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“Collection in Focus: New Acquisitions—Major Works by Dennis Oppenheim”

At the Corcoran Gallery of Art to Aug. 8

Dennis Oppenheim has what readers of Fast Company magazine might term a “branding problem.” He’s been important for 30 years, and still no one knows exactly who he is. It’s the opposite predicament to the one in which Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol found themselves. Their lifelong performances still threaten to overshadow the things they made. Oppenheim makes himself known chiefly through his physical remnants, but even when you get them all in one place, his persona remains fugitive.

A noncommittal, conceptually oriented genre-jumper, Oppenheim has always gotten around: “Earthworks” at New York’s Dwan Gallery in ’68, Germano Celant’s book Art Povera and the Bern Kunsthalle’s “When Attitude Becomes Form” show in ’69, and he was on everyone’s short list. Land art, body art, idea art, process art, film, video, performance—if a curator wanted to home in on a particular flavor in the post-minimalist/anti-minimalist style stew, Oppenheim would hang with the best of them. He was pals with Robert Smithson, Vito Acconci, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Terry Allen. He went to high school with Walter De Maria (a nice showing for Richmond, Calif.) and did the Aspen summer artist-in-residence thing with Bruce Nauman. He got his first retrospective at Rotterdam’s Museum of Boymans-van-Beuningen in 1976 and participated in inaugural shows at the Teheran Museum of Contemporary Art and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York the following year. A 10-year retrospective toured Canada the year after that.

In the early ’80s, he built complex neo-dadaist machines and large outdoor sculptures that involved fireworks. He was chummy enough with like-minded sculptor Alice Aycock to make her his third wife from 1982 to 1983. Though he never left the public eye, he took a hiatus from making art, returning in the late ’80s with a heterogeneous sequence (“series” would be incorrect) of indoor installations that continues to this day. He remains widely shown on four continents.

A current Corcoran show comprises 13 pieces, 12 of which are partial or total gifts to the museum from the artist. There are two sculptures: Crystal Waste (1991), a fiberglass, steel, and glass excretion drama that recalls the spattered-lead stalagmite rows of Richard Serra and the uncomfortably corporal figures of Kiki Smith, and Two Objects (1989), a pair of loudly copulating chairs whose jerky, mismatched congress rings with overtones of Jack Sprat misogyny. There are two photo documentations: Annual Rings commemorates a 1968 action in which the artist cut concentric circles into the frozen snow at a spot along the international border between Fort Kent, Maine, and Clair, New Brunswick, where time-zone gerrymandering has made it an hour later to the west, and Air Pressure—Hand (1971) consists of a built-in title label and six stills from a video examining the effect of compressed air on human flesh. All other pieces are drawings: four plans for platforms on which to stage performances involving dangerous substances such as quicksilver and quicksand, two diagrams for works from his Fireworks Series, two Jim Dine-ish sculpture plans that overlay architect-y draftsmanship with splashy coloring in a tastefully restrained palette (“I wouldn’t mind taking this home,” said a well-dressed silver-haired woman standing in front of 1992’s Study for Lung With Brushes, getting the point entirely), and a sketch for a 1974 performance in which a dead dog stiffening atop an organ keyboard literalized the old joke about “decomposing.”

The gathering purports to be a “mini retrospective,” but it’s nothing of the kind. Oppenheim’s output is simply too scattered, his concerns too diffuse to permit quick summary. A dozen pieces might do justice to one episode in his career—for example, the late-’80s/ early-’90s moose and deer whose antlers squirt jets of flaming gas. Anything worthy of the “retrospective” title, “mini” or not, would have to be several times the size of the current show.

The quote that has become obligatory to accounts of the artist’s career comes from British art critic and late-’70s Oppenheim talk-buddy Stuart Morgan: “[T]here is change in his career, but no ‘development’; at any moment he may double back to something he abandoned ten years before.” The interesting thing is that Oppenheim may also double back to things other artists have abandoned, and they to what he has left behind. Oppenheim’s 1996 installation A Ring for Every Finger recycles the pulley-suspended swings of 1980 Acconci sculptures such as Instant House and Raising the Dead (and Getting Laid Again). The dead-dog music of Proposal For: Discussions Works/Words calls to mind the more speedily sonic time-lapse decay sequences in Peter Greenaway’s 1985 A Zed & Two Noughts, while Oppenheim’s mid-’70s marionette works seem to prefigure photographer Laurie Simmons’ interest in ventriloquism dummies.

Although lines can be drawn from Oppenheim to his peers, and precedents can be established in one direction or another, the links never seem fully causal. It’s as if he has tapped into our Zeitgeist from a parallel universe where consequence isn’t even on the table. The project proposal is a format that comes easily to Oppenheim, because all of his pieces, even when realized, seem prospective. He’s a wide-awake surrealist, a spiritual architect of the unbuildable, a crafter of intimations that seem beyond imagining. Our own conscious mental journeys can be traced like routes on a road map, but one pictures Oppenheim as having daydreams no more palpable or volitional than his nocturnal hallucinations.

Removal characterizes even his most personal pieces. The dead dog was originally Oppenheim’s live 5-year-old daughter, Chandra, who was draped over the keyboard when Works/Words was conceived as Rehearsal for Five Hour Slump. With his son, Erik, the artist conducted a series of pieces in which each would try to replicate a marker trail the other drew on his back, the result forming graphs of the inaccurate feedback of their communications. The artist’s father’s last doodle and one of Chandra’s first drawings were re-created as trails of light in the fields of Bridgehampton, N.Y., magnesium flares making a connect-the-dots game so vast that the forms could only be comprehended from the air, like the Nazca lines of Peru.

It doesn’t work to represent Oppenheim with a pair of sculptures (which hardly seem “major,” though I’ll concede the point for the sake of argument) and a handful of works on paper. In a conversation with Celant published in a 1997 catalog, the artist diminishes the significance of his drawings, saying “[T]hey operate in a secondary position to my work….It’s something that’s used to communicate easily within the art system, that’s manageable. Clearly in a way my heart isn’t in it enough to make it a primary function.” Talking to Alanna Heiss for a 1992 catalog, he explicitly identifies his drawings and photodocumentation as salable units that permit him the freedom to pursue less commercial work. Shows that, like the Corcoran’s, are staged to take public notice of institutional gifts are necessary evils of the museum biz; would it hurt for curators to underplay them just a bit?

In “A Proposal for Understanding the Work of Dennis Oppenheim,” Heiss, herself a little loopy, encourages viewers to embrace the flip side of the artist’s pragmatic careerism, his “wackiness.” Think of him as an “alien,” she says. If we need the comfort offered by metaphorically positioning Oppenheim somewhere in physical space, even outer space, how about making him a dim star? He’s most visible as a distraction, a smudge of light on the lens. If we’re looking to one side, if we keep our eyes moving, he seems more present; stare straight at him and he disappears. The danger posed by the Corcoran’s show is that it makes Oppenheim look insubstantial enough that when we glance away we may not look back. CP