New York

Dennis Oppenheim

Church and White Streets and Sixth Avenue

On a wedge of concrete formed by a street intersection, Dennis Oppenheim, in a project organized by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and the New York City Transportation Department, placed Rolling Explosion, 1984. The site is an odd-sized remnant created by the overlay and convergence of two street grids; it is not much good for anything except as a pedestal for public art. The metaphysical meanderings in steel, wood, and fiberglass that Oppenheim transported to this site form a curious piece which shifts unpredictably between the playful and the sinister. On a slightly elevated track, a pair of open wheels rest as if frozen from motion. An axle between the wheels is an open rectangular steel frame—an abacus, for it contains riblike coils that thread wooden blocks, beads, and dumbbells. Conjecturing movement, the viewer envisions these threaded elements racing on collision courses of devastating potential.

This large, hollow spool is poised slightly beyond the midpoint of the length of track, which slopes slightly to the north. At either end of the track laminated wood bumpers offer some resistance should the wheels become unfastened. While at the site, I saw three people try to push the spool from its precarious, stationary perch, an effort whose success would have set the work on a course up Sixth Avenue.

Oppenheim shares Duchamp’s fascination with machines as models of intellectual distance. The construction seems harnessed yet threatening, nonchalant yet tense. Whether interpreted as a huge, scaleless toy, a metaphysical model of momentum, or a sinister, self-conscious object to generate fear and unease, Rolling Explosion is hypnotic; it possesses autonomy with no discernible purpose, and, like all Oppenheim’s work, it explores ideas about art, entropy, and metaphysics. Yet the piece lacks a congruence and fluidity of idea and action. Like Duchamp, Oppenheim believes that anything that can be thought can be made, but Rolling Explosion demonstrates that one’s aspiration can also exceed one’s grasp. The work’s form has been guided by fascinating and problematic ideas about instability and metamorphosis, but in that it fails to translate a code or language, or to become a symbol or image leading to more significant understanding and insights, its resonance and power are eclipsed. It is a too-literal transmutation of thoughts that are almost unthinkable, a model that contains rather than expands possibilities.

Patricia C. Phillips