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DENNIS OPPENHEIM | ‘Identity Stretch (1970-1975)’
January 20th 2023
Applying two thumb prints stretched to one thousand feet on a field in upstate New York, Dennis Oppenheim set his mark on the history of contemporary art and came to play a key role in the Land Art movement in the late sixties. Later, ambitious installations such as an upside-down church with its steer pointing towards the ground and a chamber made with translucent petal-shaped walls, placed the artist in the visible public space. These are just two of the visionary works that continue to amaze the passers-by. From the series of early ‘Earthworks’, Identity Stretch (1970-1975) is one of his most ambitious land art projects, existing today only as documented by Oppenheim; aerial photographs of the thumb prints, a location on a map, and a description.
by Henrik Riis
PRINT EDITION RELEASE
The seemingly merciless commercialisation of art at the end of the 1960s in America divided art lovers as well as artists. Several fractions of Modernism had gained momentum for half a decade, presenting works that continuously rejected the rules of the previous century by focusing on the modern industrial life. While the Modernists attended to themes of technologic advancement, a new movement surfaced in New York City in the forties. Through explosive emotional paintings the abstract expressionists asked the viewers to open their hearts and feel the art, rather than just observe; a movement shining so bright that it would make New York the new art capital of the world and leave Paris behind. The domination of Modernism and Abstract Expressionism on the American East Coast in the late-forties and fifties - strengthened by the demand of the post-war boom - gave rise to an artistic protest against the establishment. One group, the pop artists, took everyday items, elevated them into objects of art and in warehouse-loft-factories they mass-produced the imagery as silkscreen prints. Other artists challenged the way the world were starting to consume art.

To the artists of the Land Art movement their works were a way of rejecting the traditional gallery setting by using nature as the “canvas” or medium. Material from nature were brought into a space and exhibited as a site-specific installation, and monumental landscape projects were created in remote industrial sites beyond the reach of the commercial art market; whether inside a gallery or outside in the landscape, these works had a passing presence and primarily dependant on photography and text to document their existence. A group exhibition at Dwan Gallery in New York in October of 1968 became a defining moment of Land Art or ‘Earthworks’ as the show was titled. Supported by contemporaries like Sol LeWitt and Robert Morris - whom were prominent theorists of Minimalism - younger artists, such as Dennis Oppenheim, Robert Smithson and others displayed their work for the first time. In the years that followed the inaugural group show, Smithson created ‘Spiral Jetty’, a 15 ft x 1,500 ft jetty of rock, salt and earth in Utah, and Oppenheim completed ‘Identity Stretch’ in upstate New York. Today, both works are seen as significant to the development of the Land Art movement.

Created between 1970 and 1975 for Artpark, an alternative sculpture park in Lewiston, New York, Identity Stretch (1970-1975) was a large-scale, site-specific installation constructed from the images of the artist’s own thumbprints overlapping with the print of his son, Erik. The installation was accomplished by first enlarging the original impression of his own thumbprint and then his son’s, and transferring them at a ginormous scale onto the Artpark landscape by the means of black tar sprayed directly onto the ground. The tar, perhaps a reference to the site being an ex-industrial waste dumping ground, created a visually imposing image against the vast natural plateau.

Intended to be viewed from atop the Niagara Escarpment, an expansive gorge, the work signified Oppenheim’s desire to make a primal mark on the landscape; the thumbprint representing something that is completely unique and identifiable to the individual who owns it and by incorporating his son’s mark, the artist was referencing the passing of time and the role of future generations in representing a kind of transcendence of mortality.
DENNIS OPPENHEIM
Identity Stretch (1970-1975), 2000

Edition of 35
218(w) x 86(h) cm
86.02(w) x 34.02(h) inches
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DENNIS OPPENHEIM
Identity Stretch (1970-1975), 2000

Edition of 35
218(w) x 86(h) cm
86.02(w) x 34.02(h) inches
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Art is about speaking to each other and by making an enquiry you can have direct conversation with us about artwork you find interesting.
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Dennis Oppenheim (American, 1938 - 2011)
218(w) x 86(h) cm
86.02(w) x 34.02(h) inches
Three chromogenic colour prints and three black-and-white prints on Fuji Chrome

Six prints each measuring 51 x 41cm / 20" x 16".

Signed by Dennis Oppenheim on front on print #5, and edition number on verso
Edition of 35
PRICE
$ 12,600.00 Available from a private collection
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Find art trends here >
Identity Stretch is a great example of Oppenheim’s ‘Earthworks’. While the 1975 installation may have been intended to defy the traditional notion of art produced for the gallery space, Oppenheim used images of the original artwork in his later practice. In 1992 he produced a set of gelatin silver and chromogenic prints made from images of the original installation and a set that can be considered as an artwork in itself. The work was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, who exhibited the piece in their ‘Land Marks’ exhibition in 2013 and ‘Alter Egos’ in 2021; an acquisition which is telling of the monumental importance of the original installation and the difficulty of defining art that is site-specific and ephemeral. The artist’s act of recreating Identity Stretch through documentation perhaps questions the very nature of where the art exists. Is it in the tangible installation, in the documentation of it, or simply in the artist’s concept?

As a photographic edition, Identity Stretch (1970-1975) is similar in nature to the work in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection and made up of six prints, each a documentation of the original installation in its own way, but necessarily sitting together to form a kind of archival record of the original work. The prints include three photographic aerial views of the original 1975 installation; a map of the greater area of Lewiston, New York, with the location of the installation marked on it; a print illustrating the stretched and enlarged thumbprints placed on a grid; and an accompanying set of ‘instructions’ describing in a very clear and systematic way, the artist’s process for the original installation. On print #5 the instructions read;

“Thumb prints made on elastic material, pulled to a maximum, then photographed. Lewiston site surveyed for grid installation, using white mason’s line. Spray truck worked within grid, following approximate course made up of enlarged papillary ridges of elongated and partially overlapping thumb prints.”

In handwritten correspondence from the artist, Oppenheim determined how the entire set should be displayed in a specific formation together, with the map and aerial photographs in one row above the text and thumbprints - giving the viewer further insight into the artist’s intentions for this piece as an artwork in itself, not just a set of records.

There is a kind of scientific, matter-of-fact nature to this work, setting it apart from the original ‘Earthwork’ installation where themes of human genealogy and immortality are explored. In contrast, the prints do not attempt to be anything more than a set of documentary images and processes, taking away any associative meanings that may have emerged from the original piece. In this way, Identity Stretch (1970-1975) can be seen as an original artwork that challenges the notions of what can be considered art, and - when the work is site specific and indeed, temporary - questions how it can be reinterpreted it in new ways.

Oppenheim’s oeuvre spans fifty years of conceptual, performance, sculpture, video, and photography. Perhaps best known for his site-specific public installations - and hence true to the movement’s belief of taking art out of the gallery space - many of the artist’s pieces which documents his ‘Earthworks’ can be found in prestigious museum collections around the world, including Tate, London; Berardo Collection, Lisbon; MoMA and The Metropolitan Museum, New York; and many others.
DENNIS OPPENHEIM
Shadow Projection, 1999

Edition of 100
31(w) x 45(h) cm
12.32(w) x 18.03(h) inches
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DENNIS OPPENHEIM
Shadow Projection, 1999

Edition of 100
31(w) x 45(h) cm
12.32(w) x 18.03(h) inches
ENQUIRY
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Dennis Oppenheim (American, 1938 - 2011)
31(w) x 45(h) cm
12.32(w) x 18.03(h) inches
Iris print on archive paper
Edition of 100
PRICE
$ 760.00
MAKE AN OFFER
Find art trends here >
The set of six prints making up Identity Stretch (1970-1975) was released in an edition of 35, of which only 25 sets were printed, and produced as chromogenic prints and black-and-white prints on Fuji Chrome. Print #5 of the set, which include the written instructions, is signed on front and numbered on verso. Other exclusive print and photographic editions from the collaboration between Dennis Oppenheim and Eyestorm include Whirlpool, Shadow Protection and Go-Between.

To view Identity Stretch (1970-1975) in further detail and to find more information about the works, visit Dennis Oppenheim’s artist page here.
 
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