Dennis Oppenheim - Biography and Legacy
American Conceptual artist, performance artist, earth artist, sculptor and photographer
Electric City, Washington
New York City
Biography of Dennis Oppenheim
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.
Both of Oppenheim's parents were Russian immigrants. His father was Jewish, born in China, and educated at the University of Hong Kong and later at the University of California at Berkeley where he received a Master's degree in engineering. He noted that his father stood out as markedly different from the local working-class El Torito community, both because of his strong Russian accent and his status as a professional. Oppenheim's mother studied English at the University of California. He described her as a "sensitive creative individual" who was very much involved in the arts: playing piano, working with marionettes, and writing poetry. He noted that his parents were "both relatively non-conformist. Oppenheim had one sister, a year older than himself, with whom he had a "rather cool" and "relatively neutral" relationship.
Oppenheim attended Richmond High school, which he described as "enormously overcrowded," as it was built for about one thousand students but in fact served about five thousand. He recalled, "I think one of the positive things that grew out of this experience in Richmond was a real close alignment with the minority class, which I did in a natural way. Particularly the African Americans [...] I was popular with them." Oppenheim was quite involved with sports during high school, participating in track and field and swimming, although he said that he "never played football. Something about football, it was just too American. I had trouble with that."
As for the arts, Oppenheim explained that "I was kind of showing signs of artistic ability early in grammar school, punctuating this population of mediocrity and of relatively low-spirited imagination. I was operating with great resistance. Because being an artist was not a popular thing at all. It was ridiculed because at that time it would appear to be more of an alignment to a feminine activity [...] I used to put on marionette shows and things [in elementary school], that really excited a lot of resistance from my pals who were all hard core juvenile delinquents." He then stated that he became more of a conformist in high school, as he wanted to "be identified as being one of the guys" and he thus resisted his sensitive side, keeping any involvement in art "rather secret and somewhat hidden. Not announced with any great claim, although I did know that I related to it." Nevertheless, he did take some art classes in his later years at the high school. Another student who attended high school with Oppenheim was artist, sculptor, illustrator, and composer Walter de Maria. Oppenheim was friends with de Maria's younger brother, and describes the adolescent artist as "mysterious".
Education and Early training
Oppenheim stated, "I didn't leave high school knowing that I was going to become an artist, although it was really something I considered. I was not sure. I experienced a short period of questioning at that time." He spent a year working at his first-ever job (at a shipyard) and feeling "uncomfortable" and "really quite lost", before enrolling in the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1958. He describes this college as "the obvious choice", as it allowed him to continue living at home. Moreover, many of his friends went to UC Berkeley, but students were required to have an additional language in order to attend, which Oppenheim did not.
He described his early college experience as "an awakening, because here one was all of a sudden thrown in with all of these people that you identified with, and never knew exactly how strong your identity would be until you saw them all together." It was also here that he met his future wife, Karen Cackett. During his first year of college, he kept up his shipyard job, which he recalls as being "not an enjoyable job at all," to help finance his education and have some extra spending money. Every day he awoke at 6:30am, packed two meals (lunch and dinner) and then drove to his 7:30am Art History class. He left school at 3:00pm and drove thirty miles to the shipyard to start work at 4:00pm until midnight. After a year of this grueling schedule, he was laid off and went on unemployment benefits. During that busy first year, he was unable to concentrate fully on his studies, but as of his second year he began to perform very well in school. He recalls two of his sculpting teachers who were the first New Yorkers he had ever met, as being "very important" to him, "sharp," "tough," "verbal," and "stimulating" teachers (despite not being very good artists). The students worked in plaster and Styrofoam as well as a bit of welding. Oppenheim also worked a lot in watercolor at that time.
However, he dropped out of college before completing his degree, got married to Cackett, and moved to Honolulu along with the rest of his family. His father had been relocated there, and had suggested to his son "This is probably a chance for you to do something, and you may as well travel." Oppenheim taught briefly at the University of Hawaii before starting his own Public Relations business. He explained, "all of a sudden I became this kind of extraordinary young versatile entrepreneur." What's more, he was experiencing financial success, and by 1960 he was able to purchase a large house for his wife and first, and later second child (Erik and Kristin respectively) and a fancy car. He said that by 1962 "I made a lot of money. I had all kinds of things. But I was developing a rather poor marriage, and so my wife went back home for a little rest, as we called it. And at that point everything fell apart. Not that that was such a trauma for me, it was just that things were beginning to unfold into what was going to be this continual state of highs and lows which was going to, unbeknownst to me, occur forever."
The couple soon got divorced; Oppenheim closed his PR firm, and went back to school, this time at the University of Hawaii, full-time. As he recalled, "All of a sudden I was back, after a hiatus of two years, in a school environment, and I was about almost twenty-three years old [...] the University of Hawaii in 1960 was quite something. I mean, it was a tropical environment and it captivated a lot of people from various parts of America, many of them interesting. I think I was older with my ability to differentiate between the substance of one person and the value of another was much more acute." During this period he developed strong relationships with several new friends, and "a general feeling of spiritual camaraderie with this group that made up the creative department in the arts".
The teacher that had the greatest impact on him at this time was Burt Carpenter, who went on to become curator/director of Witherspoon Art Gallery in North Carolina. Carpenter taught Oppenheim both in studio classes and art history, and took an instant liking to him. Oppenheim used this time to experiment with various ideas. He stated, "I used to dig holes in the ground, and I'd throw in a lot of broke and rusty steel and pieces that were kind of randomly placed, but yet want to address a certain physiological body component. And then I'd throw plaster in. I'd make these dirt paths and then I'd throw them out, and then I'd burn them, and I purely was identifying, at that time, with remnants of the abstract expressionist sensibility." He also experimented with paintings that were "abstract figurations". However, once again he left before completing his degree, this time to return to the California College of Arts and Crafts.
He remembered this step as "kind of a defeat, in a way, because [...] I was going back to the school I was at when I was a kid. I was older. And for some reason, I ended up in the dormitory. I didn't stay there long. I knew that that was impossible. I was pretty unstable." At this time he struggled with depression, often visiting doctors and taking medications to "equalize" himself. He later noted, "As a survivor of these things, one can develop certain strengths that are useful in making art. They can be in the form of allowing yourself close proximity to dangerous psychological states. For instance, because you tested things, you're more capable of knowing when you're on the brink. You're more capable of examining things, turning them over, looking at them in different ways that are really very difficult, very hard, that have a kind of sinister aspect to them. You can look at very dark things. You aren't afraid. Your level of fear has been compromised because you've experienced things. So this is all ammunition that you can use in art making."
He finally graduated with a degree in Education and a minor in English in 1964, and then promptly received a scholarship to do his Masters of Fine Arts at Stanford, which he completed in a mere nine months. His education at Stanford was comprised nearly entirely of studio work. He said, "I remember distinctly that the day I arrived at Stanford and the day I left, I didn't miss one day in the studio. I mean, I worked every day for nine months, and sometimes all night. So I worked all the time. I expanded from one room to about six rooms. I took over an entire building, work that would overflow in the courtyard. I did hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pieces. I was reading a lot, I was developing theory". He also noted, "I developed extraordinarily lofty intellectual positions because I was being persuaded by a real natural urge for radical upset. I was really sure at that point, without doubt, that I wanted to be a cutting edge artist."
Oppenheim moved to New York in 1966, and in 1967, he moved into the Tribeca loft that served as his home and studio until his death in 2011. (For the last three decades of his life, he also owned a second home in The Springs on Long Island, next door to Jackson Pollock's house, where he liked to simply "go and think".) He taught art at a nursery school in Northport, as well as at a junior high school in Smithtown, Long Island, all the while working toward his first one-person New York show, which was held at the John Gibson Gallery in 1968. The show included mainly photographs and maps of his outdoor Land art works, including Annual Rings. His third child, Chanda, was born to Phyllis Jalbert that same year.
Oppenheim received a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1969, and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships in 1974 and 1982. By the early 1970s he had joined the Art Workers' Coalition, along with Minimalist sculptors Carl Andre and Robert Morris. The group organized demonstrations at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the aim of implementing economic and political reforms. In the early 1980s he presented workshops at the Visual Arts Center of Alaska.
In 1981 he married the sculptor Alice Aycock while the two were working together with eight other artists (including Ulrich Ruckriem, Robert Morris, Mauro Staccioli, Dani Karavan, Richard Serra, George Trakas, and Anne and Patrick Poirier) on the first group of works that would begin the Gori Collection of Site-Specific Art at the Fattoria Celle, in Santomato, Tuscany (part-way between Florence and Pisa). Oppenheim and Aycock were both constructing large-scale metal sculptures next to each other in the English-style Romantic gardens on the property. The marriage was short-lived, but the two remained close friends.
During the early 1970s, Oppenheim turned to Performance art, focusing on the use of his own body. But in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he returned to the material art object, creating large sculptures from industrial materials. Around 1986, Oppenheim entered a period where he stopped working for about three or four years. He later explained, "I just wanted to sort of feel stuff out."
Author and friend, Charlie Finch wrote in his obituary, "Hugh Hefner was a street urchin compared to Dennis when it came to hosting parties", going on to describe the lavish events at which party crashers were always welcome.
In the later years of his career, Oppenheim focused on creating permanent outdoor sculptures that engaged with the surrounding environment in metaphorical ways. At this time, he felt a need to focus on public works in an attempt to "find an alternative to museums and galleries" - although he admitted, "public art has always been a bittersweet and disappointing context over the last 20 years. It really has produced some of the worst sculpture in the world [...] It's a receptacle for bad art. What it offers an artist is an excruciating interaction with bureaucrats and overseers who invariably make a good work impossible. It aligns the artists with architects, who are often resistant, and puts the artist into a no-win position of impossible problems. One must develop a new kind of thinking process in order to interface with the power structure of public art successfully."
In 1998, he married Amy Van Winkle Plumb, and they remained together until his passing from liver cancer in 2011 at the age of 72.
The Legacy of Dennis Oppenheim
Oppenheim was one of the first to advocate strongly for the use of photography in ephemeral Land and Performance works, stating that the photograph was "necessary as a residue of communication".
Oppenheim's early earthworks, such as Annual Rings (1968), which involved modifications to natural substances (such as snow and earth) that would eventually yield to the forces of nature and disappear completely, directly influenced his Land artist contemporaries, such as his close friend, Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970), as well as in more recent work by Richard Long. His influence can also be seen in the works of later artists, such as Andy Goldsworthy, who used the earth and natural elements, as well as his own body, in his "ephemeral" artworks.
Oppenheim was also a pioneer of performance art that focused on the limits of the artist's own body in the 1970s, along with artists like Valie Export, Vito Acconci, and Marina Abramovic. Oppenheim was particularly close with Acconci, saying that they "began about the same time, and we were always quite friendly, and basically we've supported each other [...] I have always liked his work [...] He is quite a different kind of artist. But yet we shared some of the same risk-taking and some of the same inability to do the same thing over and over again. Our position in the market is relatively relaxed. So we have characteristics that we share."
British sculptor Stephen Cripps cited Oppenheim's mechanical sculptures of the 1970s and his firework-launching machines of the early 1980s as having strongly influenced his own "Pyrotechnic" Sculptures of the same period.
His daughter, Kristin Oppenheim is a respected artist working in New York and working predominately in sound and light installations.