In 1982, one of the rambling constructions of galvanized ducts, tracks, and conveyor belts that Dennis Oppenheim called “thought collision factories” went berserk. Like his other psycho-mechanistic pyrotechnical works of those years, Launching Structure #2 was an incendiary device, with fireworks lashed to its looping parts. This particularly manic and wildly un-minimal contraption more than lived up to its potential menace. During the opening at a Soho gallery, the fireworks were ignited and got out of control. Panic ensued. Fire trucks arrived.
Oppenheim’s thought factories, though they looked like maniacal furnaces, were metaphors for mental processes. Like Vito Acconci’s equally eccentric constructions of those years, the factory projects materialized the ephemeral and unpredictable workings of creativity. They weren’t just visionary plans; most were built and shown. And then they sank into oblivion.
Two shows now revive these forgotten works from the days when Oppenheim’s art gave off real sparks. And you’ve got to wonder: Did anyone at the time realize the power of his combustive contraptions, or were they just too extreme? Who could guess that in hindsight they’d be way stations on a trajectory that ricochets from Duchamp’s Chocolate Grinder to Tinguely’s imploding machine to Cai Guo-Qiang’s fireworks? “Armatures for Projection—The Early Factory Projects,” at White Box (525 West 26th Street, through February 14), has drawings, photos, video documentation, and one factory structure, Object With a Memory. Like an expanded doppelgänger, “Vehicles for Projection: Factory Projects From the Early Eighties,” at Kenny Schachter ROVE (132 Perry Street, through February 29), offers similar evidence of different projects, plus hand-tinted blueprints and the more elaborate Impulse Reactor, which the artist once called a “nuclear power plant of the mind.” Time has worked wonders on these radical incendiary works. Just don’t set them off.