Dennis Oppenheim


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American artist, born in Electric City, Washington. His work spanned Land art, Performance, Body art, installation, and sculpture but was rooted in the questioning of the traditional art object signalled by Conceptual art. Early in his career, in the late 1960s, he was close to Lawrence Weiner and shared his idea that the work of art might be a process rather than an object. However, he did not follow Weiner's conclusion that this process need not be enacted by the artist. Instead Oppenheim's projects were played out, sometimes elaborately and expensively, occasionally even painfully. In spite of its diversity the work has a frequently recurring theme of the exchange and transference of materials. In Cancelled Crop (1969) a field was sown in lines which followed closely the topography of the path between the field and the grain silo. When the grain was ready for harvesting in September, it was done in the form of an X. The grain was never processed, so removing it both from its exchange value and from any function outside its role as art. In Branded Mountain (1969) the cattle and the land they graze upon share the same brand. As Oppenheim put it ‘Cows gaze on abstractions of their own bodies’. In the cringe-inducing Material Exchange (1969), the end of one of the artist's fingernails is ripped off and inserted in a wooden floor, a splinter from which is lodged in his finger. These activities emphasize that this art is a process which takes place in real time rather than operating as a timeless object. Such actions are documented in photographs and text which provide a permanent record of the event. Although these records end up in museum collections, the question arises as to how far they have a status of art works in their own right. Oppenheim's work also challenges the idea of art as necessarily a benevolent force. One sinister piece is entitled Attempt to Raise Hell (1974). A metal figure, in some versions a Buddhist priest, is seated opposite a metal bell. Drawn to the bell by magnetism every hundred seconds, the figure is struck between the eyes, creating a resounding clang. Lecture #1 (1976) takes the form of an effigy of the artist with a recording of a lecture in which he recounts the imaginary deaths of many of his contemporaries as a result of conspiracy. What gives the work a particular sense of danger is that the fantasy was triggered by the actual tragic death of Robert Smithson in an air crash. In later years Oppenheim made conventionally object-based sculpture, although he remained an unusual and highly imaginative artist. Rising and Setting Neighborhood (2006, Riverdale Station, Bronx) is sited to greet New York commuters with an image of rows of houses rising and setting like the sun.

Further Reading

Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal, Dennis Oppenheim: retrospective works 1967–1977 (1978)

Subjects: Art.

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