Over the course of his career, Dennis Oppenheim has engaged and often defined some of the most important art movements of the last thirty years.
His early work addressed the urban and natural landscapes. Drawn to the new sense of space offered by the natural environment and by the ephemeral character of actions effected in it, Oppenheim helped to define the then nascent Earth Art movement. Time Line, 1968, belongs to this period. The work has its origins in an action developed in Maine, where the St. John River marks the border between the United States and Canada, and also marks the International Date Line. Cutting a line in the frozen river, the artist created a sort of physical transcription of the political boundary that runs along the river, rendering physically visible information that otherwise would remain abstract. Photographs, an aerial map, and a short text document the work.
The power of this relationship with the natural environment soon led Oppenheim to approach his own body as a field of resistance and energy, and he became one of the pioneers of Body Art. In addition to photography, the artist used film and video to document the birth and development of simple activities, often using a movie camera in a fixed position and allowing it to record in real time. Rocked Hand, 1970, is a sequence of three images taken from an 8-millimeter film that documents the action of one hand slowly covering the other with stones, so that it became weighted down and mimicks its rock-filled surroundings. With this action, the artist divides his body into two distinct parts, one active, the other passive. Beginning in the mid-1970s, the artist began to use marionettes in place of his own body.
In his more recent works Oppenheim has created installations of growing complexity, including mechanical parts and sometimes resorting to almost theatrical techniques.
In Between Drinks, 1991, a thick carpet of confetti visually unites the forms of three large glasses overturned on the floor together with another work by Oppenheim, Double Headed Woman with Floating Hearts, 1991. The work, mounted on the wall, consists of a long shelf that holds a series of bottles, partly warped, as if seen through the befuddled eyes of someone who has imbibed their contents. Silhouettes of female figures in polystyrene emerge from the bottles, each of which contains within a small floating heart. Repetitive and fragmented like a hallucination, the installation refers in tragic tones to a weakened mental condition, portrayed behind an apparent theatrical playfulness.
A sense of anguished expectation emanates from Gathering, 1993, a work that brings together a row of figures crouching on the ground, above which there hangs an enlarged teaspoon brimming with white powder, a clear reference to the widespread destructive power of drugs. The artist’s black humor depicts the figures as a series of identical wax candles, complete with wicks and destined to burn, one after the other.