Remembering Dennis Oppenheim’s Public Art


New York-based art pioneer Dennis Oppenheim died over the weekend at the age of 72; known for a large body of work that spanned the Land Art, Body Art, and Conceptual Art movements, and then later, his “machine works,” Oppenheim was constantly innovating and refused to allow himself to be pigeonholed. “I have never been able to be what they call a signature artist,” Artinfo quotes him as saying. “Most of my work comes from ideas. I can usually do only a few versions of each idea. Land Art and Body Art were particularly strong concepts which allowed for a lot of permutations. But nevertheless, I found myself wanting to move onward into something else.” We look at some of his most recent pieces — the large-scale, often controversial public artworks that dominated the latter part of his career — after the jump.

Dennis Oppenheim, Device to Root Out Evil, 1997

Unveiled at the Venice Biennale in 1997, Device proved too controversial for New York City (or at least the director of New York City’s public art fund), Stanford University, and Vancouver, where it spent almost three years in a prominent location near Stanley Park. As Oppenheim once told an interviewer, “Pointing a steeple into the ground directs it to hell as opposed to heaven. It’s a very simple gesture.”

Dennis Oppenheim, Engagement, 1997

Would you believe us if we told you that this large-scale sculpture was inspired by “Single Ladies”? Just kidding it’s actually a lot darker than that; the two rings are meant to represent the dichotomy of marriage — both the romantic and the melancholy.

Dennis Oppenheim, Monument to Escape, 2001

This monument — dedicated to the estimated 30,000 victims of state terrorism in Argentina between 1976 and 1983 — was opposed by all political parties when it was erected in 2001.

Dennis Oppenheim, Bus Home, 2002

We’d be happy if this was our crazy-looking bus shelter. Evidently some residents in Ventura, California, not so much.

Dennis Oppenheim, Safety Cones, 2007

Gigantic traffic cones designed to make you feel tiny.

Dennis Oppenheim, Electric Kiss, 2009

If the physical act of a kiss was a building, Oppenheim imagined that this is the architectural shape it would take. And yes, he realizes that it also looks like a Hershey’s Kiss and a Russian onion dome.

Dennis Oppenheim, Journey Home, 2009. Photo credit: Robert Neumann

You might think this one looks a lot like Bus Home, but as Oppenheim explained, there’s a different idea behind the expanding spiral: “As you near a destination, it becomes larger and larger and appears to loom.”

Dennis Oppenheim, Still Dancing, 2010

Said Oppenheim: “‘Still Dancing’ is a combination of sculpture, architecture and theater. By combining these art forms into one work, which derives content from an association with early distillery images and their alchemical apparatus, one encompasses a work which incorporates the extraordinary transformative drama inherent in the distillery process.”