U.S. artist Dennis Oppenheim stands next to his installation Crystal Garden in Navalcarnero, near Madrid, in 2007. He died Saturday. ((Juan M. Espinosa/Associated Press) )

American contemporary artist Dennis Oppenheim, whose work has been a favourite of Vancouver's Sculpture Biennale, has died. He was 72.

Oppenheim died Saturday in New York after a battle with liver cancer.

Known for his large-scale public installations, Oppenheim made headlines in Vancouver for his controversial sculpture The Device to Root Out Evil, an upside-down aluminum church with its steeple thrust in the ground.

Device to Root Out Evil was first showcased in 1997 at the Venice Biennale contemporary art fair. In 2005, it was featured at the Vancouver Biennale, an exhibition of sculptures, new media and performance art in public places throughout the city.


Dennis Oppenheim's controversial sculpture The Device to Root Out Evil was removed from Vancouver in 2008 and is now displayed in Calgary. ((Canadian Press))

Vancouver residents were divided on the artwork, displayed near the waterfront area of Coal Harbour. Some objected to its message, which was interpreted as a comment on the futility of religion's attempts to root out evil. Some thought it blocked the view. Others loved it.

Vancouver's board of parks and recreation eventually voted to remove it in 2008. Calgary's Glenbow Museum struck a deal for the loan of the sculpture for the following five years and it now stands in a Calgary neighbourhood.

Two Oppenheim sculptures remain in Vancouver.

Engagement, created during the same-sex marriage debates in Canada, is a pair of massive engagement rings on Sunset Beach that captures Oppenheim's tongue-in-cheek nod to political reality.

The current 2009-2011 Vancouver Biennale exhibition includes his work Arriving Home. Though displayed at the international arrivals terminal at Vancouver International Airport, it is not owned by Vancouver and will be sold after the Biennale closes this year.

Organizers of the Biennale presented Oppenheim a lifetime achievement award in 2007.

Conceptual artist

Oppenheim was born in 1938 in Electric City, Wash., and studied fine art at Stanford University.

His conceptual work has spanned performance, sculpture and photography. Oppenheim said he believed artists should "make things that carry with them the residue of where they have been."

He came to attention in the late 1960s with works that that manipulated land, including redirecting waterways and cutting patterns into farmer fields. A series in 1970s focused on his own body, with close-ups of a splinter entering the skin or performance art that explored the boundaries of personal risk.


A portion of Dennis Oppenheim's sculpture Arriving Home, showing at the Vancouver International Airport as part of the Vancouver Biennale. ((Vancouver Sculpture Biennale))

In the 1980s, he created metal sculptures, working mainly with parts from machinery because he was interested in the transformation of everyday objects.

Oppenheim began making the large-scale public works — for which he is best known — in the 1990s. These include:

  • Electric Kiss, a large dome of pulsating light shaped like a chocolate kiss that was shown in South Korea.
  • Multi-Helix Tower, a signal light that incorporates a double helix that stands in San Pedro, Calif.
  • Radiant Fountains, a spray of acrylic lights that sits outside Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

Oppenheim has exhibited internationally in galleries such as Tate Gallery in London, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Whitney Museum of American Art and The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and Galerie Pro Arte in Germany.

In Canada, his works are in the collections of the Art Gallery of Winnipeg, Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario, the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.