Dennis Oppenheim. Terrestrial Studio at Storm King Art Center
May 14 to November 13, 2016
1 Museum Road, New Windsor, NY 12553
In the late 1960s, a group of young artists in New York wanted to display outside of the art gallery and museum system. Dennis Oppenheim was one of them. Along with Bill Beckley, Walter de Maria, Dan Graham, Michael Heizer, and Robert Smithson, he reacted against minimalism, which at that time was essentially art for indoors. He was interested in creating what he called a “terrestrial studio.” It was singularly appropriate, therefore, that this summer seven Oppenheims joined the 130 sculptures in the permanent collection sited outdoors Storm King Art Center. Oppenheim’s works were scattered around the grounds, which cover 500 acres in upstate New York, which made locating them into a treasure hunt, a pleasurable pursuit in which the maps provided for visitors were essential. There was also a display of photographs and a video of his early art in their museum building.
Some major artists have a signature style. Every Roy Lichtenstein sculpture and every Dan Flavin is a recognizable variation on their familiar concerns. Others, however, are more restless, and so what defines the unity of their oeuvre is some concept of art making. Frank Stella is one such figure—and so was Oppenheim. To understand Stella, you need to explain how he moved on from the austere early black striped minimalist paintings to his baroque painterly assemblages. And to identify Oppenheim’s achievement, you need to trace the thematic development which took him from the now classic Directed Seeding/Canceled Crop (1969), a photograph of a Dutch grain field cut in a diagonal, with the cut material packed in a 25 pound bag, displayed as art, to Alternative Landscape Components (2006), which consists of a group of trees, bushes, and rocks made of painted steel. Along the way you will need to discuss Entrance to a Garden (2002), a steel sculpture in the form of a man’s suit jacket, shirt and tie, which allows you to enter through the arches and sit inside. And you must also describe Wishing the Mountains Madness (1977/2016), group of wooden stars, each 48 inches wide, scattered on two acres of land, a constellation fallen to earth. Oppenhein, who was teaching in Missoula, Montana wanted to bring some of the madness of New York City to this remote area. He created another such an interaction in A Sound Enclosed Land Area (1969), a recording of his footsteps in Milan, which shows that sound alone can constitute a work of art. And, coming closer to the present you will need to deal with Architectural Cactus Grove, #1-6 (2008), cactus plants made of fiberglass and aluminum, and also Electric Kiss (2008), a walk-in onion dome, vaguely Islamic-looking, made of stainless steel and color acrylic rods. What a challenging artist Oppenheim is!
As I see it, Oppenheim’s development involved a radical rethinking of the very concept of sculpture. What, he asked, is the relationship of a work of art to nature? But to understand the dazzling originality of his answers to this question requires a rough-and-ready sketch of sculpture’s recent history. Following David Smith’s breakthrough, some sculptors—Mark di Suvero and Anthony Caro are the best known—explored ways in which sculpture, removed from its pedestal, could become radically abstract. And at that point, the minimalists (Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Robert Morris) identified the ways in which geometric forms functioned sculpturally within a gallery setting. Oppenheim changed the rules of the game, opening up new possibilities. These other sculptors created works that could be sited either indoors or out of doors. But as his titles indicate, many of Oppenheim’s works were created to be outdoors. Alternative Landscape Components and Architectural Cactus Grove in effect constitute a second, man-made nature, a supplement to the natural vegetation of Storm King. Wishing the Mountains Madness is a piece of the sky fallen to earth. And Dead Furrow (1967/2016) is a wood structure modeling the furrow left behind after plowing a field, which he turned into a platform for viewing the landscape. But explaining how Oppenheim’s other more recent art also extends this pregnant way of thinking would take us beyond the bounds appropriate to a review. And so let doing that be left as an exercise for the reader—go to Storm King, walk around and look for yourself!