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Claes Oldenburg
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Wikipedia About Claes Oldenburg

Claes Oldenburg (born January 28, 1929) is a Swedish American sculptor, best known for his public art installations typically featuring very large replicas of everyday objects. Another theme in his work is soft sculpture versions of everyday objects. Many of his works were made in collaboration with his wife, Coosje van Bruggen, who died in 2009 after 32 years of marriage. Oldenburg lives and works in New York. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Claes Oldenburg, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

An artist who believes in the interpretation and interrelation of art and life, Claes Oldenburg makes multimedia performances and artistic projects rooted in popular culture that have mirrored the human experience in surprising and sometimes unsettling ways. Continuing traditions begun by such movements as Surrealism and Art Brut, which emphasized the role of the unconscious, the unrefined, and the uncivilized in art, Oldenburg uncovers the mystery and power of commonplace objects by morphing their scale, shape, and texture, embracing what he calls “the poetry of everywhere.”1 The artist’s inventive working process is cumulative. He orders his impressions of the world through sketches and writings in his ever-present notebooks; models and drawings form another layer of thinking. Some ideas are realized as sculptures, ranging from the intimately scaled to the monumental, while others undergo a years-long period of study and change. The Walker Art Center is home to an in-depth collection of Oldenburg’s work, ranging from early performance-related objects to large-scale outdoor sculpture to drawings, prints, multiples, and rare studies. Spoonbridge and Cherry (1985–1988), a fountain-sculpture created with his wife and artistic collaborator, Coosje van Bruggen, is the centerpiece of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

Born in Stockholm in 1929 and raised in Chicago by diplomat parents, Oldenburg moved to New York in 1956. In 1960, he staged his first major project, entitled The Street, at the Judson Gallery. Responding both to the urban environment where he lived and worked and to the flattened perspective of cartoon illustrations, Oldenburg covered the walls of the gallery with torn and crudely painted collages made from gritty, cast-off materials such as cardboard and burlap. The cutouts depicted inhabitants of New York’s Bowery slums, including a Street Chick and an entity known as Ray Gun (also the artist’s alter ego), characters that exemplified the seamy side of the city.

In 1961 Oldenburg presented The Store, an enterprise combining sculpture and performance, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He filled a vacant storefront, which he called the Ray Gun Manufacturing Co., with hundreds of plaster and papier-mâché replicas of common products such as shirts, shoes, slices of pie, and baked potatoes—all made in the back of the shop. These items were often larger than life, lumpy, misshapen, and garishly painted, and were sold as regular merchandise. The Store marked the first sounding of a main theme in Oldenburg’s art—the exclusive use of inanimate objects to convey meaning. As he wrote in his now-famous manifesto of 1961: “… I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself… . I am for U.S. Government Inspected art, Grade A art, Regular Price art, Yellow Ripe art, Extra Fancy art, ready-to-eat art … an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.”2

During his early years in New York, Oldenburg became involved with a close-knit group of artists, including Jim Dine, Allan Kaprow, and Lucas Samaras, who sought to create an iconoclastic form of “total art.” Their projects, known as “Happenings,” were one-time events that combined acting, painting, sculpture, music, poetry, dance, and film. Inanimate objects in the Happenings were on equal footing with the performers, with props salvaged from the events often emerging as sculptures in their own right, as in the case of Oldenburg’s Upside Down City, a remnant from the 1962 performance World’s Fair II.3 The Happening began with two actors removing various objects from the pockets of an inert man and from a large trunk, then placing them on a table. Subsequent sections focused on different areas of the room, and the event concluded with the performers suspending the inverted cityscape from the ceiling. Resembling hanging laundry, odd reptiles, or invented letterforms, the constructions of painted newspaper-stuffed fabric were key for Oldenburg in that they marked the beginnings of his work with “soft” sculpture, which would become an abiding interest and which he would explore with then-new materials (vinyl, fake fur, foam rubber) as well as traditional “painting” fabrics (canvas, and muslin).

Shoestring Potatoes Spilling from a Bag, a soft sculpture from 1966, was originally conceived as part of a grouping of soft fast-food items—french fries, ketchup, and cola—and was based on an advertisement the artist had seen in a 1965 issue of Life magazine. By inverting the shoestring potatoes and applying gravity, his “favorite form creator,”4 Oldenburg produced a new entity that took on a life of its own and, as he had done with Upside Down City, he further challenged convention by creating sculpture from painted canvas.5 Various relationships to the potatoes are examined in the pages of Oldenburg’s notebooks, through drawings, clippings, and notations. In one drawing, the artist compares the french fries, ketchup bottle, and cola glass to a cathedral, a chapel, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, respectively. Another page relates the potato forms to female legs, with a fan of miniskirts forming the edge of the bag.

It is this process of free association that is at the heart of Oldenburg’s work. He has an innate inclination to classify and order forms, a tendency enhanced by his incisive visual memory and pliant imagination. “I like best,” he noted in 1965, “an elementary idea which turns, by itself, into a surprising suggestive object, as through material action.”6 By systematically examining his spontaneous responses to his subjects, he recognizes both obvious and hidden relationships. Over the course of his career, he has charted the lineage of many leitmotifs—the clothespin, three-way electric plug, geometric mouse, or soft alphabet, for example—to which he returns time and again for inspiration.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, Oldenburg began to conceive of works that he termed “colossal monuments,” familiar objects enlarged to Brobdingnagian proportions that could be seen as alternatives to traditional public sculpture. Often, the ideas arose from the artist superimposing an image of an object on a landscape, either in the form of a collaged study, as seen in the printed postcard studies for the 1968 multiple London Knees 1966 (realized as a life-size object), or a drawing, such as the 1965 Colossal Floating Three-Way Plug (realized in a variety of scales and materials, including the Walker’s 1975 Naugahyde version, Three-Way Plug—Scale A, Soft, Brown). The objects chosen for the proposed monuments are afforded the grand scale traditionally reserved for memorial architecture, though at the same time, the vast scale denies their reality. By proposing, for example, a museum building formed from a tobacco can and cigarette package or a hybrid “vehicle” made from a giant lipstick poised on the treads of a bulldozer, Oldenburg heightens his subject’s abstract qualities to inspire a sense of wonder in forms usually overlooked.

Since the mid-1970s, Oldenburg has made sculpture in collaboration with his wife, Coosje van Bruggen. The process behind the couple’s proposals for what they term “large-scale projects” is integral to the work, regardless of whether a piece is realized. Over a period that may last years, an idea based on their impressions of a site is developed through drawings and models. Spoonbridge and Cherry, one of the artists’ few fountain pieces, was commissioned by the Walker in 1985, during the planning of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. A number of associations about Minnesota played into the choice of subject.7 The artists conceived of the sculpture as the focal point of the walk from the museum to the center of the Garden. Not wanting to overshadow the surrounding sculptures, however, the artists’ aim was to create something that would “catch the eye and … lie down and be horizontal.”8 The spoon had been an element of Oldenburg’s visual vocabulary since 1962, when he bought a novelty spoon that rested on an “island” of imitation chocolate. Drawings, prints, and unrealized proposals involving the spoon followed, including the idea of a Chicago pier extending into Lake Michigan, and a bridge near New York’s Park Avenue. Oldenburg had continued to think of the spoon as being “something flung out over water.”9 It was van Bruggen who suggested the addition of the cherry, as well as the shape of the pool, which is inspired by the seed of the linden tree, a prominent planting in the Garden. The sculpture is now an iconic symbol for the Twin Cities.

  1. Oldenburg, “Extracts from the Studio Notes (1962–64),” Artforum 4, no. 5 (January 1966): 33.

  2. Oldenburg, artist’s statement for the exhibition catalogue for Environments, Situations, Spaces at the Martha Jackson Gallery, 1961; published in definitive form in Claes Oldenburg, Store Days (New York: Something Else Press, 1967).

  3. World’s Fair II was performed on May 25 to 26, 1962. The performers were Dominic Capobianco, Lette Eisenhauer, Claes Oldenburg, Pat Oldenburg, Lucas Samaras, and John Weber. See “World’s Fair II: The Script,” in Michael Kirby, ed., Happenings: An Illustrated Anthology (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1965), 220–222.

  4. Oldenburg, “Extracts,” Artforum 4, no. 5 (January 1966): 33.

  5. “I discovered that by making ordinarily hard surfaces soft I had arrived at another kind of sculpture and a range of new symbols,” Oldenburg wrote in his notebooks in 1966, “… the possibility of movement of the soft sculpture, its resistance to any one position, its ‘life’ relate it to the idea of time and change.” Oldenburg, in “Selections from Oldenburg’s Writings” in Barbara Rose, Claes Oldenburg, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1969), 194.

  6. Oldenburg, from “Notes, New York, 1965–66,” reprinted in Claes Oldenburg: Dibujos/Drawings 1959–1989, exh. cat. (Valencia, Spain: IVAM, Centre Julio González, 1989), 16.

  7. These associations included the state’s profusion of lakes and its Scandinavian heritage (the artists compared the raised spoon bowl to the prow of a viking ship). Oldenburg, unpublished interview with Siri Engberg and Toby Kamps, July 10, 1992 (Walker Art Center Archives).

  8. Ibid.

  9. Ibid.

Engberg, Siri. “Claes Oldenburg.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center

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