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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Claes Oldenburg

Claes Oldenburg Self-portrait,
In writing about the Chinati Foundation a few days ago I encountered the art of Claes Oldenburg. And, though I've sometimes mentioned the man's work, I came to realize that I've never written about the artist himself, or dealt with the wonderful panoply of his creations. Oldenburg is fun to write about.  He's a "fun" artist.  I mean anyone who makes soft hamburgers or erects giant clothes pins (Philadelphia) or enormous typewriter erasers (Washington D.C), or who dumps massive ice cream cones atop the urban landscape (Cologne, Germany), has got to be a " laugh riot." One might say Odenburg put the POP in Pop Art. Oldenburg's work argues the point that art need not be serious or profound, so long as it makes people laugh, or think, or preferably both.

Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, 1999,
Washington, DC, Claes Oldenburg.
Though once a familiar object, today,
some might question, "what's that?"

Claes Oldenburg was born in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1929, which makes him some 83 years old now. Today he works from a small chateau, which he and his second wife refurbished in 1992, located in the Loire Valley of France. Claes's father was a Swedish diplomat stationed in New York. In 1936, his father was appointed the Swedish Counsel General to Chicago, where Claes grew up. He studied art history at Yale, then finished his studies at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1953, whereupon he became a naturalized American citizen and opening his own studio. Then in 1956 he moved to New York and fell in with a group of "happening artist" such as Jim Dine, Red Grooms, and Allan Kaprow. Their theatrical happening provided an alternative to the prevailing abstract expressionism which so dominated the New York scene at the time. It was in New York, around 1957, that Oldenburg began toying with giant mundane objects made of papier-mache, plaster, vinyl, and fabric, even women's nylon hose. His first show came in 1959, not in a gallery, but a church basement.

Soft Bathtub--Ghost Version,
1966, Claes Oldenburg
Claes Oldenburg had the good fortune of "popping up" just as Pop Art was making its debut, marking the end of the lengthy era of Modern Art and the nascent birth pangs of the Post-modernism, which at that time, hadn't yet been given a name. In the beginning, Pop art was mostly flat.  It was a painter's art. In fact, through most of the 1960s, until some of Pop's best painters, such as Lichtenstein, Warhol, and Jasper Johns began dabbling in the third dimension, Oldenberg had the sculptural wing of the movement practically all to himself. His Soft Bathtub (left), is one of his earlier efforts. Eventually his work moved from hanging on gallery walls to sitting all puffed up, freestanding on gallery floors. And though Pop was born in the art gallery, as the movement grew, especially as Oldenburg himself grew as an artist, soon his work demanded parks and plazas in which to dominate its domain.

Clothespin, 1976, Philadelphia,
Claes Oldenburg. Which is the more
beautiful, the art or the architecture?
With the dawn of the 1970s, Oldenburg's Pop Art popped up in the form of a giant lipstick (Yale, now at Morse College), a garden tool (Netherlands), a spoon with a cherry (Minneapolis), a "Free" stamp (Cleveland), and a paintbrush painting (Philadelphia) in 2011. Some of his earliest monumental pieces, such as the lipstick tube mounted on Caterpillar tracks, were the outgrowth of the "happening art" of the 1960s. During the early years, those steeped in the aesthetics of modern art found it hard to accept Pop, and especially Oldenburg's gigantic, everyday objects as actually being "art." Yet there is more to Oldenburg's art than sheer size. Each piece, mounted against the backdrop of urban complexity, takes on an austere beauty magnifying the pragmatic simplicity of its original design, whether it's a clothes pin, a safety pin, or a rolling pin.

Safety Pin, 1999, Claes Oldenburg

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