Sarah Oppenheimer


Sarah Oppenheimer

By Lea Feinstein October 28, 2014

Do your homework before you see this show.1 Sarah Oppenheimer is a much-heralded artist whose scrupulous work crosses the borders between architecture and sculpture and is grounded in theories of cognitive, linguistic, and psychological sciences, particularly perception. To create her mind-bending work, she has pierced and reconfigured walls, corners, floors, and entryways in galleries, universities, and art museums. Like periscopes and kaleidoscopes, her interventions probe the bodies of buildings and employ transparent and mirrored surfaces to create new and disorienting ways of experiencing familiar spaces.

But none of these aspects are in the current exhibition at the Mills College Art Museum. What is there are Oppenheimer’s sketches, studies, ideas for interventions, and maquettes: carefully milled, drilled, and fabricated samples of glass and aluminum that play a part in recent commissions in New York, Switzerland, and in other locations in the United States and Europe—studio shots, so to speak.

I was reminded repeatedly of a basic physics precept

The assembled array of white-painted steel tables with sketches and drawings under glass is tantalizing but not revealing. It offers the initiate only hints of Oppenheimer’s process, her extreme concern with perfection; pieces are milled to within 1/32 inch of her requirements. The titles of her works (33-D, D-33, OE-15) provide few clues except the inclusion of her fabricators’ names and their locations, suggesting she considers them artistic collaborators in this work.

Two maquettes highlight her concerns with light and its manifestations. One is a construction of intersecting partial walls illuminated by lights of different wavelengths. Another, of angled mirrors mounted on wheels, is situated near a daylight exit reflecting both the gallery’s interior and the courtyard outside. I was reminded repeatedly of a basic physics precept: the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection. Oppenheimer employs this principle to bend light around the corners of buildings, to incorporate reflections—of viewers, landscape, ambient daylight—from the outside world into her work, warming it and making the passing scenes part and parcel of her stringent, almost clinical, constructions.

Viewer a critical component of her work.

The frustration of the Mills College exhibition is that it lacks these more immersive, encompassing experiences. Viewer participation—how people move through Oppenheimer’s altered spaces and interact with each other, and what they see—is a critical component of her work. At Mills, a viewer looks at the sketches and studies, rather than experiencing the space with one’s entire body. The effect on the viewer is like trying to extrapolate the surface of the moon from a few rock samples. (Oppenheimer herself has questioned whether still photographs of her work distort the experience and mislead the viewer.2) Either a video narrated by the artist as she walks through a single project or an edited sampling of several installations would have been deeply satisfying and would have provided a context for the isolated studio artifacts.

And it seems as though the artist herself desired more than what’s on display in the exhibition. The museum has a distinctive interior: a huge rectangular room dominated by an extraordinary, faceted-glass Beaux Arts ceiling. During my visit, the director Stephanie Hanor mentioned that, in correspondence, Oppenheimer had been keen to remove the glass ceiling, to access the “greenhouse” glass canopy that funnels light into the space. This was not possible, but the ghost of the idea persists: On each of the glass-topped tables, a reflection of the ceiling overlays and obscures the materials displayed, like a tattoo.

In a recent lecture at the college, Oppenheimer spoke of her creative process and how her forms arise, concentrating on the technical aspects of form derivation and the computer software she uses. She spoke of the meaning of her work—of “embodied space,” permeable spaces, and disjunctive illusions created by the specific properties of the low-emissivity glass. She spoke, as she has written, of her interest in “the occluding edge,” the perceptual distortions that occur when two forms or two spaces are adjacent and how we as viewers read one as in front and one behind.

Oppenheimer makes art that is profoundly female.

In interviews, Oppenheimer has elaborated her typology of holes—wormholes, diffusion holes, and so forth—and, though she speaks the language of optics and astronomy, she also references the body. While she presents a masculine figure—shorn hair, suit and tie at gallery openings, and coveralls at work—Oppenheimer makes art that is profoundly female. She asks questions and offers a different perspective from the phallocentric work that has dominated Western art for centuries. For many years, critics and writers have expounded on “the gaze,” the intense eye of the artist (usually male) and the subsequent vicarious gaze of the viewer toward an object, whether a female nude or a landscape. In Oppenheimer’s work, there is no object and no gazer. Her work creates immersive experiences for participants, in which literal reflections inspire personal reflection and wondering is a product of wandering.

Bravo to Mills College for introducing Oppenheimer’s work to the Bay Area and to this writer. But without hours of serious research before seeing the exhibition, it is difficult to parse the scope or significance of her installations from the cryptic fragments on display. 

Mills College Art Museum - Sarah Oppenheimer is on view at Mills College Art Museum, in


, through December 14, 2014.


  1. Suggested resources for the homework: An article about Oppenheimer’s work by the German curator Ines Goldbach, “Shifting Boundaries,” which delves into the theoretical basis of the artist’s practice; Sarah Oppenheimer interviews Giuliana Bruno about her new book, Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media. The conversation reveals deep commonalities between their work; A time-lapse video shows the construction of D-17, Oppenheimer’s installation at Rice University; An introduction to psychologist J.J. Gibson’s theories of perception and the “occluding edge,” which have influenced Oppenheimer’s work.
  2. From the artist’s lecture at Mills College on September 10, 2014.

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