New York

Dennis Oppenheim

Sonnabend Gallery

In 1978 Dennis Oppenheim made a videotape called Whipping into Shape in which he strode around what looked like a Barry Le Va distributional piece swearing at the wooden elements and lashing them with a bullwhip, until he realized finally that he, not the wood, was being punished. As imaginary slave-driver he was prepared to flog even dead wood in his passion for identity, structure, “truth,” “connections”—the metaphors changed as the tape continued. Oppenheim, as usual, was intent on cathartic activity so melodramatic that it can resemble explosion or exorcism. Only a return to the Sublime of Abstract Expressionist theory can do justice to the obsessional nature of Oppenheim’s preoccupation with pure spirit; his work has parallels with the Gothic aspects of Still or the methods of Pollock, especially as interpreted by Kaprow. Since his consuming theme is the distinction between soul and body, spirit and matter, the quick and the dead, there are also echoes of the late religiosity of Newman and Rothko. A desire for moral engagement is evident in his latest construction, Impulse Reactor. A Device for Detecting/Entering and Converting Past Lies Traveling Underground and in the Air. Last year, Oppenheim began a series of giant metal sculptures plotting the path of an unseen projectile. Their channels come to resemble the abstracted guts of Giacometti’s Woman with her Throat Cut. But most remarkable is the debt to Duchamp’s Large Glass; the anti-laws governing the love-juice and the molds through which it must pass are relevant to Oppenheim’s whole endeavor, though there are serious divergences. One is the sexual nature of Duchamp’s inquiry, quite alien to Oppenheim, whose art is simultaneously earthy and ethereal, never totally empirical. Impulse Reactor isolates, measures, sifts, redeems. Bulky, unworkable, hilarious, it is a study in impedance. Fanning, whirring and trying hard to look busy, it forgets to launch trays of raw material, restrained by thick rubber bands. It wants to send dishes around railroad tracks, to extract essences by magnetism, to scatter-shoot through fraying meshes, to transmit smoke signals, to be a theater, station, bed, factory. . . . Formal analysis is footling. The Captain Ahab of ’80s art, Oppenheim voyages in pursuit of some immeasurable alien force which annihilates the words we use, the derisory distinctions by which we choose to live. Be reasonable, you say. How can we ignore existing laws and rules? How indeed. Revocation demands invocation, contradiction preliminary statement.

Stuart Morgan