A Dialogue with Nature: Dennis Oppenheim at Storm King

Dennis Oppenheim: Directed Seeding/Canceled Crop, 1969, color and black-and-white photography, aerial map, text on rag board, 60 by 40 inches. Photo Jeffrey Sturges.


Nature has always been a source of inspiration for artists, and landscape remains a favored subject for many. In the late 1960s, a group of artists, including Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer, and Dennis Oppenheim, among others, came up with the revolutionary idea to consider land itself as a medium, inherently laden as it is with cultural and historical significance. In an effort to move art away from the commercial machinations of urban galleries and museums, these artists made various alterations to remote outdoor environments. Some of these efforts entailed only subtle interventions—a rearrangement of twigs and stones, for instance; others employed bulldozers to move massive amounts of soil and rock, thereby creating new landmarks, or Earthworks, as they were called. Often, few people ever saw these ephemeral artworks. And if they lacked photographic documentation, there would be no record of their existence, save by word of mouth. 

One of the most restless and innovative of the group, Oppenheim transplanted himself from the Bay Area to New York in 1966 to become a pioneer of Earth, Body, Conceptual, installation, and video art. Eloquent and charismatic, he was one of the few who would convincingly and seemingly effortlessly traverse these genres in his wide-ranging projects. “Dennis Oppenheim: Terrestrial Studio,” this summer’s major exhibition at Storm King Art Center in New Windsor, New York, focuses solely on the artist’s unique engagement with the land. While not a full-scale retrospective, it examines how his approach to nature evolved over the course of his career. The show constitutes the first posthumous solo exhibition for the artist, who died of cancer in 2011 at age seventy-two, and the first US museum exhibition of Oppenheim’s work in nearly a decade.

Occupying all of Storm King’s indoor gallery spaces, and scattered throughout its five-hundred-acre sculpture park, the show contains thirty-three works, ranging from monumental outdoor sculptures in concrete and steel to photographs and drawings. Organized by Storm King director and chief curator David R. Collens, curator Nora Lawrence, and assistant curator Theresa Choi, in collaboration with Amy Plumb Oppenheim, curator of the Dennis Oppenheim Estate, the show contains a number of major works that were conceived by the artist early on but were never realized in his lifetime.

The most stunning of these, Dead Furrow, planned in 1967, but making its debut here in a verdant, open field, recalls an ancient Mayan pyramid. As Lawrence writes in the show’s excellent catalogue, the work, stretching some forty by thirty-five feet, and ten feet high, is part of Oppenheim’s “Viewing Station” series, whose concept centers on the act of seeing or “pure viewing,” as the artist noted. Titled after the raised areas of soil that result from plowing, Dead Furrow resembles a work of Minimalist sculpture. Made of wood coated with organic gray pigment, the raised platform is surrounded by long, evenly arranged rows of PVC pipes in a luminous turquoise hue, suggesting the rippling waves of a lake or estuary. Rather than simply presenting a sculptural object in a landscape, Oppenheim creates an extraordinary experience for visitors: after surmounting a short flight of stairs, viewers can take in some breathtaking scenery: 360-degree panoramas of Storm King’s sprawling meadows and rolling hills.  

The museum galleries contain several photo pieces related to Oppenheim’s early Land art projects, including his well-known 1969 work Directed Seeding/Canceled Crop, which helped establish his reputation. Oppenheim generated some controversy among his peers when he advocated documenting these ephemeral Earthworks, produced in the small village of Finsterwolde, in northeastern Holland. Without that gesture, however, the wheat field with the curving patterns of lines cut through it, and the large X inscribed in the same field later in the year—created with farm machinery and a great deal of effort—would have been known only through hearsay.   

Some of Oppenheim’s best works are simple yet evocative landscape interventions, such as the wistful Wishing the Mountains Madness (1977), which features dozens of large, star-shaped pieces of wood painted in white and pastel shades of red and blue. Strewn on the ground over two acres at Storm King, the objects are intended to correspond to the heavenly stars at night. Similarly playful, but with an environmental message is Beehive Volcano (1978/1989), featuring five blown-glass “bee-hives” placed on the floor. Each contains small speakers generating the buzzing sound of bees, a tribute to the now-endangered insects that are vital to agriculture. 

In later years, Oppenheim focused on permanent outdoor sculptures and temporary works that engaged with the environment in metaphorical ways, such as Alternative Landscape Components (2006) with its deliberately artificial-looking trees, rocks, and bushes made of brightly colored plastic tubing, painted steel, and acrylic. Mimicking nature, the work suggests a rather dystopian, futuristic landscape. Similarly jarring in Storm King’s natural setting are works in the “Cactus” series, begun in 2007. Initially created for a desert setting in Arizona, these tall sculptures in painted aluminum and fiberglass imaginatively reconfigure the soft and hard forms of a cactus plant.

Entrance to a Garden, another monumental work, was planned in 2002, but not fully realized until now. This piece, situated just outside the main museum building, best sums up Oppenheim’s relationship with nature in his later works. A towering, sixteen-foot-tall archway made of painted steel and metal mesh, the work resembles a stylized man’s blue dress shirt with a shiny blue tie. The disembodied torso may be seen as a stand-in for the artist, or at least a personage acting as a conduit for light and air, as well as for ideas and self-reflection. Viewers pass through a gateway—the open area where the figure’s abdomen would be—to explore a garden, a well-manicured nature retreat that is at once soothing and invigorating.

On view through November 13, “Dennis Oppenheim: Terrestrial Studio” coincides with “Outlooks: Josephine Halvorson,” an exhibition of recent outdoor painted wood sculptures, at Storm King through November 27. Better known as a painter of refined quasi-realist images, Halvorson is here representative of a younger generation of artists engaged with the land. She has created three large-scale, site-specific objects, collectively titled “Measures,” which resemble oversize implements such as rulers and a sundial. They neatly correspond with and complement Oppenheim’s landscape interventions. In their allusions to scale, proportion, and the passage of time, Halvorson’s work continues the bold and evocative dialogue with nature that Oppenheim began.