Unleashed mind

One of America’s leading conceptual artists, Dennis Oppenheim explains artistic pain and the danger of compromise

Photo By David Robert

Do you find that people sometimes have a hard time getting your concepts?

Yeah. Probably. Even though the art world is relatively big, it’s strange to most people. Art is a little bit esoteric. Artists are all different; they’re all individuals. Art is taught in college, so there’s some kind of coherency to it. They teach contemporary art, show all these slides, talk about it. There are ways of talking about art, and the professionals—the art critics and historians—have spent a good part of their lives getting familiar with it. So they can communicate it to a readable level. When you go to museums in New York, like the [Museum of] Modern [Art] or the Whitney [Museum of American Art], you’re inclined to think there is a lot of audience, mostly young people, going to these museums. But the truth is, it’s a fraction. A lot of people have never been to a museum.

I suspect you made some of those pieces just because they were fun for you.

Actually, there isn’t a lot of that. It seems like there is. Some artists have a lot more fun than others. Some are able to do it. Some just have a miserable time. My experience is, art is difficult to make. Over the years, I’ve gone through periods where it’s extremely difficult—nothing funny about it.

Was the work you were doing in the ‘60s and ‘70s a commentary on the time period?

People thought that land art, which broke away from studio art, made the claim that there was some sort of osmosis from the Vietnam War, from the turmoil. It’s possible that artists can be influenced by the temperature or the atmosphere or the climate. It’s possible. But often, artists can be extraordinarily unaware. Like during the Second World War, artists could not even know that there was a war going on. I think land art happened because it was just that point in art history that a fracture had to take place. There were certain people who were there at the right time, and they saw it clearly.

Were you involved politically?

It’s funny. I was looking real hard, but I couldn’t make myself attracted to it. That peace movement. That carried a lot of fringe, a lot of drop-outs, a lot of dopers. At that time, I was studying philosophy and academics. I was really mesmerized by those subjects that I was becoming familiar with. At Stanford, all that fringe, I just couldn’t—they were a little too flaky. I liked a lot about it. I liked their confrontation to things and a lot of what they were standing for, but they didn’t really draw me in.

Are those dancing puppets in the exhibit you?

Yeah, the face is mine. A friend modeled my face and made a bunch of them. The song [the puppets dance to] is “Ain’t what you make, it’s what makes you do it,” so it’s sort of about motive. So that work is autobiographical, but also diagnostic. It really wants to know what the motive is. Are you in control? The usual answer would be, “No.” You’re doing it for insincere reasons. You’re kidding yourself. For a while, I’d say about four or five years, a lot of the stuff I did was esoteric. A lot of it was not good art. It was almost clinical. It was a very difficult period. You can get like that to the point that you can’t make anything. There are artists that are so suspicious of everything, and everything they come up with is suspect, and they reject it. You need to be unleashed from that. Trust your instincts.

Did you have to get into the juror’s heads when you submit something like the “Wolf Trucks"?

That’s a little different [than submitting for public commissions]. That’s an international art show. They have to choose you. You can propose things, sure. I’m not afraid of approaching anyone. Usually this thing about the jury is in relationship to public art. These airports, these subway stations, libraries, they all have 1 percent of their money going to art. So your dilemma is if you’re too far out, too strange, too abrasive, too real, they’re going to reject you. If you try to compromise so that you’ll get selected, you’re probably going to hate it. There’s no answer. There are some artists who don’t compromise at all, “I want a giant snake going through the airport with a big tongue sticking out. That’s it. Take it or leave it.” Others are very smart. They’re designers; they know how to address the audience. But doing that is not going to get much. You have to say something within the art world the way the architects like [Los Angeles architect Frank] Gehry are changing the history. Sculptors have to do that, too.

Can somebody else interpret an artist’s work better than the artist can?

It’s possible. It’s possible that the artists aren’t the best spokesmen sometimes.

You were talking about artists who don’t recognize what’s good about their work. They can do it, it’s good, but they don’t know why.

It’s a thing you find in various art forms. Some artists are really articulate. They really have spent a long time thinking and talking about why they do things, and they’re really sure they’re right. Others are less sure, but their work is good and the person can’t talk. That’s when we’re really interested. There are these people who can’t do any wrong but you ask them questions and they’re … [shrugs], but they do it every time.

What is bad art?

Sometimes it’s work that’s uninspired. Plagiarized. Good work has certain aspects that give it away. It’s quirky. It has wonderful little quirks that make you think that the artist has this stuff rolling off his cuff and just can’t help but do neat stuff. Work that doesn’t have that sometimes is kind of awkwardly put together. It’s not in possession of any energy. It’s conservative. Often it mimics somebody else’s work. We kind of want the work to release some sort of reaction.