|Dennis Oppenheim, Whirlpool (Eye of the Storm), 1973|
A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
sweet dreams, Dennis.
Dennis Oppenheim, September 6, 1938 – January 21, 2011
Dennis Oppenheim, an artist whose body of work traversed multiple art forms and helped to redefine a generation of artistic idioms, died at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York on Friday. The cause of death was cancer said his wife, Amy Van Winkle Plumb. He was 72.
Mr. Oppenheim was a pioneer who pushed the boundaries of Body, Earth and Performance art, sculpture, video and public art, leaving behind an enduring legacy that covered over four decades. His artistic evolution was fueled by intense curiosity and a ravenous intellect, an acute sense of satire and an abiding irreverence for the status quo.
Dennis Oppenheim lived in New York and Springs. Striking for his tousled hair, often dyed multiple colors, eclectic dress and general impishness, he was frequently in the company of his yellow lab, Twister, who survives him. An avid collector, Mr. Oppenheim’s home was a veritable museum of art and artifacts – pumpkin heads and clowns, puppets and vintage dolls, miniature houses, fine art. “Visiting his house was always the biggest treat for me,” said Alice Aycock, his friend and former wife. “It was like crawling through the attic of Dennis’s mind.”
Mr. Oppenheim moved to New York in 1967 after receiving his B.F.A. from the School of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts) and an M.F.A. from Stanford University. He lived in Northport, Long Island where he taught in a nursery school during the day and commuted into New York to spend his evenings at Max’s Kansas City, the famed art world watering hole of the 1960s and early 1970s. There he befriended the artists John Chamberlain and Neil Williams and club owner, Mickey Ruskin. His first solo exhibition at John Gibson Gallery in 1968 would signal Mr. Oppenheim’s entry into the vanguard of the New York art world and a trajectory that has been unflinchingly provocative, inventive and adventurous.
An early proponent of Earth art, Mr. Oppenheim challenged the nature of artistic discovery as he traveled across the country making large scale projects such as “Annual Rings,”1968, a sculpture of concentric circles carved in snow that flanked the U.S./Canada border at the St. John River. His seminal art from this period included “Canceled Crop” and “Salt Flat,” works that were so large and so remote they could only be viewed from the air. His Body art included works such as “Reading Position for Second Degree Burn,” 1970, in which the artist lay in the sun at Jones Beach for five hours with an open book across his chest. The result – a wicked sunburn in the shape of, well, literature. In the 1980s Mr. Oppenheim turned to conceptual installations based on machines that iterated the artistic process and various dynamic actions. These complex, often enormous installations incorporated numerous technologies animated by locomotion, combustion, detonation and varying aspects of fire, electricity and movement, either implied or actual.
In a 2009 interview with Douglas Kelley the artist said, “I don’t stay very long with any one piece.” He recalled, “When I was in graduate school wondering what kind of artist I was to become, it did not occur to me that…I would be floating in an atmosphere of dislocation. No one is particularly prepared for the artist they become.”
By the 1990s, Mr. Oppenheim’s oeuvre had grown to infuse sculpture and architecture in numerous works of public art and permanent installations across the world. With major works in Germany, Italy, Spain, Argentina, Lithuania, China, South Korea and throughout the United States and Canada, Mr. Oppenheim came to signify the quintessential arbiter of art in public places. In 2010, the unveiling of his 60’ high “Safety Cones” in Herford, Germany drew throngs of beaming enthusiasts. Over 7,500 artists and performers, young and old spectators and delighted public officials gathered in celebration of the sculpture. Its popularity was so profound that it inspired the break-out tune, “Wilkommen Safety Cones,” sung by cheering crowds.
Dennis Oppenheim exhibited his works internationally in galleries and museums including the Tate Gallery, London; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; The Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. In 2007 he was recognized for Lifetime Achievement at the 2007 Vancouver Sculpture Biennale.
Born in 1938 in Electric City, Washington to David Oppenheim and the former and Catherine Belknap, Mr. Oppenheim is survived by three children, Kristin and Erik Oppenheim of New York and Chandra Oppenheim of Maine and two grandchildren, Erin Carden and Issa Innisfree Oppenheim-Pressman. A sister, Valerie Long of California, also survives. Predeceased by his first wife, Karen Cackett, he and the artist Alice Aycock were married in 1981. Although the marriage ended in divorce the two remained close friends and colleagues. In 1999, he and long time companion, Amy Van Winkle Plumb were married.
Mr. Oppenheim will be buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California. A memorial will be held at a later date. Memorial donations have been suggested to ARF (The Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons), P.O. Box 901, Wainscott, NY 11975.