- Dennis Oppenheim: Body to Performance 1969-73Our PickBy Nick Kaye and Amy Van Winkle Oppenheim
- Dennis Oppenheim: Selected Works 1967-90By Alanna Heiss
- Dennis Oppenheim: Public ProjectsBy Aaron Levy, Vito Acconci, and Aaron Betsky
- Dennis OppenheimOur PickBy Lóránd Hegyi and Alberto Fiz
- Dennis Oppenheim: ExplorationsBy Germano Celant, Lynn Hershman, Nick Kaye, Willoughby Sharp, Steve Wood, Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson, Assumpta Bassas, and Oliver Zahm
Important Art by Dennis Oppenheim
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."
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".
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.