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Artist interview

Interview with Dennis Oppenheim on hid latest exhibition: “I could never stay with just one thing”

The veteran artist promises “truly radical” new work in his show at the Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma

Revered as a wild visionary, Dennis Oppenheim, 66, has had a long and exceptional career, his boundless imagination only matched by his practical skills. Oppenheim was first considered a pioneering “Conceptual” artist and then as one of the seminal “Land” artists, not least for his key 1968 works Boundary split and Annual rings created on the frozen border with Canada. He has gone on to develop an impossibly protean and un-categorisable practice ranging from architectural interventions, to novel furniture, and always produces vigorous preparatory drawings. Whether making a print on his own flesh by sunbathing with an open book, letting a mosquito under a jam jar drink his blood, or getting a plane to draw a tornado in the sky with smoke, Oppenheim always pushes every limit. The influence of his work is enormous and easily apparent on younger artists as diverse as Cerith Wyn Evans, Cai Guo-Quiang, Juan Muñoz, Michael Joo and Tim Hawkinson. This month sees the opening of Oppenheim’s latest exhibition “Indoors, outdoors” at the Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. This listed building, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, in a wide open American landscape is particularly suited to his interest in architecture and geography.

The Art Newspaper: How did the Bartlesville show come about?

Dennis Oppenheim: I didn’t know anything about Bartlesville until I saw an ad for a Frank Lloyd Wright house for sale, the Price House, so I was seized by a state of melancholy and flew down there. I arrived in Tulsa on a weekend, I thought the nuclear bomb had dropped because there were no people in the entire city. I drove to Bartlesville which was also sparsely populated. Then I was introduced to the Price world, I met the widow and she was wonderful. I felt like moving into the house with her actually. I went through the whole house and there I met Richard Townsend who runs the Price Tower Arts Center, and had dinner in his beautiful Bruce Goff house and I’ve slept at the Price Tower and met the staff.

[The Price Tower and Price House were built for the US industrialist Harold C. Price in the 1950s. Mrs Price is his widow.]

TAN: What do you plan to include in the exhibition?

DO: We’re going to make the show as big as we can, displaying models of my completed and incomplete and proposed large-scale architectural and sculptural projects, stretching back over the last 15 years. That will be the interior exhibition and I’ve been asked to do something very special outside. I may even work with Zaha Hadid on some ideas.

TAN: You are increasingly involved in such projects.

DO: This foray into “Public art” has not been without a lot of kicking and screaming. I had exhausted installations and done hundreds of exhibitions. Looming out at me was the idea of this sector “Public art”—with 1% of the city or state budget—beckoning to me to enter its inner sanctum. Being a “fine” artist, I find it very hard to operate in a democratic situation, being judged by non-art people. I find a lot of the work is compromised: a hybrid art form you’re forced to pull punches.

Being “fine” artists we’re kind of spoilt. We go to art school, we’re given studios, we don’t care what people think. It is very unrealistic yet there is a world out there which allows that kind of behaviour and exhibits the products of that temperament. Some feel that kind of operation as an artist is fading out; it is no longer justifiable. It’s like spoilt brats in elitist institutions under full protection, just selling things to semi-deranged collectors at prices which would astonish Donald Trump. I’ve never sold a great deal, I’ve never developed a rigorous market, I never had that kind of success. Maybe it’s good, it allowed me to do a lot of truly perverse things.

TAN: Perhaps it’s an issue of ephemerality, non-collectability in your work?

DO: I always used to think so, I used to say to myself the reason this work isn’t selling is because it is very advanced, and enjoys a sort of material ephemerality, or what we used to call “de-materialisation”. But actually there are artists who have done that kind of work and DO have a market. So maybe it’s just that I don’t believe deeply enough that certain work has a real value. If you’re suspicious of the art world, if you think a lot of this is bogus, a lot is just fantasy and make-believe, that there’s too much bad art going for very high prices, then you quickly become immune to that belief system. I mean… I understand why some work is valued and is so expensive, and it should be, but a lot of it really should NOT be valued as much as it is.

TAN: You are unusually relaxed for an artist about the “market” business?

DO: Well, I started making “Land art” and “Body art” that was almost impossible to sell, so the issue of selling something has genuinely never affected me, that’s not a factor for me. What bothers me is acute critical dissension by individuals who are perceptive. I can be bothered a great deal by “currents” within the art world, being ignored, but failing to sell has never worried me. Maybe I’m just in extreme denial. My situation is so BAD that I can’t face the facts!

TAN: So how do you look back on your long career?

DO: Recently I have come to realise I made a lot of mistakes, I held on to erroneous suppositions, things I should never have believed in. Jumping around as I do and not being a “signature” artist, I always made myself believe this way of working was more positive than negative, but I have this irksome subterranean feeling that I was wrong. It’s not that I wanted to be a signature artist, rather that I abandoned radical work, work that was moving beyond the conventional, work that was interesting to art history. I was moving away from that and replacing it with work that was relatively minor. “Land art” and “Body art” and a lot of the early “conceptual” work were a new avenue. That’s what I started out doing, then I decided it was okay to go back to “studio art”, back to the “object” art that I had been opposed to before. So I went backwards.

I believe art is either relevant and interesting to the art historical continuum if it explores the edges of things, or it just is not, it is conventional. So now I am trying to recapture a frame of mind from when I was much younger, with more theoretical, truly radical ambitions.

TAN: Can we anticipate some radical new work?

DO: Yes, if desire is any kind of indicator! I do want to be able to do works now that come from some exalted vision I didn’t have before. But I need to be careful, I’ve seen a lot of art and I know the mechanisms. It’s almost like starting over again now. When you’re a younger artist you have to know your influences and steer away from them and it’s pretty much the same now.

TAN: Are you a fan of younger and equally radical practitioners?

DO: I like Damien Hirst, I think he’s beyond everyone else – I certainly look up to him, just what he can do, what he can get away with. Matthew Barney is another young man who is unbelievably individual.

TAN: Does the strength of a work of art depend upon the strength of an idea?

DO: Yes, but the idea is not just one singular idea which inspires a single work, it is a large view. Within that view there might be more specific subdivisions and intents. But there has to be a general understanding and that has to be a fairly exalted view, and that is not easy to find or take on board. I could never stay with just one thing, and still can’t. Various psychological things disable me from pursuing the sort of straightforward career of other artists who only work within a more sensible strand.