Of all the great American pop artists, Claes Oldenburg is the only one born in Europe. He was still in primary school when his father, a Swedish diplomat, moved the family to that country. They settled in Chicago, a city that has a much-vaunted architectural history and is called, not without reason, the birthplace of the skyscraper.
This no doubt mattered to Oldenburg, whose work possesses the foreigner’s disbelief of American size and scale. His sculptures date back to a self-satisfied moment in the Eisenhower era, a time when Americans built the tallest buildings and drove cars with fins and ate big, high-cholesterol hamburgers slathered in cheese instead of small meatballs. Swedish women – a carefree age before worries about carbon footprints or a national obesity epidemic led to reassessment of the pursuit of pleasure.
Oldenburg, who died Monday at his Manhattan home at the age of 93, revolutionized our idea of what a public monument might be. Instead of bronze sculptures of men on horseback or long-forgotten patriots standing on a pedestal, hand on heart, speaking through the ages, Oldenburg has filled our civic spaces with nostalgia-infused objects bloated to absurd. Interestingly, so many of her subjects are drawn from the realm of the home and traditional women’s pursuits. His sculpture of a lipstick case or garden spade, his “Clothespin” (a 45-foot-tall steel version of a wooden clothespin in downtown Philadelphia) or, nearby is her “Split Button” sculpture (a beloved hangout at the University of Pennsylvania) – all based on the type of objects that might be found at the bottom of our mother’s purses.
Ditto for “Typewriter Eraser, Scale X” (1999), in the sculpture garden of the National Gallery of Art in Washington – has a man ever handled such an object? The sculpture consists of a 20-foot-tall stainless steel version of a vintage eraser with a small brush attached, the kind that was favored by a generation of female secretaries who tapped IBM Selectrics before the advent of the computer erase keys. Tilted on its head, its blue bristles arranged to look windswept, “Typewriter Eraser” remains a powerful homage to the act of erasing, a reminder that art isn’t just what you put it on. put in but also what you get out of it.
In 1956, after graduating from Yale University, Oldenburg moved to New York, arriving in time to participate in a bohemian milieu on the brink of extinction. His career began in a spirit of radical fervor. Like Jim Dine, one of the last surviving original pop artists, Oldenburg was an organizer of “happenings,” those theatrical events staged by non-actors in non-theaters. The costume painters relied on audience participation to help them achieve their stated goal of dismantling the boundary between art and life.
Oldenburg’s now landmark installation, “The Store,” had a downright generic title that referenced the increasingly commercialized realm of galleries. It opened in December 1961 in a rented storefront at 107 East Second Street, and visitors could purchase food, clothing, jewelry, and other items — or rather, painted plaster reliefs that look raw. and wrinkled endearing. (One of The Store’s articles, “Braselette,” a cartoonish, paint-splattered depiction of a woman’s corset pressed against an unbalanced red rectangle, will be seen beginning Friday in “New York: 1962-1964,” a major survey exhibit at the Jewish Museum.)
Perhaps The Store’s most memorable relic is “Pastry Case I” (1961-2), which lives on in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. It consists of a glass showcase of the kind that once rested on restaurant counters. Inside is a wide slice of blueberry pie, a candied apple, and an ice cream sundae that should be put in a freezer instead, but never mind. Let melt! Let it flow! It’s not the desserts of a 21st-century gourmet America that Baked by Melissa’s mini cupcakes delight in — but rather big, fun, sloppy desserts that are hearty enough to share with your date.
Oldenburg was not the first artist to make sculptures of everyday objects. Shortly before The Store opened, Jasper Johns had taken the still life tradition into the third dimension by exhibiting a painted bronze sculpture of two Ballantine beer cans, side by side, causing viewers to wonder whether they were real cans or handmade items. Instead of such philosophical conundrums, Oldenburg pursued a classically pop agenda in that his sculptures are inseparable from their identity as consumer objects. He possessed a singular ability to bring sculptural life, a sense of animation, to unlikely subjects.
Many of his strongest works are unimaginable without the participation of his first wife, Patty Mucha, an artist who starred in his Happenings and stitched his so-called soft sculptures. An exhibit at the Green Gallery, in 1962, featured a giant slice of sponge cake, an ice cream cone and a hamburger – all of which were about the size of a living room sofa and sat, appropriately, on the floor. They and the soft sculptures that followed – a soft typewriter, a soft light switch – represent his finest work, I think, in part because their sagging, lumpy presence feels invested with the pathos of the human body.
In an unpublished memoir she shared with me, Ms. Mucha details the specific role she played in the creation of her husband’s work. For example, in making her “Floor Burger (Giant Hamburger)”, 1962, she brought her Singer portable sewing machine to uptown Green Gallery, “which has now become our studio. I say our studio because at that time all construction was done by sewing – a technique of which Claes had little knowledge.
She continues, “The sewing itself was hard work. Sitting on the floor pulling the bulky mass of fabric through the portable sewing machine’s throttle was almost physically impossible at times. The needle broke; she bled on the carvings. After sewing them, Oldenburg would help him fill the sculptures with putty, then paint them.
Oldenburg divorced Ms. Mucha in 1970, after a decade of marriage, and the truth is that her art lost some of its warmth and tenderness by then. Instead of soft sculptures, with their hilarious lumpy weight, he started producing monumental sculptures with hard metal surfaces. One wonders if he felt guilty for abandoning his first wife, who played such a big role in his early success. As if to redeem himself, he begins to pay homage to his second wife, Coosje van Bruggen, who was not trained as an artist but as an art historian, and whose name will appear alongside his own. on all his future works.
Unlike his fellow Pop-ster, Andy Warhol, Oldenburg was never a public figure and his art was more recognizable than him. As a personality, he could seem austere. Art critic Barbara Rose, who wrote the catalog for her 1969 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, described him in her diaries as “resembling an accountant reviewing his accounts—sober and frugal.”
Tatyana Grosman, the nurturing founder of legendary print publisher, Universal Limited Art Editions, once recalled being offended when Oldenburg rejected one of her suggestions, chiding her, “I already have a mother.
The Oldenburg champions point out that he was a brilliant draughtsman and deep thinker who made many clever designs for sculptures that never materialized (and there’s nothing that says ‘intellectual’ like a noble project missed). In 1965 he sketched plans for an anti-war monument which consisted of a concrete juggernaut bearing the names of the war dead – and designed to permanently block traffic on Broadway and Canal Street. But I don’t think that tarnishes his reputation. He will undoubtedly be remembered as a leading artist and one who, like his ambassador father, was a force for global democracy. But funnier.
Sometimes his labor was cheap. In the 1990s, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s gift shop sold Oldenburg’s “NYC Pretzel” (1994), a six-inch-tall cardboard version of those salty pretzels peddled on New York City street corners. I think I paid the full $50 for it, and knowing it was part of an open edition (instead of a limited edition), made me like it more. It’s still on my fireplace.
I also bought another, smaller Oldenburg – a piece of cake on a white dessert plate. The cake part consists of a bar of painted plaster two inches long, but the plate is a real plate, purchased by the artist from an actual store. I say this so that you will understand my horror when one morning I opened my dishwasher and realized that someone in my house (who will remain anonymous) had put the Oldenburg plate to wash. I took it out and the plate was still warm. I turned it over and gasped. The artist’s signature — “CO” written in black — had been washed away.
But other than that, the piece remained as smooth as ever, and I consider it a tribute to Oldenburg that he is the only artist I know whose work can survive the dishwasher.