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October 29, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, October 29, 2004

Rooting out evil at Stanford? Rooting out evil at Stanford? (October 29, 2004)

Sculptor Dennis Oppenheim struggles to understand why alma mater rejected his work

by Robyn Israel

Until this summer, it appeared certain that Dennis Oppenheim's name would be added to the roster of distinguished artists whose sculptures grace Stanford University's outdoor art collection.

It won't happen.

Due to ill-defined reasons, the acquisition of Oppenheim's work, "Device to Root Out Evil," was abruptly cancelled. The true story behind Stanford's rejection remains cloaked in mystery.

For the last three years, plans were in the works to install Oppenheim's 22-foot-high sculpture on campus. Primarily composed of aluminum, the piece depicts an inverted country church, with its steeple wedged into the ground.

"Device To Root Out Evil" had received the endorsement of Stanford's 12-member Panel on Outdoor Art. But in June, President John Hennessy overturned the decision, deeming the work inappropriate for the campus.

Hennessy cited a number of issues raised by people with whom he conferred, including aesthetics, the massing of the piece, the siting, the costs associated with securing and maintaining it, and its emotional impact on the community.

"I made a decision -- after extensive consultation with various members of the Stanford community -- that this particular piece was not an appropriate addition given our long-term goals for outdoor art," Hennessy said in a written statement.

"I have profound respect for Dennis Oppenheim as a Stanford alumnus and a gifted artist. No disparagement of him or his work is implied or intended," he added.

The decision surprised Oppenheim, a New York-based artist.

"I thought there was a mistake being made. I didn't feel like contacting Hennessy, but I thought it was unfortunate. I thought this work would be OK," Oppenheim said.

Oppenheim said he understood the controversy over the work. Still, he maintained the last thing he wanted was to be offensive.

He said he even named the sculpture "Device to Root Out Evil" as a means to avoid notions of blasphemy. But he conceded the political climate has intensified the meaning of the word "evil."

"It's been elevated to some horrific plateau of meaning that it never had before, because politicians have talked about the 'Axis of Evil.' I think subliminally, this may be a conduit to the negativity that brought down 'Device to Root Out Evil.'" Oppenheim said.

Oppenheim named the Rev. Scotty McLennan, Stanford's dean of religious life, as a possible dissenter.

"He sat in one of the meetings," Oppenheim recalled. "I felt this individual may not have understood, that he didn't have enough experience with art, and may have carried a negative view of the work."

McLennan declined to share his opinion of "Device To Root Out Evil."

"It was a confidential process," McLennan said of his communications with Hennessy and other members of the panel.

The Stanford installation would not have been the first exhibition for the work. "Device To Root Out Evil" debuted in 1997 at the Venice Biennale, one of the art world's most prestigious and high-profile exhibitions.

Another version resides in Lincoln, Neb., at the compound of Duncan Aviation. The piece has also been on the cover of seven art-history books, according to Oppenheim.

"It's the best work I could have put in the hands of the school I sent to. It was supposed to be something special," Oppenheim said.

Oppenheim never meant his sculpture to be a religious statement of any sort. He said it started out purely as an examination of two different art forms, precipitated by a stream-of-consciousness thought process.

"I was grappling with architecture as one discipline and with sculpture as another. I was focusing on the fusion between architecture and sculpture, rather than the separation between the two," he said. "By turning an architectural structure upside down and balancing it on its steeple, I was making it non-functional and more related to sculpture. One of the characteristics of a sculpture is that it's not functional.

"I was acting as an artist," Oppenheim said.

But why a church?

"It's one of the few architectural examples where when you turn it upside down, it rises up on a vertical shaft and cantilevers a great mass, horizontally out into space. That was the only reason I considered it," Oppenheim said. "I was entering this through a formal examination of the dynamics of shape and mass in space."

Another characteristic of the work, Oppenheim added, is its incompleteness. Though the roof (made with red Venetian glass) and walls are finished, the remainder is partially built. And as the cantilevered mass moves away into space, it gets less and less finished.

"Eventually, as you go to the back of the church, it's all skeletal, it's as though nothing is finished," he said.

And that is the whole point, according to Oppenheim.

"You don't have to enslave yourself to completing the sculpture. You don't have to finish it. You can have it be schematic," he said. "It makes it more like an idea, more like a drawing, more like a thought, less like a real thing. It's more abstract, more conceptual. And that's good."

Tom Seligman, director of the Cantor Arts Center and an ex-officio (non-voting) member of the outdoor art panel, endorsed the project.

"I thought it was compelling and interesting," Seligman said. "I think its use of forms and materials is interesting, to say the least. It's also significantly ambiguous, and complicated in its approach, and I think that lends it a power and a mystery."

Oppenheim graduated Stanford with a master's degree in fine arts in 1966.

"I had a good time there," Oppenheim recalled. "And I created a tremendous amount of work -- most very bad. But it was a stepping stone to important work I later did."

When Oppenheim attended Stanford, it did not have the extensive outdoor art collection it currently possesses. But about 10 years ago, he started thinking about having one his sculptures added to the collection.

"Not every school in America has those wonderful grounds, or such an extensive outdoor art program, with (more than) 70 sculptures. They have wonderful works," Oppenheim said.

The artist contacted the university over a decade ago, but nothing happened. But about three years ago, Seligman traveled to New York to talk with Oppenheim.

"We've been trying to broaden the nature of our collection," Seligman said. "We've created the Papua New Guinea sculpture garden (1994), the Maya Lin piece ("Timetable"; 2000), the Andy Goldsworthy piece ("Stone River," 2001), which was site-specific."

Seligman added that in acquiring an Oppenheim piece, Stanford would be getting a work by a "very significant" artist who has been well-exhibited and cited in a number of publications.

"He hasn't had a huge name, but he's been consistently there," Seligman said. "He's one of the earliest people who worked in conceptual art in the '60s."

Oppenheim made several trips to Stanford, where he met with a host of people, including architects. Installation and sites were discussed. Funds were raised (about $200,000, according to Oppenheim) to pay for materials, installation and electric work. As a last step, the entire committee traveled to Lincoln, Neb. on a private jet to see the version of "Device" owned by Robert Duncan, which lies on a 40-acre sculpture park.

Seligman said he would respect Hennessy's decision, adding that he didn't interpret it as censorship of the piece.

"The work has been made and it has been exhibited," Seligman said. "To me it's not a First Amendment question."

That leaves "Device to Root Out Evil" firmly planted in Oppenheim's New York studio.

"It's a real thorn in my side," Oppenheim said. "I'm dying to get it out -- it's like having a house in my studio."

So where will "Device To Root Out Evil" find a home?

"Perhaps Europe -- they're more open-minded," Oppenheim said. "They have more experience with radical art. It doesn't represent in Italy what it represents here. Their place of worship is a cathedral. They're only familiar with country churches from American films."

And despite this setback, Oppenheim said he would still like to do something for Stanford.

"It's a coveted, cloistered community," Oppenheim said of his alma mater. "But that work was always considered for a place like that, or even more public -- it was never meant to be hidden."

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