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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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Dennis Oppenheim Signature
"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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Dennis Oppenheim Signature
"This is something other than studio art, and it seems to necessitate a dialogue with the real world."
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Dennis Oppenheim Signature
"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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Dennis Oppenheim Signature

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.

Progression of Art


Dead Furrow

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."

Wood surfaced with organic pigment and PVC pipe - Storm King Art Center



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".

Color photography, collage text on rag board - Haines Gallery, San Francisco


Annual Rings

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.

Gelatin silver print(s), ink on paper, photomechanical prints, wax crayon - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Reading Position for Second Degree Burn

Still engaged in "dematerialized" art, Oppenheim began to explore the ways that his own body could be used to carry out artistic concepts. He describes this work as a corporeal enactment of painting, explaining, "The piece incorporates an inversion or reversal of energy expenditure. The body is placed in the position of recipient ... an exposed plane, a captive surface. The piece has its roots in a notion of color change. Painters have always artificially instigated color activity. I allow myself to be painted ... my skin becomes pigment. I can regulate its intensity through control of the exposure time. Not only do the skin tones change, but change registers on a sensory level as well. I feel the act of becoming red." The language and process of 'exposure' with regard to intensity of color also links to photographic and development processes, including the processes, which would have produced these documentation images of the artist's 'exposed' chest.

Shortly before this work was carried out, Oppenheim befriended Performance artist Vito Acconci, who would go on to become famous for his subversive performances, which frequently focused on the artist's own body, such as Trademarks (1970), in which he bit down on various parts of his own body hard enough to break the skin, and Conversions (1971), in which he used matches to singe off his own chest hair. It is evident that the two friends were exploring similar ideas around this time, focusing on the ways that they could use their own bodies to enact art making, at times exploring the limits of pain that they could endure. As well, Oppenheim's body-focused performance art of the early 1970s bore strong similarities to that of Marina Abramovic. There is a strong affinity between Abramovic's Rhythm O (1974) and Oppenheim's Rocked Circle - Fear (1971), in which he stood in a circle with a diameter of five feet while viewers threw rocks at him. In works by all of these artists, the performances left physical marks and scars on their bodies, which endured past the end of the performance itself, but would ultimately fade away. Thus documentation through photography was an important secondary aspect of their performances.

Reading Position for Second Degree Burn is an important document of the experimental performance practices of the 1960s and 70s, and is singular in its tongue-in-cheek references to traditional art processes such as photography and painting, which have influenced a number of more playful performance practices, including those of Angus Fairhurst, Roman Ondák, and Janine Antoni.

Chromogenic print - Irish Museum of Modern Art


Formula Compound (A Combustion Chamber, An Exorcism)

This site-specific sculptural work sits in a broad field surrounded by thick forest. It is comprised of a tall central tower, joined by overhead cables to a structure further up the slope. The tower is also joined by curved "launching ramps" to a structure further down the slope. Below the main sculpture, a series of square panels (each providing different levels of transparency) allow visitors to view the work in different ways.

In the early 1980s, after working for several years primarily in the dematerialized terrain of land and body art, Oppenheim felt a desire to return to the art object. He recalls that this period "was more about the movement from very dematerialized work, which was body art, to something that had more physical structure [...] I guess you could say it was a return to structure after being involved with conceptual deconstruction [...] Armatures, steel, physicality, presence. Things above the ground." At this time, he began using industrial materials to create large sculptural works that resembled machines intended for launching fireworks. For the artist, these complex machines served as a metaphor for human thought processes, or what he referred to as "cerebral maps", with the firework projectiles acting as "thought lines".

In total, Oppenheim created five works in this Fireworks Series. Formula Compound (A Combustion Chamber, An Exorcism) is the only one of the five that was never actually used for igniting fireworks. It was designed for and built at the Gori Collection of Site-Specific Art in Tuscany. In fact, Oppenheim was one of the original ten artists (along with Alice Aycock, Ulrich Ruckriem, Robert Morris, Mauro Staccioli, Dani Karavan, Richard Serra, George Trakas, and Anne and Patrick Poirier), who collector Giuliano Gori invited to stay at his property for several months during 1980-1981 in order to begin populating the Villa and adjoining nineteenth-century English-style Romantic garden with site-specific works.

At the time of its construction, an enormous oak tree stood just next to, and towered over, the work's central tower. By dwarfing the sculpture in comparison, this oak lent the work a sense of humility in the face of nature. However, on April 20, 2005, a dramatic windstorm brought down the oak on top of part of the sculpture, destroying a section of the work. When consulted on this matter, Oppenheim insisted that the felled tree not be removed, and the work not repaired. This deference to the site on which his public sculpture was produced is very different to the attitudes of most artists working in the public sphere, particularly with large-scale sculptures, and again demonstrates the artist's dedication to process, liveness, and protecting the natural landscape.

Steel and iron - Gori Collection of Site-Specific Art at the Fattoria Celle, Santomato, Italy

Device to Root Out Evil (1997)

Device to Root Out Evil

This sculpture is comprised of a New England-style church built upside-down, perched precariously upon the point of its steeple, which drives down toward the ground. This sculpture is characteristic of Oppenheim's later work, in which he sought to transform everyday objects, and to fuse sculpture and architecture. He later explained that the work was "very well-received as a sculpture, as both a concept of architectural sort of reorientation - you render this building unusable by turning it upside down, and it's not functional anymore; so it becomes sculpture."

Oppenheim said of the work; "It's a very simple gesture that's made here, simply turning something upside-down. One is always looking for a basic gesture in sculpture, economy of gesture: it is the simplest, most direct means to a work. Turning something upside-down elicits a reversal of content and pointing a steeple into the ground directs it to hell as opposed to heaven." This inversion - from architecture to sculpture, usefulness to uselessness, object to art - is a direct quotation of Marcel Duchamp's famous Fountain (1917) in which a urinal is placed upside down and titled and becomes an art object through this nomination as such. Despite a return to the art object in his later work, this monumental sculptural work is still imbued with his conceptualist roots, and also makes use of the dry humor prevalent throughout his career.

Originally titled Church, the project was proposed to New York City's Public Art Fund, with the intention of being located in Church Street, (the same street in which the artist was living at the time). However, the work was considered too controversial and was not approved. Oppenheim decided to change the name so as to be less controversial, and built the sculpture to be installed as part of the 1997 Venice Biennale. Since then, the work has been moved from one home to another, as various purchasers (including Stanford University in 2003, Vancouver's Harbour Green Park in 2005, and Glenbow Museum in Calgary in 2008) have taken in the work, only to painfully reconsider the decision shortly after due to the work's "inappropriate", "controversial", and "sacrilegious" nature. The work currently resides in the Plaza de la Puerta de Santa Catalina in Palma, Mallorca, since its relocation in 2014.

Red Venetian glass and steel - Plaza de la Puerta de Santa Catalina, Palma, Mallorca

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
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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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