Dennis Oppenheim

Engagement, a sculpture by Dennis Oppenheim (b. 1938), marks the street-side entrance to the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. Comprised of two enormous steel rings topped by houses-as-jewels, it is apparently a monument to the institution of marriage. It also ties directly to Reno's history of quick marriage and easy divorce.

One of three versions, Engagement was constructed in 1998 (the other two are at the Stadtgemeinde Leoben in Leoben, Austria, and in Palm Beach, Florida.) The two nearly thirty-foot-high steel rings tilt away from each other. Sitting atop the rings, in place of gems, are two steeple-roofed houses made of steel and glass and illuminated from within by industrial lamps. The houses are tilted and seem precariously balanced, an effect even more pronounced at night when they are lit and the support rings are dark. The lit houses appear to float, unanchored, if there is not a lot of ambient street light. However, the jewels-as-houses are firmly anchored to their rings. By turning the traditional diamond into a dwelling, Oppenheim suggests the dynamics of a union between two people–anchored in the traditional bonds of marriage but at all times precarious; as dependent on the integrity of those bonds as the stability of the sculpture is dependent on the integrity of its construction.

Oppenheim has historically been considered a Conceptual artist. Conceptual Art emerged in the 1970s, seeming to extend the notion of Minimalism to its furthest point: the object was no longer required. Art could exist as an idea and the documentation of that idea. A significant amount of Conceptual Art was thus ephemeral. Oppenheim's early artworks are known today only through photo documentation. Later works returned to the use of physical objects. Still, as Oppenheim himself took care to point out in an interview with Diane Deming [now Evans] in the Nevada Museum of Art catalogue Galloping Through the West, in most of his sculpture, ideas precede the object, and the object's meaning is often dependent on the artwork's title.

In the 1990s Oppenheim moved away from museum/gallery objects and installations into the realm of public art. This change of focus opened up possibilities of scale although Oppenheim did not abandon the basic principle of Conceptual Art. Engagement is an example of that process.

At the same time the scale of Engagement, almost outlandish in its translation of the traditional solitaire engagement ring, suggests Pop Art. Pop Art rejected the traditional subjects of high art and turned instead to the products and objects of the consumer-based, mass production environment. The result was often at once disturbing and humorous. Indeed, it was left to the observer to reconcile whatever meanings and absurdity resulted from the dislocation of an object from the everyday into art.

As he did in a lecture at the Nevada Museum of Art in 2003, Oppenheim often declines to provide full explanations of his artwork, leaving the interpretation to the viewer. With Engagement Oppenheim appears to cut across neat art historical definitions, creating an object that comments on the nature of marriage, serendipitously connects to local history, and portrays humor in its large-scale restatement of a normally dainty object.

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