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  • Rainey Knudson

Rice Gallery: Sarah Oppenheimer (377 words)

UT Austin just announced they've commissioned a new work by Sarah Oppenheimer for their Landmarks public art program (hands down the best university or government public art collection in Texas). UT is calling it the artist's "first public art sited entirely outdoors." It will be unveiled this fall near the new building for the Cockrell School of Engineering.

In 2010, Rice Gallery commissioned a site-specific installation from Oppenheimer that was both outdoors and indoors. Titled simply D-17, it was one of the most spectacular, and certainly the most technically challenging, commission in the Gallery's 22-year history.

Rice Gallery comprised three spaces: the Gallery itself, fronted by a 16-foot-tall glass wall; an indoor foyer on the other side of the glass; and an outdoor plaza beyond. Most of the 71 artists who created installations at the Gallery engaged with just one or two of those spaces. Oppenheimer (a descendant of the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who famously worked on the Manhattan Project) was one of the few artists who used all three. She came up with a deceptively simple design of an angular silver form that ascended from the right rear corner of the Gallery, appeared to pass through the glass wall, and exited the building above the outer entrance, jutting outside into the plaza. At 65 feet in length, D-17 defied gravity. Its execution required the assistance of architects, structural engineers, and numerous types of fabricators on and off the Rice campus.

An open channel in the top of the form allowed a stream of natural light to flow in, and from the rear of the Gallery one could look up this channel and see a framed a view of treetops and sky. Standing in the foyer and looking into the Gallery through a viewing hole cut into the underside of the form, one could see the same view. The "D" in the installation's name stood for this visual doubling.

Years later, the Rice Gallery director and curator Kim Davenport remembered, “Even though we were aware of every detail, the flawless illusion of the massive form soaring through the glass wall still seemed miraculous.”

(D-17 is included in One Thing Well, a forthcoming book about Rice Gallery's program of site-specific installation art, published fall 2021.)

All images © Nash Baker. Used with permission.


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