PRINT October 1969

Dennis Oppenheim

MODERN AMERICA’S ATTITUDES TOWARD NATURE leave the artist odd man out. On the one hand nature is revered as an untouchable goddess; her major shrines—Yellowstone, Yosemite, etc.—dot the country. On the other hand she is raped hourly by that fine old virility symbol, the buck, with the mining, oil, highway, and tourist industries the major violators. A typical moderate, the earth-artist is caught in the middle. He advocates over nature neither a complete lack of control, nor abusive control. Since he is neither romantic nor practical, society calls him a kook.

One of the finest of such “kooks” is Dennis Oppenheim, a young artist originally from the West Coast who is now living in New York. Oppenheim’s bold, elegant imagination has helped reintroduce the actual countryside as a subject of serious art for the first time since landscape architecture, a genre prominent for two centuries, began dying some eighty years ago. Landscape architecture’s major concerns—kettledrum geometry à la Versailles gardens, and the covert “improvement” of nature herself à la Central Park—now seem, in retrospect, rather bland. With those of other pioneer earth-artists such as Michael Heizer, Peter Hutchinson, and Robert Smithson, Oppenheim’s interests are both radically new and extremely challenging.

With the exception of landscape architecture, Western man’s presence in the countryside has been expressed through nearly nothing but tools—from oil rigs to motels to meadow fences, however quaint. Evoking only the authority of art—woefully slender compared to that of use—Oppenheim and others have executed landscape projects that function only visually. What is more, unlike the huge faces at Mt. Rushmore, many of the projects are totally abstract, using landscape line, texture, and pattern for their own sake and nothing more. Oppenheim, for one, has designed and/or executed pieces involving snow-covered land, a wheat field, the surface of a pond, and hundreds of square yards of bushes. Landslide uses the 1000-foot slope of an abandoned gravel pit.

But the purely formal is only one of Oppenheim’s interests, and, compared to some of his others, a weak one at that. Having helped explode through to the landscape’s giant scale, he might have remained content to do abstract work alone. He has not. Using what he calls “the transplant,” he has started exploring another style, the large spatial collage—the direct and imaginative conjuring, in a given space, of another one strikingly foreign to it. One of his wittier pieces shows that the style has urban uses too. In Removal Transplant New York Stock Exchange, he collected the huge amount of litter that a day’s trading had strewn on the Exchange floor and re-strewed it on a deserted midtown roof. Cleverly, Wall Street’s portentous shrine is evoked through a distinctive visual trait—its garbage.

To those not invited to the ceremony, Stock Exchange has been accessible only through photographs. When shown in the gallery, such photos tend to trouble not only the casually curious but the devoted gallery-goer as well. One reason is that in a gallery everyone expects to find works of art. When you get “stuck” with photos of art instead—whether of masterpieces or junk doesn’t matter—it hurts. Going to a gallery and finding “only” photos is a little like going to a whorehouse and finding only pornography. You feel gypped.

Traditionally, galleries promise something very special—a space which the viewer’s body can share with a real work of art. Such a sharing constitutes an intimacy which no amount of viewer boredom, dismay, or contempt can completely sever. Wherever the traditional artist’s skill (or lack of it) has taken him, he pays his viewer the profound compliment of returning with it to the viewer’s space. This immediacy—and attention—photos do not supply. They snub the viewer harder than the most hermetic obscurity real art can muster. No wonder they cause resentment and anger; they are cold.

Photos are not only mere depictions when you feel promised the real thing; the genuine, if fainter, intimacy that a unique depiction could provide is lacking as well. Behind every photo lies the promiscuous negative. Who needs to go to a gallery to see the mere reproductions that a Life article can bring to millions? No gallery, however public (some say), should get that public.

But such an attitude betrays a curious, if prevalent, conservatism of expectation. By what authority, except habit, should galleries always provide the intimacy of space shared with actual art? Granted, at a concert billed as live, it is a disappointment to hear a tape. But some galleries, like John Gibson’s Projects for Commissions, no longer bill themselves as live. At a planetarium, no one expects real stars; at the movies, no one expects real actors. Unlike these genres, the art gallery has a history to trap it. When Oppenheim does a piece in Maine, of course it is best to see the real thing in Maine. But it is foolish, in the name of misplaced purity of expectation, to be blind to an admitted image in midtown.

Like Stock Exchange, another of Oppenheim’s pieces ultimately juxtaposes two spaces—this time not wittily but lyrically. One of a series of five “Gallery Transplants” done for a museum show at Cornell consists of floor plan, map, and photos. One of the transplanted spaces is a room in the museum itself. Its outline is marked heavily in the plan, which represents an entire floor of the museum. When looking at the plan, the eye “climbs” to adjust the bird’s eye view that the plan, if it does not portray, at least suggests. In this section of the piece the eye, figuratively, has reached a height of 200 feet.

In the next section (reading clockwise), the map, the eye soars to a height of several miles. How else could it be witness to the vast panorama’ which the map suggests? Then it narrows its focus to a large, unusual “X” on the map and (continuing clockwise) goes on to a photo, where it finds its perspective reduced to the view of a man alone in rather desolate country, working with what seems to be a shovel. The eye has “landed.” In the second photo, its view lowered to the foreground—to the closest and therefore most immediate perspective of the piece—it finds like magic, on open ground, the outline of the room it had left behind. It has reached the piece’s second space. From actuality to plan to map to photo, Oppenheim has traced the eye’s path from room to room-outline, from museum to lonely landscape.

In using the map as a genuine visual element, Oppenheim invites the viewer to see that a map, since it implies a huge perspective, therefore implies to the mind’s eye a vast, sensible space. That this experience can be developed, and is natural in some, is supported by the analogy of the musician who, reading a score, hears the music in his mind’s ear. Some may claim maps are unable to suggest space. Some, more modest, may say they themselves cannot yet use maps in this way. Clearly, maps are not traditionally read as space. Sixth-grade geography teachers, Rand McNally, and the AAA, by telling us to read them for data, not experience, hinder us from seeing them visually. But art like Oppenheim’s can help. By introducing the map to the context of a piece, he and others invite and coax us to experience its implied space, a space so vast it exceeds even that of Baroque panoply-of-heaven ceiling paintings, Christianity’s best effort to date. Maps suggest another space, even larger than the landscape-scale space discussed above, that Oppenheim has helped make accessible to art.

Many of his transplants are concerned with juxtaposition of specific place, of locale. The spaces of roof and Stock Exchange, for example, both have the same scale. But in other transplants the interest is less in juxtaposition or collage of locale than of scale. Annual Rings, for example, contrasts suggested and actual materials—its implied wood organic and durable, its real snow flawless and transient. But more important is its collage of scales, one no bigger than a tree trunk, the other huge enough to walk in. Transference of Weather Data elegantly juggles three such scales. It is the lazy, sensuous curve appearing in all three that ties them all together. It appears as six inches long on the map, as twenty feet long on the forest floor, and as four hundred miles long on the greatest, geo-visual scale, the suggested globe. Since all three scales refer to the earth, the curve—thanks to Oppenheim’s deft imagination—proves a multiple earth-on-earth tattoo.

Still another transplant, Time Line, consists of the two-mile long pattern of the international date line (which, by convention, runs irregularly from North to South Pole through the Pacific) ploughed into the snow of a frozen river. Like Transference it refers to three scales—map, real country, and globe. But even more economical than Transference, it leaves the first and third of these only implied. Technically, Time Line refers to the longest line in the world. On the globe, visualized by cartographer or astronaut, no other line, real or imaginary, is longer. By so directly alluding to this greatest line on earth, Time Line achieves a monumentality that, if emblematic, is still supreme.

Some will be impressed by such a monumentality; others will not. Those bored or exasperated by it will include those cold to the experience of maps’ implied space. Those open to it may like a piece similar to Time Line, Time Pocket, whose vastness, real and implied, makes us feel Time falter, a rare and eerie experience. Time Pocket calls for another international date line effigy, this one two miles long on a frozen lake. The Pacific’s line separates Tuesday, say, on one side, from Wednesday on the other. The lake’s line, as a vivid (because colossal) emblem, separates analogous imaginary days. But near the “equator” an odd thing happens. A circle in the snow, interrupting the line, creates a pocket where time, rendered visible, is undivided, unmeasured, a space where it is neither day, nor “no-day.” A figurative but physically visitable chunk out of time, that circle, uncannily, is the image of limbo or of freedom.

Other pieces further show Oppenheim’s skill with the map. He knows that a good way of making us feel a map’s implied space—of bringing to life the space for which it is a dead metaphor—is to have us conduct operations in it. Migratory Alteration of Time Zones, for example, is wistful and whimsical. In it Oppenheim asks that we imagine (the idea is far too creative ever to be carried out) a new distribution of time zones in the United States, dictated not, as they are now, by legal and economic niceties but by the flight patterns of migratory birds that flock over this country twice a year. In a way both gossamer and gigantic, Oppenheim suggests a bit more nature in our lives, a bit less artifice. And in the process the United States, as an immense, sensible space, becomes more vivid to the mind’s eye.

Oppenheim as a would-be national tinkerer also appears in a piece called Project for Smith County, Kansas. The piece gives the impression of being a detailed and meticulous plan for a thoughtful project—that of moving a 14,000-foot mountain to Kansas. As a crucial first step, a map that includes the mountain has been pasted over a map that includes Kansas. This kind of courage is rarely seen in art. Whatever the proposal’s fate, the viewer’s idea of Kansas’s space, because used, will never be the same again.

A series of pieces called “decompositions” are related to maps indirectly. The largest one, shown in the last Whitney Annual, consisted of the materials of the museum itself—portland cement, steel, gypsum, etc.—reduced to powder and poured into a pretty pattern on the gallery floor. But that prettiness belied the piece’s violence. Like a map, Decomposition—Whitney Museum is the modified representation of a real object. But unlike a map’s, Whitney’s modification involves the Museum’s own materials. The result is figurative destruction. Whitney suggests a voodoo effigy pulverized instead of stick-pinned. If someone shows you the ashes of a novel he has burned, it is safe to assume that he didn’t find it thrilling. Whitney is imaginary and imaginative murder.

The Whitney piece is quite large. Oppenheim has also done a number of smaller “decompositions.” Some of these are of the Whitney too; but others, despite the identical format, have a spirit so different that the disparity is not only shocking but quite moving. Unlike the Whitneys, the other decompositions are of common, almost anonymous objects—gratings, air vents, brick walls, etc., objects we ordinarily ignore. For them, dull, overlooked, forgotten, decomposition is a process not of symbolic obliteration but, ironically, of a leap into immortality. This is the Whitneys’ effect stood on its head. These objects’ “murders” make them deathless, i.e., both extraordinary and perpetual, terribly humble victims and immortals, to be sure, but valuable for their showing the process so vividly and so simply. Seen in a different light, they are objets trouvés in a fittingly American form—processed. They show Dennis Oppenheim, poet of the colossal, at home with the miniature as well.

Jean-Louis Bourgeois