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Year 1988

Category Painting on paper

Technic Mixed technique on paper

Height x Width (cm) 194 x 127

Signature Signed lower right

Geographical zone Europa


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Born in 1938 in Electric City, Washington, in the United States, Dennis Oppenheim studied at the California College of Fine Arts and Crafts in Oakland, and earned his Master of Fine Arts degree from Stanford University, California in 1965.

In the late 1960s, resulting from the encounter between his compatriots Robert Smithson (1938-1973) and Michael Heizer (1944), Oppenheim distances himself from the traditional practice of working in a studio and creating a work destined to hang in a museum, moving instead toward Land Art, which involves linking art and life by utilising the framework and materials of nature.

The first Earthworks include Boundary Split (1968) (in which he made cuts into the ice covering a river in Maine using a gasoline-powered chainsaw); Annual Rings (1968) (in which he enlarged tree rings and shovelled corresponding pathways in the snow); Directed Seeing (1969) and Cancelled Crop (1969) (created using agricultural machines); and the Cobalt Vectors-An Invasion (1978) on Mirage Lake. These works, which feature man’s intervention in nature, are preserved by photography and film – documents which in themselves become works of art.

During the same period Oppenheim made the acquaintance of Vito Acconci (1940-2017), who also questioned the function of art and the role of the artist through Corporeal Art which he developed from 1969. In Corporeal Art, the bodies of the artist and spectators are staged in experimental performances.

Dennis Oppenheim then produced his Body Works, documented and preserved by photography, in which he used his own body to receive energies in motion (Reading Position for Second-Degree Burn, Performance, 1970).

However in the face of the increasing danger to which the artist subjected himself, he replaced his own body with a puppet in 1974 to feature in installations called Post-Performance (Attempt to Raise Hell, 1974), which features the incessant repetition of a violent act that causes anguish in the viewer.

He exploited this feeling again in Falling Room (1979), a brutal free-fall of a metal cage, which sought to engage the public from a sensational standpoint as opposed to rational.

The same year Theme for a Major Hit (1974) featured 22 puppets 80 cm tall suspended from the ceiling. Powered by a motor, the puppets moved to the rhythm of a song written by Dennis Oppenheim himself, played on guitar and drums by other visual artists. The refrain reveals the artist’s journey towards Conceptual Art: ‘It’s not what you make, it’s what makes you do it.’

These experiences demonstrate the artist’s attraction to sculpture, most often associated with an active dynamic, which continue to develop in various forms rooted in a given space, whether an interior, exterior, or public: isolated objects (Watchflower, 2004), machinery (Saturn Up-Draft, 1979) or complex and enigmatic installations designed as non-functional factories (Final Stroke Project for a Glass Factory, 1980), habitable or monumental structures that combine architecture and theatre (Chair/Pool, 1996; Wave Forms, 2007, giant bells; Electric Kiss, 2009, a stainless-steel and acrylic rod skeleton in the shape of a chocolate kiss; Radiant Fountains, 2010, a giant illuminated water drop; Still Dancing, 2010; Swarm, 2011, a stainless-steel and acrylic installation depicting a swarm of swallows).

These creations were conceived from preparatory drawings and realised in diverse materials ranging from traditional to industrial, including the utilisation of everyday objects, whether or not manipulated or augmented onto a greater scale (Brush Building, 2005); he also used sound, video, electric light, and fireworks.

Dennis Oppenheim explained his approach in conversation with artist Bill Beckley: ‘You are operating on the operation, not the thing. When you are operating on the operation you have found a way to separate yourself from the things and you operate in a more intangible way.’

Oppenheim aspired to total freedom in artistic creation, outside traditional categories, which is manifested in the multiplicity of forms that his works take, even if they convey the same idea (such as Decomposition Gallery, 1968, and Digestion, Gypsum Gypsies, 1969, which both illustrate the result of energy absorption).

Dennis Oppenheim’s work carries, albeit poetically, a poignant social and political dimension, presenting a set of signs to be deciphered and problems to be solved which compel the viewer to question the fundamental instability of the universe to which we belong, and, ultimately, to the higher realm of the mind’s nature and energy, especially in the face of material culture.

Dennis Oppenheim’s work has been recognised with numerous awards throughout his career. His work has been featured in many public collections throughout the world, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Ottawa, Canada, the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, the Hiroshima City Museum, Japan, the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Kyungkido, Korea, the Museo Nacional Reina Sofía in Madrid, the Helsinki City Art Museum, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the Tate Gallery in London, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, the Museum of Art and History in Geneva, the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Saint-Étienne, France, the Museum of Modern Art of the city of Paris, as well as the many site-specific public installations.

(Martine Heudron)

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Private collection, Brussels (Belgium). read more >>

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