Dennis Oppenheim, artist behind downtown neon paintbrushes, dies

Artists die. Art lives on.

Yet this late artist’s art has yet to draw breath here in Las Vegas.

After the death Saturday of renowned conceptual artist and sculptor Dennis Oppenheim from cancer at age 72, his public art project at considerable cost to the city — a pair of giant neon paintbrushes, set to be the gateway to Las Vegas’ arts district — remains unfinished.

A statement sending "deepest condolences" to Oppenheim’s family was released by the city.

It noted that "the city of Las Vegas and the Las Vegas Arts Commission want to see these important sculptures completed. Meetings will take place over the next several days to help assure that the project is finished."

Paying $700,000 in a collaboration dating to 2007, the city had expected completion by the end of last year. But the 45-foot-tall sculptures remain unlit on Charleston Boulevard at the intersections of Casino Center Boulevard and Fourth Street.

The tilted, polelike sculptures — with the light beams from their tips set to cross in the sky — are made of galvanized steel, aluminum, perforated metal, acrylic rods, LED spotlights, string lights and searchlights with color filters.

As the Arts Commission asked Oppenheim to work with a local contractor, problems persisted: closeness to power lines; the fixture at Casino Center Boulevard requiring rotation so the tips cross; and the sculptures being a few feet from the curb with no barriers protecting them from traffic on Charleston Boulevard.

"I think we pretty much know now why that was dragging on. I think Mr. Oppenheim suddenly became ill, and everything pretty much got put on hold," said Rob McCoy, chairman of the Arts Commission. "If it is, we’ll continue to work with his studio to get the fixes done that we need. If not, the Arts Commission will be tasked with doing this ourselves. … The Arts Commission is more than willing to complete the project pending what happens with Mr. Oppenheim’s studio following his death."

McCoy added that the commission will enforce language in the city’s contract with Oppenheim that required the artist and his studio to make good on the project.

Earlier this month, Marty Walsh, owner of the Trifecta Gallery in the Arts Factory on East Charleston Boulevard, told View Neighborhood Newspapers that the project had dragged on too long.

"Installed improperly is the new excuse?" she asked. "Thank you for owning up to it being installed improperly, but how did that happen and why did that happen?"

In that same article, downtown arts activist Brian "Paco" Alvarez, referring to a similar, $1 million Oppenheim project at the entrance of the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, said he was concerned that the artist had finished that larger, more expensive project in less time.

"That bothers me," Alvarez said then. "It’s unfortunate for our city. He needs to get it done and take responsibility for that project."

Reflecting on Oppenheim’s death, Nevada Arts Council Executive Director Susan Boskoff called it "a terrible loss for the international arts community. He represented what we love most about an artist. He was curious and he was creative and he was an explorer."

Elsewhere in Nevada, another Oppenheim work, called "Engagement," was constructed in 1998 and fronts the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. The sculpture features two huge steel rings topped by jeweled houses.

"You come around the corner of a street, and this wonderful oversized image is there," Boskoff said. "It’s whimsical, it’s striking, it can evoke a million different meanings for people as they drive by. That’s the best you can do with public art."

Interviewed last fall by KNPR Radio’s publication, Desert Companion, Oppenheim addressed his inspiration for projects such as the Las Vegas paintbrushes.

"In the early ’40s as a child, I was easily attracted to roadside spectacles," he said. "They were my introduction to art. I couldn’t get enough of the Sherwin-Williams paint sign showing the endless flow of color over the globe. I love having a work in Las Vegas, the land of spectacles."

Contact reporter Kristi Jourdan at kjourdan@ or 702-383-0492. Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at or 702-383-0256.

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