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Creator of controversial UAA sculpture dies

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: June 30, 2016
  • Published January 23, 2011

Dennis Oppenheim, the contemporary artist who designed the "Image Intervention" sculpture at the University of Alaska Anchorage Fine Arts Building, died Saturday in New York City of liver cancer. He was 72.

Born in Electric City, Wash., in 1938, Oppenheim established himself in the avant garde art scene with his first solo exhibition in New York in 1968. While his early work focused on live performance art, he became one of the early users of film and video as elements in his productions. Constantly exploring new media and materials, he later emerged as a notable sculptor, earth artist and photographer with an international reputation.

In the early 1980s he presented workshops at the Visual Arts Center of Alaska and expressed interest in doing a large-scale work in Alaska. That led to the commission to create the piece for the new UAA Arts Building, though Oppenheim donated his part of the project and materials were likewise donated by Anchorage businesses. He returned to check on the progress of the work's creation and was present when "Image Intervention" was dedicated in October, 1986.

The piece -- described as "a mass of heavy, half-round metal grates, stairways and what appear to be metal telephone poles cut in half" -- was instantly controversial. Enthusiasts found it a thoughtful "statement against violence and aggression." Others called it a "pile of junk."

In October 1988, an unknown person shot it with a .22 caliber gun. Campus police estimated the damage at $500.

"Image Intervention" was one of five pieces in a series that Oppenheim created in the 1980s. One of the works was sold to the city of Berlin, Germany, for $1 million. Shortly after completion, the Anchorage sculpture was estimated to be worth $250,000.

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