Conceptual, earth, performance, body artist and lately, large-scale public sculptor, Dennis Oppenheim died Friday night January 21st, 2011 at the age of 72 from complications from cancer. He’d been diagnosed only six weeks earlier, was in the process of undergoing chemotherapy, but then slipped away so stealthily that the Las Vegas Metro reported his death as a possible hoax. Would that it were a joke. Dennis loved a good joke. He was a supreme satirist, a punster extraordinaire, an artist who constantly reinvented his medium, endeavoring to find ways to synthesize multiple ideas. In the beginning, Dennis used his body, the earth and sky as art and as a means to explore creating sculpture; then performance became his sculpture, and recently, his public artworks investigated structures that incorporate architecture into sculptures that are both visually stunning and thought provoking.
Starting in the 60s Dennis became well-known as one of the original earth artists. The first piece I ever saw by Dennis Oppenheim was a photograph of a work titled Annual Rings, an action and earth/art piece done in 1968 in which he transposed the annual rings that mark a tree's growth onto the snow-banks along the U.S. and Canadian border line. Cutting with a shovel back and forth across political as well as time zones, Dennis’s piece dramatized the arbitrary boundaries in our cultural landscape. Politics is largely about taking sides, and Dennis’s shovel literally cut through sides and stances, while his image of concentric circles united them.
In the late 70s Dennis began to use puppets as a way to segue from performance art to motorized sculptures. He called his puppets his “surrogates.” They bore his facial features and danced and sang songs Dennis wrote, “It ain’t what you make, it’s what makes you do it,” and even lectured on art history. In the infamous Lecture from 1976, a puppet with Dennis’s face discussed the death of body and earth art to a room of empty chairs. Dennis’s puppets were an extension of himself. They were often marionettes of Dennis being manipulated by strings, and they spoke of the artist as a puppet being at the mercy of art commerce.
Another favorite and darkly humorous piece was a large-scale public work, Devise to Root Out Evil first shown at the Venice Biennale in 1997 and later installed and then uninstalled after an uproar at the Vancouver Biennale in 2005. Dennis’s Devise was a galvanized steel structure of a church turned upside down so that the steeple pointed into the ground like a divining rod to expose the wicked.
My father, the art historian Peter Selz, wrote that artists play an important role in changing social and political issues and that to transform situations, “We must change not only our industrial practices, but the way we view the world.” In tackling the physical environment, the body, and the corporate infrastructures of public institutions, Dennis continued to practice in his inimitable way, the art of social and political dissent.
Dennis was a shaman, part magic man, part irritant. And though his cleverness could frustrate his audience, even in that regard, by working so closely within the public realm, he endeavored to “critique” his ability to annoy, amuse and engage us. He referred to himself as, “a little devil.” And in truth, like the art he created, Dennis could be wickedly demonic, widely clever, beautiful all at once.