Dennis Allan Oppenheim
(1938 - 2011)
Dennis Allan Oppenheim was active/lived in New York, California. Dennis Oppenheim is known for conceptual installations, mixed media, earth and body art.
Dennis Allan Oppenheim
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Biography from the Archives of askART
Following is The New York Times obituary of the artist:
Biography from the Archives of askART
Dennis Oppenheim, a Pioneer in Earthworks and Conceptual Art, Dies at 72
By ROBERTA SMITH
Published: January 26, 2011
Dennis Oppenheim, a pioneer of earthworks, body art and Conceptual art
who later made emphatically tangible installations and public
sculptures that veered between the demonically chaotic and the
cheerfully Pop, died on Friday in Manhattan. He was 72.
The cause was liver cancer, his wife, Amy Van Winkle Plumb, said.
Mr. Oppenheim, who died at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, had
homes in Manhattan and the Springs section of East Hampton on Long
Belonging to a generation of artists who saw portable painting and
sculpture as obsolete, Mr. Oppenheim started out in the realm of the
esoteric, the immaterial and the chronically unsalable. But he was
always a showman, not averse to the circuslike, or to courting
danger. For Rocked Circle — Fear, a 1971 body art piece,
he stood at the center of a five-foot-wide circle painted on a New York
sidewalk while a friend dropped fist-size stones from three stories
above, aiming for inside the circle without hitting the artist. There
were no mishaps.
Mr. Oppenheim had a penchant for grandiosity. It was implicit in
the close-up photograph of a splinter in his finger, portentously
titled Material Interchange. It was explicit in Charmed Journey Through a Step-Down Transformer,
a Rube Goldberg-like outdoor installation from 1980 that sprawled 125
feet down a slope at the Wave Hill garden and cultural center in the
Bronx, its disparate parts suggesting engines, tracks, organ pipes and
Sculptures like these, from Mr. Oppenheim's Factories series, combined
aspects of machines and industrial architecture with intimations of
mysterious human processes, presenting what he called "a parallel to
the mental processing of a raw idea" by both the artist and the viewer.
Many works involved moving parts, casts of animals (whole or partial),
upturned or tilted building silhouettes and sound, water and fireworks,
which on occasion prompted unscheduled visits by the fire department.
An athletic, ruggedly handsome man who maintained a shock of blond hair
longer than seemed biologically possible, Mr. Oppenheim had a knack for
the oddly poetic title — as in A Station for Detaining and Blinding Radio-Active Horses
— and a penchant for the occasional sensational remark. "Korea is a
nice place to be," he said after executing sculptural commissions for
the 1988 summer Olympics in Seoul, "if your work is hysterical."
Dennis Allan Oppenheim was born in Electric City, Wash., on Sept. 6,
1938. His father was an engineer; his mother promoted his early
interest in art. In the mid-1960s he earned a Bachelor of Fine
Arts from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and an
M.F.A. from Stanford. He moved to New York in 1966.
He first became known for works in which, like an environmentally
inclined Marcel Duchamp, using engineers' stakes and photographs, he
simply designated parts of the urban landscape as artworks. Then,
in step with artists like Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria and Lawrence
Weiner, he began making temporary outdoor sculptures, soon to be known
as land art or earthworks. Landslide, from 1968, for
example, was an immense bank of loose dirt near Exit 52 of the Long
Island Expressway in central Long Island that he punctuated with rows
of steplike right angles made of painted wood.
In other earthworks he cut abstract configurations in fields of wheat;
traced the rings of a tree's growth, much enlarged, in snow; and
created a sprawling white square (one of Modernism's basic motifs) with
salt in downtown Manhattan.
He had his first solo exhibition in New York in 1968, at the John
Gibson Gallery, then on East 67th Street in Manhattan, and his work was
included in groundbreaking surveys of the new dematerialized art in
1969 at the Kunsthalle Bern in Switzerland and in 1970 at the Museum of
Modern Art in New York.
In the mid-1970s, after tiring of the physical demands of body art and
subsequently using his children in several works, he turned to
custom-made automated marionettes, a solution that brought out his dark
humor and theatrical proclivities and led to increasingly elaborate
sculptural narratives. One of the first, Lecture (1976),
centered on a marionette with Mr. Oppenheim's face who addressed
several rows of small chairs on the topic of the art world, talking
especially about an artist whose preferred medium was
assassination. Only one chair was occupied: by a marionette of a
Mr. Oppenheim's art-making could seem simultaneously driven and
lackadaisical, fearless and opportunistic. Few of his
contemporaries worked in a broader range of mediums or methods, or
seemed to borrow so much from so many other artists. His career
might almost be defined as a series of sidelong glances at the doings
of artists like Vito Acconci, Mr. Smithson, Bruce Nauman, Alice Aycock
(to whom he was married in the early 1980s) and Claes Oldenburg.
Yet few artists could give these borrowings such a personal, sculptural immediacy, as exemplified by Recall,
a 1973 piece now on view in Manhattan as part of a group show at
Salomon Contemporary in Chelsea devoted to art once exhibited at an
artist-run alternative space in SoHo called 112 Greene Street.
In Recall, a video monitor shows a close-up of Mr. Oppenheim's
mouth as he recalls studying painting as an undergraduate, evoking the
obsessive performances and gravelly voiced mumblings of Mr. Acconci,
his friend. But in a glamorous, characteristically simple visual
touch, the image of Mr. Oppenheim's moving lips is reflected in the
shimmering surface of a long, shallow pan of turpentine, the madeleine
used to stimulate his memories.
Mr. Oppenheim's first marriage, to Karen Marie Cackett, ended in divorce, as did his second, to Ms. Aycock.
In addition to his wife, Ms. Plumb, Mr. Oppenheim is survived by a
daughter, Kristin Oppenheim, and a son, Erik, both of Brooklyn, from
his first marriage; a daughter, Chandra Oppenheim of Portland, Me.,
from a relationship with Phyllis Jalbert; a son, Georges Poquillion, of
Toulouse, France, from his relationship with Hélène Poquillion; his
sister, Valerie Long, of Livermore, Calif.; and two grandchildren.
In the past two decades Mr. Oppenheim turned to smaller, less elaborate
pieces whose all-purpose, rather coarsely made forms were generic and
instantly legible. Among the 25 or so permanent sculptures from
this period, several used enlarged objects in the manner of Pop Art:
orange safety cones, Hershey's Kisses, diamond rings, an easy chair,
paintbrushes. Device to Root Out Evil (1997) is an inverted church, its steeple provocatively stuck in the ground. Monument to Escape
(2001), a memorial in a Buenos Aires park to victims of the Argentine
military dictatorship during the so-called dirty war, is simply a pile
of three boxy house forms with bars added to their windows and doors.
His work was the subject of many surveys and retrospectives in the
United States and in Europe, including a 1991 exhibition at the P.S. 1
Museum, and is represented in museum collections around the world.
Mr. Oppenheim's best work had a transparency, almost an obviousness,
that could seem hokey. But it also took the notion of communication
seriously. It refused to talk down.
Known for conceptual installations* of seemingly unrelated elements as
well as earth art such as patterns in snow and harvested fields in
designs, Dennis Oppenheim creates work from his New York studio that is
intended to burlesque various aspects of life. He is known as a
post-minimalist*, and much of his work such as vomit machines and
copulating dolls is intended to disturb and pose many questions for the
viewer. Many of his pieces have challenging titles such as Blushing Machine and Waffle Bone.
One writer described his sculpture as expressing "a swarm of
pathologies which have escalated beyond human control" (Art in America April 1997).
Biography from RoGallery.com
Controversy continues to surround Dennis Oppenheim. In 1997, his entry in the Venice Biennale* was Device to Root Out Evil,
an upended church-like structure 22 feet tall in steel, glass and
aluminum. Directors of the Cantor Center for the Visual Arts at
Stanford University agreed to buy it for that collection, which seemed
appropriate because Stanford was Oppenheim's alma mater. However,
the Dean of the School helped blocked the acquisition by the University
because of its being controversial. Eventually the piece was
installed in Vancouver in Harbour Green Park on a long-term loan, but
subsequently the city's park superintendent asked for its removal
because of objections to the subject matter and its blocking resident's
views of the bay. Two other versions of the piece exist; one is
at the Denver Art Museum, and the other is owned by a private
collection. Oppenheim "dismisses claims that the work is
anti-religion, saying that "turning the church upside down makes it
more aggressive, but not blasphemous." (Art in America, June 2008)
the 1970s, when he first gained attention, he did body art such as
placing a book on his chest while getting sunburned so the book left a
mark. At that time, he was also a leading artist using film and
video with performance art, which led to his acceptance in both the
Venice Biennale* and the Johannesburg Biennale in 1997. In 2000,
he began his largest public work, Bus Home, a bus depot at the
Pacific View shopping mall in Ventura, California. With a
bus-like form spiraling through the air and turning into a house-like
image, it is structurally radical and aggressively attention getting. (Art in America, 9/2002).
was born in Electric City, Washington, and received his B.F.A. from the
College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and an M.F.A. from Stanford
University in Palo Alto. When he moved to New York City in 1966,
he earned money by teaching nursury school and then high school.
In 1968, he, age 30, had his first one-person exhibition
He is a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Art in America
* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see
American pioneer of Land art and Body art, Dennis Oppenheim was born in
Mason City, Washington. He studied at the California
College of Arts and Crafts, and
** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at
After a visit to New York 1966-7, he decided to abandon making
objects. He settled in New York in 1967, and from mid 1967 to
1969, was concerned with increasingly large-scale
earth-orientated projects, including the inscribing or transplanting of
lines or material associated with one site onto a second site
strikingly different from it, e.g. the tracing in snow on either side
of the St John River, the frontier between Canada and the USA, of
concentric circles corresponding to the annular rings of a tree.
He had his first one-man exhibition in New York, of Ground Systems, at
the John Gibson Gallery 1968. He began in 1969 to use his own
body as material by subjecting it to wounds, pressures, sunburn etc.,
sometimes as an investigation of biological processes.
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