Claes Oldenburg, whimsical father of pop art, dies at 93
His death has been confirmed by the Pace Gallery and the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, which represent him. The cause was complications from a fall, said Adriana Elgarresta, director of public relations at Pace.
No pop artist – not even his contemporaries Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein – has created a body of public work to rival his. “Art should mean more than just producing objects for galleries and museums,” he said. the Los Angeles Times in 1995. “I wanted to situate art in the experience of life.”
In 2017, reflecting on Mr. Oldenburg’s career, New York Times arts writer Randy Kennedy observed that it’s easy “to forget how radical his work was when it first appeared, expanding the definition of sculpture by somehow making it more human and more cerebral at the same time”.
Mr. Oldenburg’s outdoor facilities included a giant cherry balanced on a spoon in the sculpture garden of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; a monumental steel clothespin in Philadelphia’s central plaza; a 20 ton baseball bat in front of the Chicago Social Security Administration Building; and one 38 foot high flashlight at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.
In Washington, his work is represented by a gargantuan steel and fiberglass typewriter eraser in the sculpture garden of the National Gallery of Art. Although the subject of the sculpture is a mystery to many young visitors, its giant pink wheel and wavy hairs give it a fascinating shape.
At least one eccentric Oldenburg proposal for the capital never materialized: a plan to replace the Washington Monument with a giant pair of scissors.
In “Claes Oldenburg: Object into Monument”, the catalog for a 1973 exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. Oldenburg described the ideas behind the scissors. As he surveyed the room, the red handles would be buried in deep hollows, their exposed blades opening and closing over the course of a day.
“Like scissors, the United States is screwed together,” he wrote, “two violent parts destined in their arc to meet as one.”
Mr. Oldenburg probably did not expect the scissors to be built. David Pagel, professor of art theory and history, wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 2004 that “more often than not” Mr. Oldenburg’s “absurd proposals were mainly good excuses for making big designs”. (In the case of the scissors, one of these designs is in the collection of the National Gallery.)
Mr. Oldenburg’s second wife, Dutch-born sculptor Coosje van Bruggen, was his collaborator from 1976 until his death. died in 2009. Although critics have sometimes questioned the extent of van Bruggen’s role, the pair have maintained that it was a true artistic partnership. The sculpture ideas were jointly conceived, they said. Then, Mr. Oldenburg produced drawings while she took care of the fabrication and layout.
Mr. Oldenburg’s work has pleased collectors as well as critics. His 1974 “Clothespin Ten Foot” sold for over $3.6 million at auction in 2015. In 2019, he sold his archive of 450 notebooks (along with thousands of drawings, photographs and other documents) at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.
When Mr. Oldenburg arrived in New York in 1956, the era of Abstract Expressionist painting was coming to an end. Young artists pioneered conceptual, performance and installation art. After spending a few years painting, Mr. Oldenburg embarked on the new movements. “I wanted work that said something, either messy or a little mysterious,” he told The New York Times.
His first solo exhibition, in 1959 at the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, consisted largely of abstract sculptures made of paper, wood and string – things he said he found on the street. His early work, “based on the scraps and the rough, on the wreckage and wreckage of modern life — was a hit from the start with his contemporaries,” Kennedy reported in The Times.
In 1960, while working as a dishwasher in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Mr. Oldenburg found himself fascinated by the shapes of food and tableware. In early 1961 he unveiled an installation called “The Store” featuring plaster models of actual grocery items.
By then his colors became “very, very strong”, Mr Oldenburg said in a speech recorded in 2012. And his pieces became curvaceous. “My layout is really for touch,” he said. “I see things in circles and I want to do them in circles. I want to be able to pet them and touch them.
For a second version of “The Store”, at the end of 1961, Mr. Oldenburg rented a real storefront on East Second Street in Manhattan. There, he presented a 10-foot-long ice cream cone, a 5-by-7-foot burger, and a nine-foot slice of cake. The pieces were made of fabric and their head seamstress was Patricia Muschinski, known as Patty Mucha, an artist who was married to Mr Oldenburg from 1960 to 1970. These were among the first of hundreds of soft sculptures he has produced over the years.
According to New York modern Art Museumwho owns a poster for “The Store,” the piece was “a Pop art milestone” that “announced Oldenburg’s interest in the slippery line between art and commodity and the role of the artist in the ‘self-promotion’.
By the mid-1960s, Mr. Oldenburg was a global art star. In 1969, he was the subject of the first major pop art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibit featured over 100 of his sculptures (including a recreation of “The Store”) and dozens of drawings.
But already he was thinking beyond the limits of museums and galleries.
In 1969, he created “Lipstick (Crescent) on Caterpillar Tracks”, a giant lipstick with an inflatable tip mounted on a plywood base that looked like military tank tracks. Commissioned by a group of Yale architecture students, it was parked prominently on the university campus.
The sculpture was both a physical manifestation of the anti-war slogan “make love, not war” and a platform from which speeches could be delivered. But in 1974 (after Mr. Oldenburg rebuilt the room in metal), the university moved it to a less visible location.
After “Lipstick”, Mr. Oldenburg has created one “colossal monument” after another. They included a large Robinson Crusoe umbrella in Des Moines; a Brobdingnagian Electrical outlet in Oberlin, Ohio; and a huge rubber stamp in Cleveland. How the room related to the site was sometimes only clear to Mr. Oldenburg and van Bruggen.
Oldenburg and van Bruggen occasionally collaborated with architect Frank Gehry, who incorporated their giant binoculars in the West Coast headquarters he designed for the Chiat/Day advertising agency in Los Angeles, which opened in 1991. (Standing, the binoculars form a kind of arch through which cars enter in the garage of the building.)
Claes Thure Oldenburg was born in Stockholm on January 28, 1929. His mother had been a concert singer and his father was a Swedish consular officer whose job required the family to move often.
The Oldenburgs moved to Chicago in 1936. Claes’ strongest memories of this period, he said, were of his mother filling notebooks with photos from American magazines, including publicity images similar to those in found themselves later in his work.
Mr. Oldenburg studied literature and art at Yale. After graduating in 1950, he worked as a journalist in Chicago while taking art classes at night. He also spent time in San Francisco, where he made a living drawing boll weevils for pesticide commercials, before moving to New York. For decades, he divided his time between Lower Manhattan and Beaumont-sur-Dème, France.
President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Arts in 2000.
Survivors include two stepchildren, Maartje Oldenburg and Paulus Kapteyn; and four grandchildren. His younger brother, Richard, who died in 2018, spent 22 years as director of the Museum of Modern Art and later served as president of Sotheby’s America.
For all Mr. Oldenburg’s success, only a small fraction of his proposed monuments were built.
Unrealized ideas include the planting of a giant rear-view mirror – a symbol of a backward culture – in London’s Trafalgar Square (1976) and replacing the Statue of Liberty with a giant electric fan to expel immigrants to the sea ( 1977).
He also proposed a gutter for Toronto, a windshield wiper for Grant Park in Chicago, an ironing board for Manhattan’s Lower East Side and a banana for Times Square, as well as scissors for Washington.
Sometimes he didn’t expect to be taken seriously. In a recorded interview accompanying an exhibition in Vienna in 2012, Mr. Oldenburg said: “The only thing that really saves the human experience is humor. I think without humor it wouldn’t be much fun.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Claes Oldenburg’s survivors included three grandchildren, based on inaccurate information from the Paula Cooper Gallery. He is survived by four grandchildren. The article has been corrected.