Dennis Oppenheim: An Appreciation of Sorts

Dennis Oppenheim: An Appreciation of Sorts

The death last month of Conceptual Art and Earthworks pioneer Dennis Oppenheim at the age of 72 triggered a number of jarring recollections for me, especially after reading the glut of obituaries and online postings about the artist's mercurial exploits. Akin to the neighborhood prankster of childhood days who barely escaped juvenile detention, Oppenheim had a remarkable talent for making trouble with his art.


I got a firsthand taste of Oppenheim's deliberated antics back in May 1982 at the Bonlow Gallery on Greene Street, in the days when SoHo still rocked as a vibrant art scene. A huge street-level establishment with a sleek subterranean gallery connected by a rather grand staircase, Bonlow was run by the Swedish dealer Jan-Erik von Lowenadler and his partner Jeanette Bonnier, and their fancy PR agent invited me — a cub critic — and other press to witness new work from Oppenheim's "Fireworks Series."


At the time, Oppenheim was describing these Rube Goldberg-esque machines as "thought collision factories," and on this particular day he ignited one of them, a work titled "Launching Structure #2" that was composed of galvanized ducts, tracks, conveyor belts, and, um, about $1,000 worth of illegal, street-bought fireworks. Not surprisingly, mayhem ensued, as the gallery quickly filled with noxious clouds of acrid yellow smoke and, half-blinded by the smoke, I headed down the grand staircase for a little breathing room.

I managed to escape with a pack of coughing scribes through an emergency exit just before a retinue of fire equipment and fire fighters arrived to save the day. Oppenheim somehow avoided arrest for what seemed to be an exceptionally dangerous happening-slash-performance. As he said later, "It wasn't supposed to be so much like Vietnam."


After this experience, I probably should have been better prepared in 1990 when I guest-curated a kinetic sculpture exhibition in the lobby of Pittsburgh's tallest building, then known as the USX Tower. Called "Downtown Kinetic," the show consisted of major works by Alexander Calder, George Rickey, Jonathan Borofsky (one of his giant hammering men), and Oppenheim.

I always felt Oppenheim operated as a kind of underrated American version of Joseph Beuys, intensely political and polemical, yet seemingly far removed from the commercial patois of New York's art world. In this exhibition, Oppenheim's piece — the 1974 sculpture "Attempts to Raise Hell," made from a cast aluminum figure, felt, a timing mechanism, and a large brass bell — was easily the most problematic of the group. A throwback to the Vietnam era, its central figure resembled a Buddhist monk and, on the hour, shot forward on its track to make the monk's head strike the bell.

Set in the cavernous upper lobby of the skyscraper, the bell's ear-splitting chime caused more unanticipated mayhem as unsuspecting pedestrians jumped out of their corporate skins at the shattering sound. Though the exhibition ran for four months, Oppenheim's monk had to be deactivated during the weekday work hours. The local newspaper described the work as "a human puppet banging its head at unpredictable intervals on a large bell."

Oppenheim made waves wherever his work appeared and I'm grateful to say that not only did I witness some of it, but I survived the experience.