Dennis Oppenheim No Photography

Alison de Lima Greene

One day the photograph is going to become even more important than it is now — there’ll be a heightened respect for photographers. Let’s assume that art has moved away from its manual phase and that now it’s concerned with the location of material and with speculation. So the work of art now has to be visited or abstracted from a photograph, rather than made. I don’t think the photograph could have the same richness of meaning in the past as it has now. But I’m not particularly an advocate of the photograph.1 Dennis Oppenheim, 1970

Photography has played both a central and peripheral role in the conceptual work of Dennis Oppenheim. On the one hand, photographs provide the sole documentation of a key series of ephemeral Earth Art installations and Body Art performances creaed by Oppenheim in the decade between 1968 and 1978. On the other, the artist has never considered himself a photographer: many of his documentations are made up of photographs taken by others; viewpoints are frequently informal; and the actual printing was executed by standard commercial labs. Indeed, even the photographs have proved to be ephemeral. Most of the phtodocumentations were created for exhibition purposes and only a few survived past the initial presentations of that era.2Most important, these photodocumentations were never intended to be regarded as photographic works of art in themselves; rather, as the artist recently commented: “They were there simply to indicate a radical art that had already vanished. The photograph was necessary only as a residue for communication.”3
In 1991, Alanna Heiss mounted a major retrospective of Oppenheim’s work at P.S. 1 Museum and Institute for Contemporary Art, New York. In preparation for this exhibition, Oppenheim reproduced a number of his early photodocumentations from material that he had maintained in his personal archive. With the assistance of Amy Plumb, Oppenheim’s archivist since 1977, these documentations were recreated true to the original scale and configurations of the early presentations. Three of these documentations were subsequently donated by the artist to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, as part of a major gift.4
In the light of developments in photography over the past two decades, these photodocumentations have lost some of the shock value they nice held. Jean-Louis Bourgeois, writing on Oppenheim in 1969, accurately summarized the sentimens of a public not used to looking at photography of this nature:

“When shown in the gallery, such photos tend to trouble not only the casually curious but the devoted gallery-goer as well. One reason is that in a gallery everyone expects to find works of art. When you get ‘stuck’ with photos of art instead—whether of masterpieces or junk doesn’t matter—it hurts. Going to a gallery and finding ‘only’ photos is a little like going to a whorehouse and finding only pornography. You feel gypped.5

At a time when photography was widely regarded as a peripheral activity compared to painting and sculpture, the substitution of a photodocumentation for the actual object was itself demanding. Furthermore, the sculptures recorded by these documentations issued an additional challenge in that they represented an aggressive move away from the object. Not only were viewers asked to relinquish the one-on-one experience with the actual object, but in a post-Duchampian gesture they were also asked to accept as art an object that no longer existed.
The photographic community, which might have been expected t support this new direction, was affronted by the unorthodoxy of the photodocumentations. The large scale, the intermingling of black and white with color images, the casual authorship of the images, and the combination of commercial printing and non archival mounts alienated many of the scholars who were beginning to establish important photographic collections. Indeed, in many museums Oppenheim’s photodocumentations continue to be collected primarily by sculpture and painting curators.
The function of photodocumentation is recording ephemeral activities hd a certain ancestry before the conceptual artists of Oppenheim’s generation. Yves Klein hurling himself from a second story window had been doctored continues to be debated. The actionist artists of Vienna—Gunter Brüs, Otto Mühl, Hermann Nitsch, and Rudolf Scwarzkogler—used photodocumentation in the early 1960s to record performances that were too shocking to be executed before a general audience. In the United States, the evolution of Happenings and Performance Art as conceived by Allan Kaprow, Red Grooms, and Claes Oldenburg among others was largely promoted by photodocumentation.
Not surprisingly many of Oppenheim’s early projects can be releated to Performance Art as the artist’s presence as fabricator is clearly evident. For example, Ground Mutations, 1969, was created by the artist’s self-conscious peregrinations across the urban landscape. As recorded by a five-part photodocumentation—among Oppenheim’s earliest exercises in this format—the project is a combination of a carefully prepared premise and random elements. In the text panel, the artist records: “Ground Mutations—Shoe prints. November 1969. Kearny, New Jersey and New York New York. Shoes with ¼” diagonal grooves down the soles and heels were worn for three winter months. Was connecting the patterns of thousands of individuals…My thoughts were filled with marching diagrams.” On the lower left is a photograph of the left and right shoe prints. This image is surmounted b two photographs: on the left the shoes have shaped a three-dimensional ridge in the snow; n the right the muddy soles have printed a track on the pavement. In this fashion the artist establishes a basic lexicon. A dramatic change in scale, on a conceptual level at least, is introduced by the satellite view of midtown and lower Manhattan. Despite a lack of knowledge of the history of photography,6Oppenheim had an almost cinematic grasp of the effectiveness of montage techniques. The static shoe-prints lead to the charted paths, which in turn reflect the urban grid. Te narrative of the text panel gives the work an extended temporal context and is a combination of objective notations and introspective commentary. The fluidity of these transitions leads the viewer to accept the immensity of this project as Oppenheim leads us through the conceptual jumps that unify the work of art.
Extended Armor, 1970, documents a 55-minute performance at Reese Palley Gallery, New york. The photodocumentation is therefore both temporally and physically compressed in comparison to Ground Mutations. Whereas the earlier piece falls into the category of urbanized Earth Art, Extended Armor explores its microcosmic counterpart, Body Art. Here Oppenheim clearly takes center stage as performer—he is shown in an absurdist high-risk situation. For close to an our he confronted a tarantula trapped in a narrow chute, keeping it at bay by pulling hair out of his head and blowing it towards the spider. This action was recorded by video cameras, as well as by photographs taken by Oppenheim’s dealer, John Gibson. To some extent, Oppenheim sacrificed a degree of the pictorial control he exercised in Ground Mutations. However, once again the montage of text, still images taken from video, and the oblique gallery view maintains its conceptual urgency. Oppenheim has insisted that his photodocumentations are not to be regarded as pictures “but information about something. Some of my contemporaries, like Gilbert and George, are emphasizing a strong image. I like to emphasize a strong concept. The photodocumentations carried a lot of weight because they were referencing a new conceptual art.”7
Despite these disavowals, certain photodocumentations are extraordinarily beautiful. Polarities, 1972, is perhaps Oppenheim’s most successful synthesis of conceptual premise, on–site execution, and documentary processes. As described in the two text panels, the generative images for the work were the last graphic gesture created by the artist’s father shortly before his death and one of the first drawings of the artist’s daughter. Oppenheim plotted these images on a fiv-hundred foot scale in the fields of Bridgehampton, New York. Lit at twilight, the flares burned for about twenty minutes. Given the scale of the work, it could only be comprehended from an aerial view and fifteen aerial photographs taken by Steven Pearlbinder record the images in the increasing darkness. A map of eastern Long Island, with the location clearly marked gives the work a geographic context, complementing the genealogical mapping which occurs on a conceptual level.
In retrospect, looking at these works in the context of the photographic developments of the past two decades, they appear remarkably fresh and unmediated. In contrast to Cindy Sherman’s and Sophie Callé’s manipulations of documenaryy procedures, Oppenheim’s photodocumentations have naïve immediacy, free of the layered interpretations discovered by the subsequent generation of artists who came of age in the 1980s. Instead of treating photography as an end in itself, he reduced it to one of its basic functions—documentation. And while formal links can be made to the New Topographics movement in photography of the 1970s, Oppenheim was never interested in interpreting the landscape. Instead, he transformed the landscape and his body into new arenas of action, and his photodocumentations fulfill the basic purpose of any documentary: they give evidence.
The artist has commented on the work of this era, “I didn’t know what it was, but I did know what it wasn’t. It wasn’t painting. It definitely wasn’t photography. I think of myself as a sculptor, so I called it sculpture. If history was being made at all, it was being made in sculpture, not in documentation.”8

Alison de Lima Greene is curator of twentieth-century art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Bibliographic note: The most comprehensive publication on Oppenheim to date is the catalogue of the P.S. 1 exhibition: Allana Heiss and Thomas McEvilley, Dennis Oppenheim: Selected Works 1967-1990, New York, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1991.

1. Dennis Oppenheim, Interview with Lisa Béar and Willoughby Sharp, “Discussions,” Avalanche, no. 1., New York, Fall 1970. Reprinted in Lucy Lippard, ed. Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object…, New York, Praeger Publishers, Inc, 1973, p. 184.

2. Few photodocumentations were collected by individuals or institutions in the late 1960s and 1970s and the transience of early Type-C color prints has rendered some of Oppenheim’s early photodocumentations virtually inelligible.

3. Telephone interview with the author, 16 December 1992.

4. In the autumn of 1991 the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, purchased a monumental drawing by Oppenheim,Chain of Pearls, 1980. The artist later donated the three photodocumentations discussed in this article, as well as a sculpture, Vrus, 1989, and an additional monumental drawing, Study for the Heart with Paper, Carved Hard Foam, Black Glass, Rolled Paper, Ceiling-Mounted Turntable, 1992. In 1983, the museum had acquired Oppenheim’sTraps and Cowhide, 1969, gift of Eve France.

5. Jean-Louis Bourgeois, “Dennis Oppenheim: A Presence in the Countryside,” Artforum, vol. 8, no 2. (October 1969), p. 35.

6. Oppenheim remembers tat “my inspiration wasn’t coming from photography, it was coming from sculpture.” 16 December 1992 interview.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.