PRINT November 1978

Dennis Oppenheim’s Delirious Operations

HOW INCONGRUOUS THAT DENNIS OPPENHEIM still wears the “conceptual” label when his work has always been at odds with such a designation. Not that this label means much any more, but it seems important to stress at the outset that Oppenheim’s enterprise seems fundamentally about the very dissolution of concepts, about an insistence that abstract systems be treated as physical material to be manipulated. It deals with the corporeality of all human experience (including thought), with events that take place on surfaces and in territories. This is not to say that thought is not an issue in his work. But what is central is that thinking is always aligned with physical operations; it is never distinct from an economy of material and forces. This is a question of events rather than ideas. And Oppenheim’s venture takes place in the region that Nietzsche mapped out antagonistically when he wrote: “Philosophers are prejudiced against appearance, change, pain, death, the body, the senses, fate and bondage, the aimless.”1

There are inherent difficulties in discussing Oppenheim’s work, especially in attempting to generalize or to structure his activities or to order them into periods or types of work. His extremely diverse output spills over, obsessively repeating itself, only to break off suddenly and begin again in a totally new domain: we can organize such material only at the cost of losing touch with its essential disjunctions and its disorder. Perhaps one of the best ways of getting a sense of the texture of Oppenheim’s career is to study his recently published document called Catalyst 1967–1974,2 a chronological listing of activities, proposed or executed, transcribed from his notebooks. Yet even this is a list without consistent punctuation or any clear indication of where the description of one work ends and another begins. The utter profusion of activities recorded merges into one overall chain, which Oppenheim says corresponds to “the rhythm underlying my work.”

Catalyst is a delirious inventory, a chaotic unfolding of materials, processes, systems, objects and actions of all kinds. Instead of cataloging distinct “works” or “pieces,” it charts a range of experiments or operations that have certain related effects in common. All Oppenheim’s projects seem animated by a similar kind of energy—a mobile, disruptive, multiplying desire. Notes for activities indicate some overriding and recurring impulses: (1) “Interaction of units that do not normally involve each other;” (2) “Seventeen uses for an object;” (3) “Break the law.” Throughout the career we see temporary conjunctions of unrelated materials, redirections and overapplications of various inspirations, inscriptions and overlappings of codes and marks on surfaces. Repeatedly we find extensions and expansions of the way objects and systems are dealt with. Persons and objects are defined in terms of use, of relations of force, or points of connection. Whatever Oppenheim works with is subjected to a rupture with its established or conventional use, or its position in a physical or social field. Materials, language, processes are implicated in reversals, underminings, redistributions, exaggerations, reductions and collisions. Oppenheim’s activity recalls the scope of Richard Serra’s Verb List Compilation (1967–68), but it also goes beyond that.3 There is an excessiveness—a mania—supporting Oppenheim’s aspirations, an insistence on the tangibility of everything: a practice that assumes all systems and materials, whether global or microscopic, institutional or anatomical, are subject to his intervention and modification.

Despite Oppenheim’s historical proximity to Minimalism, the kind of operations he performs occur in an area that had been opened up by Jasper Johns. The associations and collisions in Oppenheim’s work are a radical expansion of the dismantling and overlapping of codes that Johns conducted. By condensing decades of partial experiments (Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning, Duchamp’s Tu m’, Miró of the mid-1920s, Magritte, etc.) Johns instituted a practice in which distinctions between the material and the abstract orders disintegrate—in which signs and sign systems are torn loose from a referential function and take on a floating identity where they can coincide with objects and with the activity of the body. What Johns provided for Oppenheim and others was, on the one hand, the indication of a potentially vast domain of new vocabularies available for manipulation and recoding; on the other, possible operations that could be carried out on the physical surface of a corporeal, social or terrestrial field, as well as within the delimited field of painting.

Oppenheim’s work, like Johns’, is bound up with a rejection of metaphor and an allegiance to surfaces. Obviously, Minimalism also discarded metaphor—more thoroughly even than Johns, but at the same time it rigorously curtailed the range and diversity of operations and materials that Johns’ work had suggested. Johns’ so-called literalism seems analogous to certain aspects of Oppenheim’s projects, particularly his explicit work with language. For linguistic problems figure, directly or indirectly, in most of Oppenheim’s works, whether audio or videotapes, inscriptions of words onto surfaces, or his own written statements accompanying individual pieces. What seems immediately relevant are those activities growing out of a preoccupation with the experience of spoken language, of taking language literally, especially when it is idiomatic. Specific works seem generated by a desire to concretize language: phrases such as “burn up weight,” “take my word for it,” or “the wrong frame of mind.” This makes for two-dimensional dumbness that is akin to Johns, a re-channeling of indirect or figurative speech onto a single plane where it can be experienced without any mediation.

Perhaps it is misleading to discuss Johns in terms of literalism, because what is central in so much of his major work is a disquieting snaking in and out of representation, of having only a contingent hold on the surface. With Oppenheim and others in the late 1960s we see an earnest, even visceral, effort to get away more completely from representation, and at the same time to leave behind the self-referentiality of Minimalism. While Johns’ individual signs relinquish an effective referential identity, his work as a whole is still haunted by a preoccupation with language as an apparatus of double articulation, with a hierarchy of signifier/signified. For Oppenheim such ranking is not an issue: problems of signification are supplanted by problems of operation, and what we get in his work is the material or sensuous presence of language, physically intersecting with other systems and networks.4 His is a sensibility wholly different from Johns’ that seems like an innocence, as if encountering certain materials and words for the first time and naively inventing new functions and connections for them.

Oppenheim’s work in the late ’60s often parallels the work of others, in particular Robert Smithson. Oppenheim and Smithson, working with land during those years, both confronted problems of site and location, using strategies of displacement and doubling. But the apparent closeness of the two artists concealed fundamentally different intellectual positions, as subsequent development made clear. The divergent paths which the two followed are suggested in Smithson’s “Sedimentation of the Mind” essay of 1968.5 This richly ambivalent piece of writing is charged with a vibrant disorder missing from later essays. Shooting out in many directions, Smithson’s text sketches an outline of the kind of ideas that would come to characterize Oppenheim’s enterprise and, at the same time, elaborates structures in his own thought that would culminate in the dialectical exercises of his Olmsted essay (1973). Smithson instituted bipolar, categorical set-ups which would become central to his work—set-ups such as site vs. nonsite and differentiation vs. de-differentiation: yet he also generated a dispersed, acategorical thought in which language and structures have no stability, caught up in a slow and inexorable collapse. Smithson wrote: “separate ‘things,’ ‘forms,’ ‘objects,’ ‘shapes,’ etc. with beginnings and endings are mere convenient fictions: there is only an uncertain disintegrating order that transcends the limits of rational separations.” Smithson’s dilemma is that the dialectical underpinning of his later work depends precisely on such separations—on the fiction of the opposite and the negative. And the moments when Smithson admits the inadequacy of dialectics are when another order takes over, as in his “Spiral Jetty” essay (1972): an “immense roundness” emerges, out of which the creation of the spiral is possible.

The route Dennis Oppenheim traveled is clear: a project of abolishing categorization and separation, of doing without any structural dualities altogether, not one of synthesizing oppositions. When Oppenheim’s work involves land, for instance, he proceeds without invoking or implying a category or object “nature.” He moves independently of polarities like man/nature or culture/nature. For him earth, nature, man, culture all become part of one surface on which all boundaries are provisional and fluid. And by staying outside of a man/nature dichotomy Oppenheim frees himself from the implicit humanism that is a silent but important dimension of Smithson’s work. Oppenheim challenges the notion of a sovereign or autonomous consciousness behind the work. His activities aim at dissolving divisions between the self and other objects or systems, so that the concept of “man” as an isolable entity becomes unworkable. What Minimalism unwittingly supplied Oppenheim and others in the late ’60s and early ’70s was the disclosure of a nomadic subject—a self with an open, shifting relation to the object and free to establish a web of multiple, partial connections with it. Even with Oppenheim’s early work, we see his development from the de-positioned status of the self that Minimalism heralded to a self that can interpenetrate or coincide with a diversity of objects, processes, or networks.

The titles of his work from around 1970 suggest some of the “material interchanges” he experimented with: Arm and Wire, Wrist and Hand, Glassed Hand, Leafed Hand. In Wishing Well, 1973, Oppenheim’s monologue is about the will to merge the body with a concrete wall. Extended Armor, 1970, is about expanding the body’s effectiveness beyond its physical limits. In 2000’ Shadow Projection, 1972, Oppenheim works with light and shadow to destabilize the body’s location in space, generating an experience of being in two places at once. What we continually get from him is the sense that any substance, body, or sign is always plugged into a constellation of networks and systems as part of a material flux, never discrete. Nothing is articulated as an independent unit but as an element in a field of manifold, encroaching events. The self is defined only by what it is adjacent to, by the objects and forces it connects with.

Around 1973 or 1974 Oppenheim’s method of working seemed to change abruptly. He moved into gallery situations, putting together various installations and set-ups, a number of them involving puppets. Paranoia and despair became part of the experience of his work. But these pieces were not as removed from his previous projects as they initially appeared. One objective of this work was to describe the mechanisms of various (especially psychological) traps and enclosures, out of which his earlier work had shown escape routes. The installations present a series of impasses, situations of being locked onto one site or inflexible path. We get the mechanized marionette in Theme for a Major Hit, 1974, which endlessly performs its redundant song and dance; the toy trains on the circular track in Predictions, 1973; the conveyor belt in Wishing Well, 1973: the gridlike communicative set-up in Lecture, 1976: the figure that repeatedly smashes its head into a bell in Attempt to Raise Hell, 1974: the revolving record on a huge turntable in Early Morning Blues, 1977. In these and other pieces, desire is channeled into deadening and repetitive operations or rigid paranoiac attachments—situations that are the inverse of the multiple and shifting investments of the previous work as well as other work that Oppenheim produced concurrently. One of the principal traps Oppenheim is describing is the experience of being defined as an individual, and of the interiority that individuality implies. Because the puppets that function prominently in many of these works are self-portraits, Jacques Lacan’s discovery that the individual is constituted through representation seems relevant: that the individual comes into being only with the manufacture of an image of the body as an enclosed whole, immune to fragmentation. And it is this “armor of an alienating identity” that Oppenheim exhibits as both a physical and a mental prison. At the same time, some of these works hint at the circulation of desire trying to slip out of the walls around it. Search for Clues, 1976, is built around a monologue recited by Oppenheim’s daughter, in which intimations of incest emerge, not as transgression of Law, but as a route beyond the twin limits of death and individuality, beyond the confines of an interiorized consciousness.

Much of what Oppenheim does implies an effort of de-defining the self, getting out of the trap of interiority. Instead of the mind reflecting on itself, thought is relocated onto the same surface on which the body stands—a surface where all kinds of syntheses, breaks, disruptions are possible, where desire is free to make new associations and investments, no longer appropriated by the ego or institutions. What he achieves in many of his activities is a situation where we are unable to say whether the self is presented as subject or as object. In this way he evades being turned into a “case,” a person with a history who can be studied or analyzed. For if someone is not delimited or individualized he or she cannot be normalized, made part of a structure, which requires what Michel Foucault calls a knowable, “disciplinary individual.” As fewer boundaries are defined, more power is threatened.

That Oppenheim never works in one area or mode for very long is part of this refusal to be classified; it is a strategy of constantly diversifying the fronts on which he operates. Often his working method is like that of the bricoleur, a handyman or mechanic who works with spare parts, making new interlockings of unrelated elements. But Oppenheim does not rely on spontaneity or automatic processes: like Burroughs’ cutups, his work has its own rigorous technology, controlling what is put into it according to definite procedures. Like Burroughs, Oppenheim seems to recognize that the self is cut from reality as long as one is involved in representation. So while Oppenheim may use signs or sign systems, they are no longer representative: and when language figures in his work it is in terms of operations that are not linguistic. What we get are actions or events that are intensive and nonsignifying. For example, his pieces in which words are spelled out in burning flares over fields and hillsides: they are an experience of language in which questions of meaning or communication are periphera or Oppenheim engineers an extravagant event in which a fragment of thought, broken off from any rational or discursive practice, is fused onto the earth in a moment of pure expenditure. In another work, Whirlpool Eye of the Storm 1973 (a piece that seems both homage and response to Smithson’s Spiral Jetty), Oppenheim discharged white smoke from an airplane in the shape of a vortex, high over a California desert. Here he produces a fleeting inscription that exists only as event, an intensive sign with which the human subject is aligned: both sign and self constitute a single delirious path.

Jonathan Crary



1. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann, New York, 1967, p. 220.

2. Dennis Oppenheim, “Catalyst 1967-1974,” in Alan Sondheim, ed., Individuals: Post-Movement Art in America, New York, 1977, pp. 246–266.

3. Richard Serra. “Documents,” Avalanche, Winter 1971, p. 20.

4. See Felix Guattari, La Revolution Moiécuiaire, Paris, 1977, pp. 253–56.

5. Robert Smithson, “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects,” Artforum, September 1968, pp. 44–50.