On 28 November 1968 Dennis Oppenheim spread one thousand pounds (454 kilograms) of salt over an empty asphalt parking lot at 6th Avenue between 25th and 26th Streets in Manhattan, forming a large rectangle. Left out in the elements – the wind and weather, the flow of pedestrians and cars – the granular salt began to dissipate slowly. It was completely gone within days.

Dennis Oppenheim, Salt Flat 1968

Dennis Oppenheim
Salt Flat 1968
Photograph, map and typescript on board
711 x 559 mm
Tate T01773
© Dennis Oppenheim. Courtesy of the Dennis Oppenheim Estate, New York

Oppenheim captured this unusual action in a provocatively deadpan collage, the type of documentary record characteristic of his works from the period (Salt Flat 1968, Tate T01773; fig.1). The single page includes a large photograph of the artist standing next to his salt at the top of the layout; a gridded map of New York City at the bottom left, with a crosshair target pinpointing the exact location of his action; and a typed text at the bottom right that dryly describes the work’s title, date, location, size, materials and procedure. The work also includes related but unrealised proposals, both of which are explained in the text: blocks of salt to be excavated in an identical rectangular formation from the salt flats around the Great Salt Lake in the Utah desert, and blocks of salt in the same rectangular formation to be dumped onto the ocean floor off the coast of the Bahamas (although the text does not specify, it is possible that the excavated salt might be one and the same as the dumped salt).1 There, in the warm waters of the saline sea, the salt would slowly dissolve.

What was the purpose of Oppenheim’s performed and proposed actions, and what is the meaning of the photographic documentation in which he recorded them all? Salt Flat – at least the part of it realised in New York City – seems simple. It is what it is: white salt poured on black pavement. A rectangle, squarely measured: 50 x 100 ft (15 x 30 m), a mathematically perfect doubling of the mathematically perfect square. ‘I wanted it to be sort of a generic shape’, Oppenheim stated.2 Cut as 1 x 1 x 2 ft (30.5 x 30.5 x 61 cm) bricks, the blocks to be excavated in Utah would share this ratio, thus reiterating the rectangular pattern. The artist would subtract material from one landscape and add it to another – at least in theory – thereby creating a balance of positive and negative, removal here and return there. In the middle, these actions meet; the artist staged addition and subtraction at the parking lot in New York, where he dispersed salt only to let it dissipate shortly thereafter. As in many of Oppenheim’s early works, once the logical procedure is formulated and put into motion, the rest follows in an unremarkable way and the resulting documentation merely records what happened. The work of art purges conventional notions of the aesthetic; there is, it seems, no allegory, no affective charge, no higher meaning. It is what it is.

Indeed, in formal terms, the work as it now exists – as a documentation – follows this stubborn logic. The photograph, text and map operate on three different informational registers: the visual, the linguistic and the cartographic. Oppenheim repeated this tripartite scheme in most of the documentations he produced in this period; nearly all included these three key elements.3 Tate’s version of Salt Flat, the earliest documentation for the work (Oppenheim made others in subsequent years), includes all three elements on a single board.4 Oppenheim also occasionally installed the documentations in the gallery as separate panels, with image, text and map enlarged and assembled together on a single wall (in exhibition catalogues, the documentations for these works are sometimes presented through page layouts comprised of the separate elements, sometimes in detail, rather than through the original collages).5 All of these methods, and the inherent interchangeability of the formats, call to mind the bland aesthetics of bureaucracy – of deeds and titles, of proposals and final reports. In its informational precision, its technical tedium, the documentation suggests an entirely rational artistic process – a means of quantifying, measuring and recording data.

The index pure and simple?

Yet Salt Flat is not as rational as it first appears. To be sure, the logic of documentation is the defining characteristic of Oppenheim’s work for many critics. Rosalind Krauss specifically cites the artist’s documentations as an example of the index in her canonical essay on the subject. Krauss refers to Identity Stretch 1970–5 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), a later but conceptually similar work in which Oppenheim dramatically enlarged the papillary lines on his and his son’s fingerprints and transposed them to the outdoor landscape by rendering the lines in hot tar on the surface of a field. The work, like Salt Flat, was depicted in the gallery through a bland record: images, map and text on a single board. ‘The meaning of this work is focused on the pure installation of presence by means of the index’, explains Krauss. ‘And the work as it is presented in the gallery involves the documentation of this effort through an arrangement of photographs.’ Krauss uses Oppenheim to further advance her claim that the documentation reveals ‘the index pure and simple’.6 This indexical quality further rids the work of any troubling associative meanings that might emerge.

Oppenheim’s rhetoric at the time pairs nicely with Krauss’s; in 1970 he similarly referred to his documentations as ‘a scientific convention’.7 Salt Flat exemplifies these conventions. The photograph, for example, was taken by someone else entirely (the photographer Robert O’Connor), thus purposely negating the authorial trace of the artist.8 The map is from a topographical atlas, the same everyday document one might use to navigate New York. Finally, the text mimics the standard gallery label, the cold and clinical ‘tombstone’ that sits on the wall below each work of art: title in capital letters, then date, place and medium described:

Location: (part 1) 6th Avenue and 25th Street New York City
1000 pounds of bakers salt 50’ x 100’ on asphalt surface. Identical dimensions are to be transferred in 1’ x 1’ x 2’ salt lick blocks to ocean floor off Bahama coast XX and dug to a 1’ depth – Salt Lake Desert, Utah.

Dennis Oppenheim, Notes for Salt Flat caption, 1968

Dennis Oppenheim
Notes for Salt Flat caption, 1968
Dennis Oppenheim Estate, New York
© Dennis Oppenheim. Courtesy of the Dennis Oppenheim Estate, New York

But is the index really so ‘pure and simple’? Is this supposed objectivity a true constituent characteristic of the work, or is it carefully crafted – an artful affectation? A torn scrap from a yellow legal pad shows what is presumably Oppenheim’s first attempt at formulating the text – a version written in pen in what appears to be Oppenheim’s hand (fig.2). There are numerous errors corrected with frantic editorial marks, suggesting the personal process required to cleverly construct an index. Oppenheim revises misspelled words (he crosses out ‘bakkers’ before ‘salt’) and reworks grammar (‘in of the’ appears crossed out before ‘on Bahama Coast’).9 The text in a later iteration of the documentation even provides the wrong year, listing 1969 as the work’s date, and contains an obvious typo (‘Identical dimensions toe [sic] excavated’), indicating that the index is not only arbitrary but also inaccurate (fig.3).10 In other words, the indexical quality communicated by Oppenheim’s ‘scientific conventions’ is not objective at all; rather, it is very subjectively manufactured. The artist explains, ‘Some care was given to the original documentation. It’s true, one wasn’t inclined to make the documentation too large, in color, or to mount them very well. It was a slapdash procedure.’ The paradox of using care to appear careless is striking and explains the confusion over these records, which have now become rarefied artistic objects in their own right since museums ‘often aggrandize them even though they might not have been grand originally’, as Oppenheim notes.11

Dennis Oppenheim, Salt Flat 1969 [1968]

Dennis Oppenheim
Salt Flat 1969 [1968]
Private collection
© Dennis Oppenheim. Courtesy of the Dennis Oppenheim Estate, New York

Yet the problem is not just the artificial quality of the index, or even that the purportedly factual documentation might be factually wrong; the problem is that the art critical emphasis on the work’s logical procedure and its rational record as the source of meaning severely limits its interpretation.12 Reducing the work to the index ‘pure and simple’ also reduces the possible allegorical and affective meanings that might obtain in the work. What else does Salt Flat say?

The essays comprising this In Focus project attempt to answer this question. They explore the wide range of art historical contexts brought together through Oppenheim’s Salt Flat. The work is remarkable in the way that it condenses so many of Oppenheim’s concerns around 1968 and the concerns in art from the 1960s and 1970s more broadly. It is an example of land art, of course, but its elicitation of the body in an ephemeral action, and the recording of that action in a documentary record, also anticipates performance art, conceptual art and early body art (as Oppenheim notes, ‘when I was walking around on the land, I suddenly became aware of my body’).13 But this set of essays does not attempt to survey comprehensively Oppenheim’s career or to address the work solely in the context of familiar issues in these practices, like the shift from the gallery to the land or the tension between performance and document; many others have already situated Salt Flat in this way.14

Instead, this project approaches Salt Flat from multiple, sometimes conflicting, perspectives. The remainder of the present essay explores Salt Flat in relation to issues of formalism, including the legacy of modernism and minimalism and the rise of critic Jack Burnham’s systems aesthetics in the late 1960s. The second essay, ‘Finding Salt Flat’, examines site specificity and considers how the work’s locations generate metaphor and meaning. ‘Ritual Aesthetics: Salt Flat and Systems’ then elaborates further on the work’s relation to Burnham’s theory, including his late turn towards hermetic philosophy, mysticism and alchemy – concepts to which the salt in Salt Flat is unexpectedly related. These three essays ultimately argue that the logic that seems to define Salt Flat and similar works by Oppenheim, and which is central to land art practices of the period, also paradoxically generates a very illogical set of affective and allegorical associations. Systems art functions by connecting the unconnected, by concatenating meanings across registers. For Oppenheim, these systems included nature and culture through the relationship between the environment and the gallery – as others have already argued – but also a wider range of meanings engaging time, space, place and historical pasts and futures. Finally, the fourth essay, written by James Nisbet, explores Oppenheim’s surprising focus on negative process, and the fifth, contributed by Randall Edwards, examines Oppenheim’s creation of what philosopher Michel Foucault called the heterotopia. These latter two texts situate Salt Flat in the wider context of Oppenheim’s work and his thematic and conceptual concerns, while similarly providing compelling new readings of this single work.

Salt Flat and formalism: Modernism to minimalism

Dennis Oppenheim, Salt Flat 1968 Photographic documentation

Dennis Oppenheim
Salt Flat 1968
Photographic documentation
Dennis Oppenheim Estate, New York
© Dennis Oppenheim. Courtesy of the Dennis Oppenheim Estate, New York

While Salt Flat engaged in an elaborate conceptual operation, the work’s documentation, in particular its photographic component, is visually striking. Captured at sunset, Oppenheim’s salt rectangle reflects purples and pinks forming a gleaming diamond or lozenge shape. Another photograph of the salt rectangle on the asphalt parking lot shows the shape isolated as a white void on a black ground (fig.4). The image does not include the artist’s body, and presumably was not used in the work’s documentation for this reason, as it offers no clue as to spatial scale. Yet it is precisely the lack of scale that makes this image a compelling illustration of the work’s formal qualities. Without the presence of the artist’s body in the frame, the photograph transforms the action into an image. ‘[W]hen I looked at a photograph of an Earthwork I tended to associate the linearity with painting, with drawing’, Oppenheim stated.15 Captured at an elevated perspective – almost like an aerial photograph – the image turns the asphalt surface into a matrix for medium, akin to canvas or paper.

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White 1918

Kazimir Malevich
Suprematist Composition: White on White 1918
Oil on canvas
794 x 794 mm
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Josef Albers, Study for Homage to the Square 1964

Josef Albers
Study for Homage to the Square 1964
Oil paint on fibreboard
Support: 762 x 762 mm
Frame: 780 x 780 x 30 mm
Tate T02312
© 2017 Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London

The form pays sardonic homage to the most iconic emblem of modernist avant-garde purity, the austere white square in Kazimir Malevich’s 1918 Suprematist Composition: White on White (fig.5). Oppenheim exploded the pristine shape from the confines of the canvas to the scale of the urban environment, rendering the white form on a dirty parking lot, a post-industrial site of urban decay. It, too, appears in the documentation’s photograph at an angle, like the rotated square on Malevich’s canvas. This leap from the two-dimensional space of the painting to the three-dimensional space of the city, from the conventional limits of art to the world beyond, suggests how Oppenheim borrowed from an iconic precedent only to debase it – or perhaps to honour it, to imagine it in new ways. He similarly imitates Joseph Albers’s many iterations of his Homage to the Square (see, for example, Study for Homage to the Square 1964; fig.6) – now presented as homage to the rectangle, but still maintaining Albers’s concern for subtle colour relationships (Oppenheim offers us the perceptual play between purple and blue). Salt Flat ironically, but perhaps also sincerely, inverts the art historical canon. Its critique of prior artistic conventions is matched by a simultaneous investment in those conventions; Oppenheim parodies a pre-existing artistic form but nonetheless offers an image made in that form.

While Salt Flat builds off art historical precedents, it also responds more narrowly to the key formalist debates in the art of the 1960s. Its title alone – Salt Flat – recalls the critic Clement Greenberg’s definition of modernism, for which the flatness of a painting was a crucial means of articulating the medium’s essential qualities. In the most severe formulation of his orthodoxy, his 1965 essay ‘Modernist Painting’ (published just a few years before Oppenheim created Salt Flat), Greenberg states: ‘The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticise the discipline itself – not in order to subvert it, but to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.’16 In painting, this disciplinary self-critique emphasises especially the ‘ineluctable flatness of the support’, given that the essence of painting is pigment on a flat ground. ‘Flatness alone was unique and exclusive to that art’, claimed Greenberg.17 Oppenheim’s creation of a work that was literally flat – a rectangle inscribed on the actual ground beneath his feet – but that was simultaneously ephemeral, made of an impermanent material, supported but also subverted medium specificity by fulfilling such criteria in a wholly deadpan manner. It followed but also undermined Greenberg’s dogma.

Dennis Oppenheim, Salt Flat 1968

Dennis Oppenheim
Salt Flat 1968
Photographic documentation
Dennis Oppenheim Estate, New York
© Dennis Oppenheim. Courtesy of the Dennis Oppenheim Estate, New York

Hans Namuth, Jackson Pollock painting, summer 1950

Hans Namuth
Jackson Pollock painting, summer 1950
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
© Estate of Hans Namuth

Likewise, Oppenheim also mocked that most Greenbergian of artists, Jackson Pollock, by ironically miming and mirroring Pollock’s famed drip technique. For Oppenheim, the studio floor where Pollock placed his canvas became the dirty asphalt of the city.18 Pouring paint became a process of pouring salt. A photograph shows Oppenheim entering the space of the salt rectangle in order to spread the salt with a small dust brush (fig.7). The action approximates Pollock’s process; he similarly entered the space of the canvas in order to splatter pigment (fig.8). Oppenheim’s mocking imitation of Pollock was consistent with the wider reaction against Greenbergian modernism in the art of the 1960s.

Oppenheim’s response to Greenberg was also personal. Before his 1966 arrival in New York City, where he fashioned himself an earthwork artist, Oppenheim was an accomplished painter. He studied painting at the California College of Arts and Crafts and the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, and earned an MFA degree from Stanford University in 1965. Recalling his work from this period, he notes that he ‘was identifying, at that time, with remnants of the abstract expressionist sensibility’, especially the ‘late fifties’ – the very same tendency and period that Greenberg actively promoted through his discourse on modernism.19 Shortly thereafter, while at Stanford, Oppenheim began exploring new sculptural forms aligned with the emerging Bay Area Funk scene. These works were ‘tongue-in-cheek’: sculptures made from plastic and covered in bold textiles, often in sardonic and kitschy shapes, that already indicated how Oppenheim was reacting against his training in painting. He refers to this work as ‘neo-dada’, ‘anti-art’, and purposely ‘bad painting’.20 Emblematic, for example, was Funk Truck 1966 (location unknown), the form of a cartoonish truck covered with brash patterned fabrics.21 Salt Flat continued this critical trajectory. It was also a direct inversion of his own prior investments, a reaction against the ‘abstract expressionist sensibility’ to which he had once subscribed. It was a pointed critique of modernism, offered by an artist who had engaged in such discourses just years earlier.

Carl Andre, 144 Magnesium Square 1969

Carl Andre
144 Magnesium Square 1969
10 x 3658 x 3658 mm
Tate T01767
© Carl Andre/VAGA, New York and DACS, London 2017

While Salt Flat responded to formalist concerns specific to modernism, it also responded to a more immediate critical context: the formalist concerns specific to minimalism. In its flatness, and especially its geometrical regularity, Salt Flat was a response to key debates of the 1960s. For example, the salt rectangle reinterpreted Carl Andre’s iconic series of works made from metal tiles arrayed as planes over the ground, a sculptural format Andre had first introduced in 1966 (see, for example, his 144 Magnesium Square 1969; fig.9). In recreating the same type of geometrical regularity, but doing so with an ephemeral and impermanent material, Oppenheim mockingly subverted the aesthetic criteria that defined Andre’s sculpture. Unlike the slabs of metal, the salt rectangle is temporary and transient. It fits the requirements for minimalism in terms of geometry but plays off the weight of minimalist materiality.

Oppenheim also reworked and reinterpreted the art criticism of his moment in other ways, and he has frequently mentioned reading such criticism in the period leading up to his first land art works (‘I was quite eager to art magazines [sic]’).22 Take, for example, Michael Fried’s 1967 essay ‘Art and Objecthood’, in which Fried denounces minimalist works as ‘literalist’: their heaviness and permanence renders them less art and more object, a condition that demands a theatrical engagement with the viewer and takes place over durational time. Fried’s polemic is succinctly stated in a line emphasised with italics: ‘Art degenerates as it approaches the condition of theater.’23 Such a claim resonates with Salt Flat, which again playfully imitates and subverts such conditions. The piece, particularly its actual performance in the asphalt parking lot, clearly approached the condition of theatre (such is the point of performance). It also degenerated: the salt rectangle disintegrated as the flow of traffic and the wind and weather blew it away. Oppenheim thus took Fried’s term ‘literalist’ literally in the sense that he created a work that followed the letter, although not really the spirit, of such criticism. He satisfied but really undermined Fried’s dogma by fulfilling Fried’s criteria in a wholly deadpan manner.

There are other amusing adaptations of minimalism in Salt Flat. Oppenheim drew from artist Donald Judd, whose canonical 1965 essay ‘Specific Objects’ posits the emergence of a new form, neither painting nor sculpture; Judd explicitly offers the form of the rectangle – a shape defined by the ‘limits’ of the canvas and its support as well as the ‘rectangular plane’ of the picture surface – as a key step in the evolution of the specific object.24 Oppenheim provided just such a rectangle. He similarly drew from the artist Robert Morris, whose canonical 1966 essay ‘Notes on Sculpture’ argues for the gestalt of the minimalist shape as something that must be articulated in actual space, rather than on the illusionistic picture plane of a painting – another argument put into practice when Oppenheim created a rectangular plane outdoors, in actual space.25

In this way Oppenheim intentionally manipulated the terms of contemporary art criticism, not necessarily because he subscribed to a particular theoretical model (he was, after all, referencing the likes of Greenberg, Fried, Judd and Morris, hardly a united group of critics or practitioners), but because these models supplied key terms to illustrate humorously, a vocabulary of concepts to mime and mirror satirically. He did this incessantly. He played off the generic reference to the space of the contemporary art gallery as a ‘white cube’ by creating a white rectangle.26 Similarly, critics Lucy Lippard and John Chandler’s term ‘dematerialization’, used in reference to the disappearance of the art object in conceptual art, was made manifest when the salt in Oppenheim’s salt rectangle disappeared.27

Salt Flat and postformalism: Systems aesthetics

While Salt Flat responded to art critical debate through parody, it also engaged in earnest with a more complicated theoretical discourse. In addition to lampooning formalist art criticism as a set of ready-made concepts to manipulate, Oppenheim used Salt Flat to respond directly to postformalist ideas about systems that entered artistic discourse in the late 1960s. In a series of essays published at that time, Jack Burnham famously considered how systems thinking from myriad disciplines might transform the understanding of art. His work fell out of favour and remained obscure for decades, although scholars have more recently resuscitated Burnham’s thought and reconsidered its relevance to late modernism and contemporary art.28 Interest in Burnham has increased in tandem with the rising interest in the relationship between science, technology and the arts, and especially as concerns about ecology and environment have become urgent and relevant – these were Burnham’s key areas of interest.

In his 1968 essay ‘Systems Esthetics’, Burnham diagnosed a paradigm shift from ‘an object-oriented to a systems-oriented culture’.29 Burnham’s theory was indebted in no small part to the cybernetics of Norbert Wiener and especially the systems theory of Ludwig von Bertalanffy.30 This object-to-system transition also had the effect of changing the ontology of the art object, which now becomes merely one element in a larger aesthetic system – an art system that includes relations between the work, its viewers and a wider environment filled with phenomena such as ‘people, ideas, messages, atmospheric conditions, power sources, etc’.31 This diffuse system became a model of communication between these disparate elements and was seen to encompass ‘material, energy, and information in various degrees of organization’.32 Burnham’s argument explicitly rejected modernist and minimalist formalist criticism concerned with issues of medium specificity or the notion of a specific object, instead conceiving of art more expansively as a set of interacting variables.

Following this, in ‘Real Time Systems’ (1969), Burnham extended his conception of systems still further, understanding all aspects of art as informational, as forms of information processing in which ‘art data’ is created, collected, transferred and transformed. Such a process again resisted modernist and minimalist orthodoxy. ‘A major illusion of the art system is that art resides in specific objects’, writes Burnham, explicitly critiquing Judd’s terms.33 By contrast, the real-time processing of art data would create a peculiar temporal dimension; systems are durational, changing over an elapse of time – an implicit critique of Fried’s notion of theatricality, which was a condition Burnham happily embraced.

Dennis Oppenheim, Directed Seeding – Cancelled Crop 1969

Dennis Oppenheim
Directed Seeding – Cancelled Crop 1969
4 photographs, colour, on paper on board
1651 x 4064 mm
Tate T12402
© Dennis Oppenheim. Courtesy of the Dennis Oppenheim Estate, New York

These systems concerns are central to making sense of Salt Flat. In fact, Oppenheim was one of Burnham’s favourite examples, and Burnham cites and illustrates the artist’s work frequently throughout his writings. In ‘Real Time Systems’ Burnham explains how the ‘models and documents’ that Oppenheim presents in the gallery (his ‘art data’, to use Burnham’s term) actually serve as evidence of the ‘interacting ecologies’ he has activated and animated. Those ecologies may not be manifest in the space of the gallery, but are instead relayed to the environment beyond. Burnham specifically mentions Directed Seeding – Cancelled Crop 1969 (referred to by Burnham as the ‘September Wheat Project’) as emblematic of Oppenheim’s use of real-time systems (fig.10). In the work, Oppenheim seeded a field in Finsterwolde, the Netherlands, in the pattern of a gently curving line; the line was actually the route from the field to a nearby storage silo, traced on site as if a map had been superimposed onto the landscape. After the field was harvested in the form of an ‘X’, thus cancelling out the crop, the wheat was processed and ultimately distributed. For Burnham, the significance of the work lay in how Oppenheim used ‘the untapped energy and information network of the day-to-day environment’ (this phrase even appears on the first page of ‘Real Time Systems’ as a pull-quote). ‘Such situations produce abundant information with a minimum of reorganization’, observes Burnham. Oppenheim created a system that obtained value from natural processes of growth but also the complex social processes that involved harvesting, processing and distributing (and thus negating) the final product.34

Clearly, though, Oppenheim’s works do not take place as just ecological or even social systems. They are still works of art; they still return to the gallery and the museum. As art historian James Nisbet explains, the systems Oppenheim created in the real world did not exist separate from the art world. ‘Oppenheim’s art was not engaged in the false hope of creating ecosystems’, Nisbet writes.35 Instead, his work also relied on existing artistic conventions that could connect it back to relatable aesthetic experience. As Nisbet puts it, ‘art can absorb ecological ideas but cannot itself become an independent ecosystem … Artistic production could remain meaningful outside of the gallery system – in the land – only by folding ecological issues into terms that had already been formed as a coherent system of aesthetics, which in the case of land art was a system of understanding objects developed by minimalism.’36 Hence the work engages ecological and social systems beyond the standard frame of the art object but necessarily translates them back into easily understood documentary forms – forms that are more consistent with other practices like minimalism – by capturing and containing them through particular conventions, namely the various indexical modes of representation (visual, textual and cartographic) that typified art circulating in the gallery systems of New York. By mediating ephemeral events through information, and circulating the resulting information through galleries and museums, Oppenheim’s work ultimately traces a very wide set of systems.37

Salt Flat, too, exemplifies Burnham’s systems aesthetics through the extensions of these ecological and social concerns into the realm of conventional artistic criteria. The work similarly encompasses a cascading set of systems. It would take place on the high plane of the Great Salt Lake Desert, some 1200 metres above sea level, but it would also take place thousands of metres below sea level. The Bahamas include a unique geological feature: just miles out to sea the ocean floor drops dramatically in steep cliffs to form the Great Bahama Canyon. Manhattan, at relative sea level, was thus the mid-point in geographic space between the work’s actions. The work was located between geographic space but also geological time; it engaged the vestiges of a landlocked primordial sea, Lake Bonneville, the remains of which formed the Great Salt Lake and its surrounding desert, but it also engaged a future desert now submerged, at the bottom of the Great Bahama Canyon, which will not appear until the oceans burn off the earth. Both of these distant times are collapsed into the urban decay of Manhattan in 1968. Salt Flat thus creates a tripartite geographic and geological system. Moreover, the parking lot in Manhattan was also the centre between climate extremes that spanned from searing sun and blistering dry heat in the western United States to the wet, dark deep of the Atlantic Ocean off the eastern seaboard. Salt Flat creates a constellation through its documentations that brings these various systems into alignment.

Finally, what about salt? At first, salt seems like a particularly banal material, one common to similar projects (think of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty 1970) and extremely straightforward. It is basic and elemental. It is cheap and affordable; some accounts indicate that Oppenheim merely purchased the amount of salt he could afford, thus dictating the size of the work through this non-compositional limitation.38 Oppenheim used what he refers to as ‘baker’s salt’ – an antiquated chemical leavening agent made from ammonium carbonate and employed in traditional baking, its noxious smell rendering it uncommon in baking today. Other accounts refer to the material as rock salt, like the type used on icy roads, which makes logical sense; rock salt would be appropriate for spreading on asphalt and would be easy to buy in bulk (large bags of the material, whatever it is, are visible in some of the documentary images).39 The significance of the material may be less its specificity as baker’s salt and more its generic quality. Indeed, salt is itself a generic name for a wide range of chemicals: as per the Oxford English Dictionary, a salt is any chemical compound ‘formed by the union of an acid radical with a basic radical’, or specifically an acid ‘having the whole or part of its hydrogen replaced by a metal’.

Yet salt also epitomises the concept of transformation, thus making it a particularly apt material for systems art. Oppenheim was drawn to salt in Salt Flat because it is, as he states, an ‘unstable material’.40 It changes physical states, from solid blocks to granular crystals to liquid solution, suggesting three separate state changes, the chemical processes of which are also durational. Salt is further evoked by the documentation – the photographic image that records Oppenheim’s action required chemical salts that enabled an image to appear, as if by magic, on the photographic paper. Salt is also richly associative in its own right. It was once valued as currency – the world ‘salary’ derives from the Roman tradition of paying officials in salt – and its transformative potential made it a key element in alchemy, as will be explored in greater depth elsewhere in this In Focus project.41 These meanings are hardly emphasised by Oppenheim in explicit terms, but to ignore them would also mean reducing the work’s significance.

Through these diverse concerns, Salt Flat is a paradigmatic example of Burnham’s systems aesthetics. The sections that follow will explore the systems dimension of Salt Flat still further, extending Burnham’s concepts beyond the familiar notion of ecological and social systems into a consideration of Oppenheim’s sites and their histories, and then a consideration of Burnham’s late criticism and his turn to hermetic philosophy. Ultimately, this study explores the potential for systems to animate works of art in unexpected ways, even pushing them into the realm of mysticism and magic.