Reverse Processing: Cement Transplant, East River, NY, 1970 is an atmospheric colour photograph looking across a section of broad river to industrial development on its far bank. In the foreground, six flat-topped barges traverse the image. Each is inscribed with a large, white X. A small section of detritus-scattered quayside is visible in the bottom right hand corner next to the barges. A motor-powered passenger boat pulled up next to an extended quay stretching into the river on the other side of the barges gives a sense of scale. The urban landscape in the far distance disappears into haze; the image is coloured with a pinky red light suggesting that the photograph was taken at dawn or dusk.
Oppenheim climbed illicitly onto the barges carrying unrefined cement on New York’s East River, in order to draw the crosses that appear on their roofs. He used refined cement powder to make his mark, symbolically cancelling the process of refinement to which the unrefined cement was destined. His use of the word ‘transplant’ in the title suggests a replacement of one type of cement with another. As is typical to Oppenheim’s practice, the work highlights process – in this instance not only processes of reversal and cancellation but also transportation and transformation. The artist had used the cancelling X in a work entitled Cancelled Crop, 1969 (see Tate T12402) the previous year, when he directed a tractor to harvest a field in the form of an X. In this work, the artist stated his intention to prevent the crop from entering the food chain, which he called a ‘product oriented system’. As he wrote on the documentation of the work, the process is analogous to ‘stopping raw pigment from becoming an illusionistic force on canvas’.
American born, Oppenheim studied painting at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland in the late 1950s, and thought about his mark-making on the landscape (either natural or man-made) in terms of the action and processes of painting. In 1966 he moved to New York, where he met the minimalist sculptors Carl André (born 1935) and Robert Morris (born 1931) as well as the artists Robert Smithson (1938-73) and Michael Heizer (born 1944), both of whom were to become fellow makers of ‘earthworks’, ‘Earth Art’ or interventions into the landscape. At the end of the 1960s, artists were seeking to break down the dominant art forms of sculpture and painting and began to make ephemeral work that often existed permanently as a concept or idea rather than as a physical relic and that utilised processes that had not previously been used in art, such as the actions of the elements or of industrial machinery. Many of these actions took place outside of the studio. Oppenheim’s personal focus was on change. Speaking in 1969, he commented:
I think [the]most timeless art of date [of today] is going to be this new seemingly ephemeral, process-oriented work because the major force of this work is its surge upon an effect, its direct assault upon a particular motion or a momentum. And its change can be recorded endlessly, through endless permutations ... these pieces ... involve an ecological kind of framework which, when effected by the artist, can create numerous side-effects which themselves can reiterate almost a constant, never-ending change. I mean it’s like a continental drift ... as soon as it makes a change, that change magnifies the additional change ... So in that sense this new work has a very long span of existence. (Quoted in Norvell, p.25.)
The act of reversing a process symbolically pictured in Reverse Processing: Cement Transplant, East River, NY, 1970 recalls an earlier series of sculptures the artist made in 1968 entitled Decompositions. These works presented the construction materials making up the walls of the gallery in which they were exhibited, such as plaster and powdered cement, in an unrefined state in a heap on the gallery floor. The title Decompositions, referring to taking the gallery apart, plays on the notion of dematerialization current in art in the late 1960s. In a similar manner, Reverse Processing ... plays on the idea of disruption and returning materials to their origins, preventing them from becoming part of the complex system of processing on which industry – in this instance, the construction industry – depends.
Alanna Heiss and Thomas McEvilley, Dennis Oppenheim: Selected Works 1967-1990, exhibition catalogue, Institute for Contemporary Art, PS1, New York 1992, p.20.
Germano Celant, Dennis Oppenheim: Explorations, Milan 2001.
Patricia Norvell, Recording Conceptual Art, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London 2001.