The Guggenheim show was not only a milestone in recognition for Opie but was a rare opportunity to study her own progression as spread across four floors in the museum. "It gave me a little bit of clarity in relationship to walking those floors and seeing things and figuring out OK, we've done this — where do I want to take things to?"
In another room of her studio, Epson printers slowly unfurl huge prints planned for the Regen show, part of a long, ongoing relationship with the gallery. In the past, Regen has shown her pictures of high school football players and surfers, and Opie's series of austere images of ice houses set on frozen lakes in Minnesota in 2001. One series that opened there, "Twelve Miles to the Horizon," of sunrises and sunsets in vertical landscapes, is at the Long Beach Museum of Art.
Another, far less happy departure for Opie came last summer, when she was one of four major artists to resign from the board of trustees at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art after the forced resignation of chief curator Paul Schimmel. Opie, John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger and Ed Ruscha left in protest not only because of Schimmel, Opie says, but because of other firings and sudden changes.
"The big one for me was not just John [Baldessari] stepping down first — that was a big red flag — but I had just given them a portfolio to sell to save a person's job in education," she says. "And it equaled about $150,000, and literally the next day they let that person go.
"I can't imagine any board member writing a check for $150,000 and having them turn around and let that person whose program you're supporting go. That to me was very insulting," she says.
She occasionally speaks with a few remaining board members. Opie says she and Kruger were vocal during their time there, but when changes began to occur, the artists felt left out of the conversation.
"I felt like, 'OK, I don't have a voice here,'" she says. "I don't want to be a figurehead. I actually want to participate in having real ideas and real feelings about what a place like MOCA means to this community."
One unexpected subject for Opie was actress Elizabeth Taylor. They shared an accountant, who suggested Opie consider a photograph of the movie star. Opie told him she didn't shoot celebrities but soon began having thoughts of Graceland and proposed making a portrait of the actress through pictures of her belongings and ranch house in Bel-Air.
The plan was for Opie to photograph Taylor's home and belongings in various degrees of detail, and she and Tayor would edit the images into a collection and a book. They did not plan to meet until the photographs were completed.
"She watched me through the curtains, photographing," Opie remembers. "I don't think she would have allowed a portrait. She was not in great health, and she was very private."
Things became personal in surprising ways, as she found herself becoming part of the household, having lunch with Taylor's staff in the kitchen. That sense grew only stronger with Taylor's death in 2011, though the two had never met.
"I continued to photograph as the house began to be dismantled. It was really an unbelievable thing to witness how quickly somebody's life is figured out. I was there the day Christie's came to take the jewelry. I photographed Christie's packing up the jewelry to take to auction."
She is editing that work. What Opie has shared reveals glimpses of Taylor's elegant clothing hung in closets and a ghostly, soft-focused image of La Peregrina, the pearl necklace husband Richard Burton bought for Taylor in 1969.
"The body of work started out as a portrait and then it turned into a memorial," she says. "It's an odd thing, the idea of what photography does in that place where it contains history."
It was an experience similar to when she photographed the World Trade Center towers the same year they came down in 2001. "All of a sudden you have to go along with something that is a major shift in how something is read. That just comes with life. It's really an allegory of how we adapt."