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Dennis Oppenheim

American Conceptual artist, performance artist, earth artist, sculptor and photographer

Dennis Oppenheim Photo
Movements and Styles: Conceptual Art, Earth Art, Performance Art

Born: September 6, 1938 - Electric City, Washington

Died: January 21, 2011 - New York City

"Most of my work comes from ideas. I can usually do only a few versions of each idea. Land Art and Body Art were particularly strong concepts which allowed for a lot of permutations. But nevertheless, I found myself wanting to move onward into something else."

Summary of Dennis Oppenheim

Dennis Oppenheim's art career grew and changed from a legendary scarcity of objects and refusal of the gallery system; to oversize and overwhelming motorized installations; to a contemporary turn towards large-scale Surrealism, with his life size "architectural mirages". He was an integral figure in advancing the definition of art - as idea, intervention, fleeting moment, large monument - and expanding the realm of art outside the gallery. More than any other contemporary artist, Oppenheim was pivotal in contributing to the foundational and defining moments of multiple art movements, most notably Performance, Conceptual, and Earth Art. Throughout his career, Oppenheim jumped between movements, materials, styles, and themes; maddening critics who tried to define him. Oppenheim stated, "I've always wanted to operate within the entire arena. Signature style has been suspicious to me; it reads as a limitation."

Key Ideas

Throughout his career, Oppenheim's work critiqued elitist art institutions. He once stated, "A museum is not a place I am dying to visit in any city. My interest in art is in an art that is yet to be made." This aversion to working inside the white cube of the gallery is an idea that has continued to influence significant artists working in Land art and Public art including Alan Sonfist, Christo and Jean-Claude, and Maya Lin.
Oppenheim was part of the early generation of Land artists, along with Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria, Nancy Holt, and Michael Heizer. They pioneered this new form of art in the 1960s, in which the earth itself served as medium. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Oppenheim's early interventions into natural landscape took the form of removal, returning to the ancient sculptural principal of carving, by, in the artist's own words, "taking away rather than adding".
The process of removal was also important to Oppenheim's investment in the dematerialization and de-commodification of the art object. His ephemeral, time, and idea-based works, which resisted circulation in the art market of the 1960s and 1970s, were often produced by a literal, playful, and documented removal of the object, as in his Indentations series.
All through a disparate and multimedia practice, the specific, corporeal, discrete bodies of both artist and the viewer were always integral to Oppenheim. He has used his body as art (via exposing his skin to the sun), made sculptural interventions in which the viewers' embodied actions activate the work (as in his viewing platforms, which an audience stands on and looks out from and not at), and made public artworks that intentionally disorient those that encounter them through playing with scale, orientation, and perception (as in his large scale architectural pieces).
In 1979, Rosalind Krauss wrote 'Sculpture in the Expanded Field', a foundational essay describing how sculpture had shifted from being a monument, to an object on a plinth, to an intervention or installation in landscape or architecture. Oppenheim was a key figure in rethinking and expanding sculpture to be site-specific, in public, part of landscape, and part of architecture, throughout his career.
Dennis Oppenheim Photo

Dennis Oppenheim was born in Mason City, Washington (later renamed Electric City) which he explained "was really primarily a construction site for the construction of [the Grand Coulee] dam [and] it certainly is not a city. It's not even a town. It's kind of a ghost town without a town. It does not exist." The family lived there while his father worked as an engineer on the dam, but soon after Dennis' birth they returned to their home in Richmond, El Torito, near Berkeley, in the San Francisco Bay area. Richmond was primarily a shipyard-building town during the war, and one of its main employers post-war was Standard Oil.

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