Of all the great American pop artists, Claes Oldenburg was the only one born in Europe. He was still in primary school when his father, a Swedish diplomat, moved the family to this country. They settled in Chicago, a city that has an acclaimed architectural history and rightly calls itself the birthplace of the skyscraper.
This was undoubtedly of interest to Oldenburg, whose work possesses the incredulity of the outsider on American scale and scale. His sculptures look back to a moment of Eisenhower-era complacency, a time when Americans built the tallest buildings and drove cars with fins and ate big, cheese-draped, cholesterol-rich burgers instead of tiny Swedish meatballs—a carefree time for that concern. about carbon footprints or a national obesity epidemic led to reassessments of the pursuit of pleasure.
Oldenburg, who died Monday at his Manhattan home at age 93, revolutionized our idea of what a public landmark could be. Instead of bronze sculptures of men on horseback or long-forgotten patriots standing on a pedestal, hand over heart, singing through the ages, Oldenburg filled our public spaces with nostalgia-infused objects blown to absurd proportions. It is interesting that so many of his subjects are plucked from the realm of the home and traditional female pursuits. His sculpture of a lipstick box or a garden shovel, his “Clothespin” (a 45-meter steel version of a wooden clothespin in Philadelphia’s Center City) or, close by, his “Split Button” sculpture (a popular meeting place at the University of Pennsylvania) — they’re all based on the kind of items found in the bottom of our mom’s wallet.
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 twenty-foot stainless steel version of a vintage eraser with a small brush attached to it, the kind preferred by a generation of female secretaries who typed on IBM Selectrics before the advent of computer erasing keys. Tilted upside down, its blue bristles arranged to look windy, “Typewriter Eraser” remains a powerful tribute to erasing, a reminder that art is not just what you put in, but what you get out.
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 zeal. Like Jim Dine, one of the last remaining pop artists, Oldenburg was an organizer of “Happenings,” those theatrical events staged by non-actors in non-theaters. Painters dressed in costumes counted on public participation to help them achieve their stated goal of dismantling the boundary between art and life.
Oldenburg’s now historic installation, “The Store,” had a bluntly generic title that referred to the increasingly commercialized realm of galleries. It opened in a rented storefront at 107 East Second Street in December 1961, and visitors could purchase food, clothing, jewelry, and other items — or rather, painted plaster reliefs with a raw and endearingly crumpled appearance. (One of The Store’s items, “Braselette,” a cartoonish, paint-spattered depiction of a woman’s corset against a skewed red rectangle, is on view Friday in “New York: 1962-1964,” a major research exhibit at the Jewish Museum.)
The most memorable relic from The Store is undoubtedly “Pastry Case I” (1961-2), which is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. It consists of a glass case of the kind that once sat on the counter of a diner. Inside, you’ll find a wide slice of blueberry pie, a candied apple, and an ice cream sundae that probably belongs in a freezer, but it doesn’t matter. Let it melt! Let it flow! These aren’t the deserts of a 21st-century, gastro-savvy America that excites Baked by Melissa’s mini cupcakes — but rather big, sloppy, fun desserts that are big 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 moved the still life tradition into the third dimension when he exhibited a painted bronze sculpture of two Ballantine beer cans, standing side by side and leading viewers to wonder if they were real tins or handcrafted objects. Rather than such philosophical conundrums, Oldenburg pursued a classic pop agenda in the sense that his sculptures are inextricably linked to their identity as objects of consumption. He possessed a unique 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 performed in his Happenings and sewed his so-called soft sculptures. An exhibit at the Green Gallery, in 1962, featured a giant piece of sponge cake, an ice cream cone, and a hamburger—all of which were about the size of a living room sofa and fit snugly on the floor. She and the soft sculptures that followed – a soft typewriter, a soft light switch – represent his best work, I think, in part because their mushy, lumpy presence feels connected to the pathos of the human body.
In an unpublished memoir she shared with me, Ms. Mucha describes the precise role she played in the creation of her husband’s work. For example, when creating his 1962 Floor Burger (Giant Hamburger), she brought her portable Singer sewing machine to the Green Gallery, “which now became our studio. I say U.S studio because at this time all construction was accomplished by sewing – a technique Claes had little knowledge of.
She continues: “The sewing itself was strenuous work. Sitting on the floor and pulling the voluminous mass of fabric through the throttle of the portable sewing machine was sometimes almost physically impossible.” The needle broke; she was bleeding on the sculptures. After she sewed them, Oldenburg would help her fill the sculptures with putty and then paint them.
Oldenburg divorced Mrs. Mucha in 1970, after ten years of marriage, and the truth is that his art lost some of its warmth and tenderness at that point. Instead of soft sculptures, with their hilariously clunky weight, he started making monumental sculptures with hard metal surfaces. You may wonder if he felt guilty for abandoning his first wife, who played such a big part in his early success. As if to pay, he began to honor his second wife, Coosje van Bruggen, who was trained not as an artist but as an art historian, and whose name would appear with his on all his future works.
Unlike fellow pop star Andy Warhol, Oldenburg was never a public figure and his art was more recognizable than he was. As a personality he could come across as stern. The art critic Barbara Rose, who wrote the catalog for his 1969 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, described him in her journals as “looking like a bookkeeper going through his accounts — sober and frugal.”
Tatyana Grosman, the nurturing founder of legendary publishing house Universal Limited Art Editions, once recalled taking offense when Oldenburg turned down a suggestion from her, admonishing her, “I already have a mother.”
Oldenburg’s champions point out that he was a brilliant draftsman and a deep thinker who made many clever drawings for sculptures that never materialized (and there’s nothing that says “intellectual” like a noble failed project). In 1965, he outlined plans for an anti-war memorial that consisted of a concrete behemoth bearing the names of the war dead — and designed to permanently block traffic on Broadway and Canal Street. But I don’t think these polish his reputation. He will undoubtedly be remembered as a top artist and someone who, like his ambassador father, was a force for world democracy. But funnier.
Sometimes his work was well priced. In the 1990s, the Metropolitan Museum of Art gift shop sold Oldenburg’s “NYC Pretzel” (1994), a 6-inch-tall cardboard version of those salty pretzels sold on New York street corners. I think I paid $50 for it, and knowing it was part of an open edition (rather than a limited edition) made me love it more. It’s still on my mantelpiece.
I also bought another, smaller Oldenburg – a piece of cake on a white dessert plate. The pie portion is a two-inch rod of painted plaster, but the plate is a real plate, bought by the artist in a real store. I say this so you can understand my horror when I opened my dishwasher one morning and realized that someone in my house (who will remain nameless) had put down the Oldenburg plate for washing. I took it out and the plate was still hot. I turned it over and gasped. The artist’s signature – “CO” written in black – was washed away.
But otherwise the piece remained as sweet as ever, and I consider it a tribute to Oldenburg that he is the only artist I know whose work can survive the dishwasher.