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Dennis Oppenheim

Documentation of Dennis Oppenheim’s Reading Position for Second Degree Burn, 1970, color photographs and text, 85 x 60".

READING POSITION FOR SECOND DEGREE BURN, 1970, was one of the first of Dennis Oppenheim’s works I ever saw. I was struck less by the willingness of this fair-skinned artist to inflict pain on himself than by the title of the book on his chest––Tactics: Cavalry and Artillery. Here was someone who was going to play the art game hard and from a series of strategic positions. I paid attention to his work––Attempt to Raise Hell, 1974; I Shot the Sheriff, 1977; Predictions, 1972; Lecture #1, 1976; Gallery Decomposition, 1968, to name a few. I saw them all. They were multilayered and suggested the ominous possibility of disorder and instability.

I had a long-standing rule not to get involved with art superstars, but years later, after we had both been in the Whitney Biennial, the phone rang and Dennis said, “Don’t you think it’s time we got together?” I broke my rule in a nanosecond. And so it was spinning-blade machines, fireworks art, and Puffy’s, the Mudd Club, the Riverrun, Debbie Harry and “Heart of Glass,” and the first drink at the bar the night the Odeon opened. One of those nights out at the Odeon we were driving the few blocks home when we were brought into the First Precinct yet again. The officer began to write a series of summonses for driving without a valid license and so on, and paper spilled over the table and across the floor like ticker tape. The officer said that this time Dennis would really go to jail. I went out to the pay phone in the lobby to try to get hold of a lawyer, and at just that moment Dennis ran out the door and into the night with a policeman in riot gear following close behind. I returned to the room with the officer and sat silently––one of the longest half hours of my life. And then Dennis returned. The officer handed him the summonses––a gigantic roll––and we drove home, waving and promising to vote for Teddy Kennedy. Some warm June night this summer I will wander down to TriBeCa and wait for Dennis to run past me in the night—the outlaw bad-boy artist no one can catch.

On another of those nights out we took a trip to Coney Island. The ride we went to first was called Hell Hole, or maybe it was the Gravitron. It consisted of a drum whirling around so fast that the centrifugal forces slammed your body against the wall while the floor dropped down below. It was the closest you could get to experiencing g-forces on earth. We had our cameras and our Manhattan attitude, and we were immediately singled out by a group of young toughs who obviously thought we were ripe for mugging. They followed us into the ride, and the whole time we were experiencing the g-forces we had every expectation that we would be robbed and beaten up shortly thereafter. But once again Dennis’s luck prevailed. Everyone was too nauseated and dizzy, and we all just staggered away.

Dennis was a trickster, a shape-shifter, a flimflam man, a snake-oil salesman for art, and a rascal. He was highly intelligent, charismatic, and witty. He could instantaneously get the gist of almost any situation and figure out a way to play it. This sometimes made the art world wary, but his self-deprecating sense of humor and his ability to connect with people made him beloved by his fans. He could appear vulnerable and hapless, wearing a torn, rumpled sweater covered with dog hair to an important public art presentation, or not show up at all because of a forgotten passport and yet somehow win the competition. In later years, when we were pitted against each other for big projects, I never once underestimated him. One of his last works, Light Chamber, 2010, created for the Denver Justice Center, is a favorite of mine from this period. In the context of the court system, which can appear terrifying and arbitrary, the piece offers a place of beauty and solace.

After these competitions, if neither of us won, we would deliciously perform a postmortem. Once a month or so, one of us would call the other to rehash some exhibition or talk over some trend. We sliced and diced, pointed out some interesting idea brewing in the art-architecture complex, critiqued and reassured each other. It is this ability that we had to connect over and over through the years––to read each other’s mind––that I will be lonely for. There was probably nothing we could not say to each other, except maybe that we absolutely didn’t like a particular recent work made by the other.

Along with antique cars and motorcycles, Dennis loved dogs, Jackson Pollock and Bruce Nauman, birdhouses, dollhouses, papier-mâché jack-o’-lanterns, Halloween, tramp art, prison art, carnival art, pottery and furniture from the 1940s and ’50s, and women. When he died, I imagined women across several continents weeping. And from the looks of Facebook, where he friended everyone, it was probably true. But in the end it always was and would be Amy Plumb, whom he married in 1999.

Years ago, I discovered a quote from Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis that I repeat to myself whenever I become discouraged about art and the art world:

For my own sake there was nothing for me to do but to love you. I knew, if I allowed myself to hate you, that in the dry desert of existence over which I had to travel, and am travelling still, every rock would lose its shadow, every palm tree be withered, every well of water prove poisoned at its source.

Dennis loved art like that, and I love art like that, and that is why we loved each other.

Alice Aycock is an artist living in New York City.