New York

Dennis Oppenheim

Sander Gallery

This exhibition consisted of recent proposals by Dennis Oppenheim for site-specific public sculpture, but most of the works—drawings and models—make sense on their own. If there is any unifying principle to the pieces, it is the idea of the dream role of machinery in our lives. A piece like Extended Fortune, 1983, with its aluminum hands from which strips of Mylar extend, blown by an electric-fan-generated wind, makes the point succinctly. Oppenheim is the major figure working within what might be called “the fine art/technology continuum.”

At the same time—and I think this is also part of the “dream” of technology—Oppenheim’s pieces are a brilliantly witty series of recapitulations of Modern art ideas, ranging from painting (Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Mondrian) to sculpture (Tatlin). Oppenheim not only asserts the inner relationship between early Modern art and early technology—the ironical relationship of their “primitive” character, among other things—but makes as direct as possible what I think is one of the leading ideas motivating artists today: the need to conscientiously, if not always with a straight face (defensive irony), recapitulate phylogeny as part of one’s own ontogeny. It is as though the only guarantee of one’s individuality was in an ironical yet relaxed relationship with the past. What T.S. Eliot called “the historical sense,” which he said was essential for anyone who wanted “to be a poet [artist] beyond his twenty-fifth year,” is at stake in much recent Modern. While this does not necessarily mean, as Eliot thought, that “the most individual parts” of an artist’s work “may be those in which . . . his ancestors assert their immortality most vigorously,” it does mean that every artist must, in Van Wyck Brooks’ phrase, “invent a usable past.” Why this should come to the fore now is not entirely clear, unless it be that there is a very usable past spontaneously available, now that the optimistic vision of a technocratically utopian society has completely collapsed.

What makes Oppenheim’s projects—“performances” by inorganic, industrial materials—so stunning is that they recapitulate the serious European past of Modern art within (what is for me) a comic American perspective. Oppenheim is Mark Twain going down the broad Mississippi of the past, taking soundings in it, mastering and even mocking its current—taming the great river of Modernism by damming it up and channeling it with American technological know-how. He lets us know that our fortune is connected to both, rides on both. It may be, however, that what Oppenheim depicts is a nihilistic psychomachy between art and technology, as his fireworks pieces suggest. If so, he raises in the most powerful form yet one of the nagging questions behind all of Modernism: what is the role of art in a technological world? Oppenheim shows that it’s certainly not to continue serenely to be art, in delusionary self-sufficiency. The power of his work lies partly in its science fiction rather than high art look, and, indeed, even its proposed scale is technological/environmental rather than artistic, making the artistic scale seem sadly self-contained. However, science fiction has become regressive with Oppenheim: he wants to know not what the saga of the future will be, but how the past can be tinkered with to perversely “humanistic” effect.

Donald Kuspit