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Making a specialty of art in public spaces

Publication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press
By Pat Rogers   Jul 21, 2009 2:10 PM

Complicated applications, community review boards, political machinery and corporate agendas—for starters. Then there’s public input, meetings upon meetings, and a certain sense of resignation accompanying the knowledge that the artwork will be noticed by thousands of passersby, but not necessarily by art critics.

These are just some of the hurdles that must be cleared when making art for public spaces, according to Dennis Oppenheim. And he should know: The artist has spent the last 40 years making art intended for the public eye. The process can be a thorny one, he says, and collaboration is key.

On Thursday, July 23, Mr. Oppenheim, who lives in Springs and New York City, will present an illustrated talk at 8 p.m. on his public artworks at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, to be followed by a signing session for his book, “Dennis Oppenheim: Public Projects.” Published by Charta, the book includes 164 photographs or illustrations of his public artwork.

During a phone interview, Mr. Oppenheim described some of the complexities that making public art entails. Among the multiple hoops an artist has to jump through: each project requires completing an application that articulates the vision for the site, and competition is so fierce that there is an 80-percent rejection rate, Mr. Oppenheim said.

Once a commission is awarded, constructing the art requires the help of engineers and architects. Public input and feedback from the property owners or municipal entities in charge of the site where the sculpture will be installed can be part of the package. Adjustments to the original vision are made constantly from conceptual start to physical completion.

“You have to be a masochist to want to do this,” Mr. Oppenheim joked.

Of course, he might not be joking. The process of making public art is radically different from the “brooding artist in his studio getting in touch with their feelings,” Mr. Oppenheim said. The statement was not a value judgment, but an attempt to get at the crux of how public art differs from art meant for galleries, museums and the commercial art market.

Going with the flow is part of making public art, especially when it comes to making changes. The pull and push from outside sources is an integral part of the process and affects the final form, Mr. Oppenheim said. All input makes a mark on the creative process, while the artist strives to remain at the helm.

Driving the process is the fact that large-scale installations are being designed for a public space and not for a private collector. This raises important caveats, Mr. Oppenheim said. The artwork has to be visually appealing and should also be understood quickly, on some level, by most people who see it.

Mr. Oppenheim goes after public projects intended to be permanent. This means the work’s appearance and meaning should try to transcend current culture.

“I always want to do the best work I can at that moment,” Mr. Oppenheim said. “There’s nothing worse than making a public artwork that you don’t like, because it’s going to be there forever.”

In every piece, Mr. Oppenheim strives to make work that challenges viewers, but he concedes that one of the frustrating parts of working in the public domain is the lack of attention from art critics, who frequently shun the pieces because of influences and input from outside sources. The fact that the work is scattered around the globe also makes it difficult to get a sense of the overall body of work.

All of that aside, creating art for public places has been satisfying for Mr. Oppenheim, who believes public art has been undergoing a renaissance. Worldwide, there’s been an increased interest in architecture and designing buildings that will make an impact on skylines or cityscapes. The move away from boxy rectangular buildings toward stylized shapes and forms has meant more public art is included in the designs for urban spaces in particular.

The impact of this increased attention to design has yet to be revealed, but Mr. Oppenheim believes the fusion of architecture and public art is forging new “laws and attitudes” toward art made for public spaces. This might bring new respect and attention for an art form that he believes has been largely ignored.

For the last 20 years, Mr. Oppenheim has focused on public artwork commissions for permanent installations, creating dynamic pieces with unexpected visual twists that challenge viewers to ponder their multiple meanings. Each melds Mr. Oppenheim’s interest in sculpture and architecture.

The artist has created pieces in China, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, Italy, France, Israel, Korea, Denmark, Austria, Spain, Lithuania, Argentina and other countries. In the United States, he has installed works in New York City, and in the states of New York, California, Illinois, Alaska, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, and Ohio, among others.

Before focusing on public works, Mr. Oppenheim spent decades making other types of large-scale works. In the 1960s, he created Earth art, body art, video and performance pieces. The Earth work was minimalist and created in remote locations in California, Montana, New York and around the U.S. They were meant to dissipate over time and were designed to be photographed from airplanes. Public interaction or viewing was not part of their intent. Neither was any kind of ecological message that was frequently part of the Earth art movement.

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