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 Dennis Allan Oppenheim  (1938 - 2011)

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Lived/Active: New York/California      Known for: conceptual installations, mixed media, earth and body art

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Ad Code: 3
Dennis A Oppenheim
from Auction House Records.
Arriving Home Maquette, 2009
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Following is The New York Times obituary of the artist:

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 Island.

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 much else.

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 black man.

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.

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
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).

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)

In 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).

Oppenheim 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.

Sources:
Art in America
http://www.dennis-oppenheim.com/biobiblio.php
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dennis_Oppenheim

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see AskART.com Glossary http://www.askart.com/AskART/lists/Art_Definition.aspx

Biography from RoGallery.com:
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
Stanford University.

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.

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at registrar@AskART.com.


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