Dennis Oppenheim Arrives at Cedarhurst 1997

Dennis Oppenheim was a peripatetic artist, working as many did in the 1960s, first in Earth Art, then Body Art and Video Art, combining the last two in Performance Art, before moving on to Sculpture proper.  In each discipline, Dennis Oppenheim was an influential artist, well-respected by his peers.  Among Oppenheim’s many accolades, he was chosen for the 1997 Venice Biennale.

Born in Electric City, Washington, Oppenheim grew up in San Francisco, and moved to New York City in 1967.  Oppenheim died in 2011.

Combined Expressions, 1997, brand new version built specifically for Cedarhurst as negotiated by then Director of Visual Arts Bonnie Speed.  Photo from Mitchell Museum archives

Cedarhurst’s Combined Expressions was a gift direct from the artist and the Oppenheim Foundation in New York City.  The gift transpired in September 1996 after a yearlong project spearheaded by Mitchell Museum Director of Visual Arts Bonnie Speed.

“This gift recognizes the importance of Cedarhurst Sculpture Park as one of the top sculpture collections in the country,” Speed commented in the Register-News in 1996.

Combined Expressions is emblematic of a body of work created in the late 1970s and 1980s called by the artist “machine works.”  According to Mitchell Museum archives, the original Combined Expressions was previously exhibited in New York and France.  The version negotiated by Speed was remade in 1997 by the artist using stainless steel which replaced the original’s galvanized steel.  With Oppenheim’s “machine works,” I would identify this as his structuralist phase.

Dennis Oppenheim, with Crystal Garden installation Navalcarnero, Madrid, Spain, 2007.  Photo courtesy Juan M. Espinosa, Associated Press and The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

The highly regarded arts writer Eleanor Heartney described Oppenheim’s “machine works” as “denying the object its sculptural status, [which are instead] presented as complex constructions, systems open to both aleatory and an enigmatic mode of functioning.” Key word in the quote is “systems.”  Think of our Combined Expressions as a complete system.    

Combined Expressions today. Photo courtesy of Mitchell Museum at Cedarhurst archives 

As a “system,” Combined Expressions opens consideration to how the parts all work together.  This sculpture looks best at night with its—symbolic of fire—orange lights turned on; all four faces light up.  All four heads have smoke stacks and all four are interconnected.  What might be the significance of all four fiery furnaces, all four heads combined in an interlocking system?  The title gives a clue: Combined Expressions.  For the artist, this represents a “machine” or “system” where four individuals work together to achieve a common goal.

Recent renovations at Cedarhurst removed a dying tree from the east side of the Shrode Art Center.  Our plan slowly evolved to re-site Combined Expressions just a few feet from its original installation.  Now complete with a new sidewalk, the sculpture is architecturally centered welcoming all to Cedarhurst.

NEXT WEEK: From the Curator’s Desk takes a break; See you JULY 9th!