowing the snow that lay to the sides of the river, the artist recreated the rings created inside tree trunks due to annual growth.

This site-specific work aimed to reference and highlight various social and natural systems, including geo-political boundaries, time zones, and natural decay. The map is reproduced to highlight the role of mapping in producing artificial and often violent boundaries between states. Here, the river (a natural boundary) is instrumentalized in the service of these borders between nations (human made artificial boundaries). The St John's River acts not only as part of a national border, but also as a line dividing two time zones. Time itself was an important aspect of the intervention as demonstrated in the title and form of the rings (to delineate years) and in the melting of the snow, which made the work temporary; its duration bound to weather and temperature conditions, over which the artist had no control.

Through the juxtaposition of natural elements with man-made concepts like nationhood and time zones, Oppenheim called into question the "the relative values of the ordering systems by which we live." Around the same time, earth artists like Robert Smithson and Walter de Maria, who were also creating site-specific Earthworks where natural environments were put into tension with man-made interventions, were posing similar questions.

Influences and Connections

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Dennis Oppenheim Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 15 Nov 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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