Claes Oldenburg dies at 93; A pop artist made everyday life monumental
Claes Oldenburg, the Swedish-born American pop artist known for his monumental sculptures of everyday objects, died Monday at his home and studio in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood. He was 93 years old.
His death was confirmed by Adriana Elgarresta, spokesperson for the Pace Gallery in New York, who, along with the Paula Cooper Gallery, represented him for a long time.
Mr. Oldenburg entered the New York art scene in earnest in the late 1950s, embracing the then-vogue audience participation “happenings” and pushing the boundaries of art with shows that incorporated things like billboards. signs, clothes made of wire and plaster and even pieces of pie. His approach to everyday objects, performance and collaboration has continued to influence generations of artists.
An early project, “The Store” (1961), opened in a storefront in the East Village and sold absurd plaster facsimiles of everyday objects – like a shoe or a cheeseburger pulled out of a comic strip, uniquely coated with the recognizable drips and improvisational dashes of abstract expressionism.
Focusing more and more on sculpture, he began to increase the scale of his work, taking ordinary objects like hamburgers, ice cream cones and household appliances as his starting point, then enlarging them to unknown dimensions. , often imposing.
One of his most famous installations, erected in 1976 – the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence – is “Clothespin”, a black steel sculpture 45 feet tall and weighing 10 tons of exactly what the title says, with a metal spring that appropriately evokes the number 76. The work contrasts sharply with conventional public sculpture, which Mr. Oldenburg said, posing as a city official, was meant to involve “bulls, Greeks and many nekkid chicks”.
Mr. Oldenburg was heavily influenced by French artist Jean Dubuffet, who introduced so-called Outsider art to galleries and museums, shaking up the status quo of institutional art. But like many pop artists, Mr. Oldenburg was also inspired by Marcel Duchamp, whose so-called ready-made sculptures of the early 20th century were actually ordinary mass-produced objects (a bicycle wheel, a urinal). Mr. Oldenburg’s sculptures, however, were hand-made rather than store-bought, and he wanted them to be, as he put it, “just as mysterious as nature”.
“My intention is to create an everyday object that defies definition,” he once said. He rarely portrayed people; instead, he focused on elements closely associated with human needs and desires. “I’ve always expressed myself in objects with reference to human beings rather than through human beings,” he said. As art dealer Arne Glimcher, who had known and worked with Mr. Oldenburg since the early 1960s, said in an interview on Monday, “His work was almost psychoanalytical.”
Mr. Glimcher noted that accurate drawings provided the basis for Mr. Oldenburg’s work. “He was a draftsman comparable to Ingres or Picasso”, he says, but “with the audacity to ruin everything”.
His most significant contribution to sculpture, Mr. Glimcher said, was transforming it from something hard, like bronze or wood, into something soft. The sculptures would deflate and Mr. Glimcher recalled Mr. Oldenburg asking his associates to “inflate” them.
Paula Cooper, the New York art dealer who co-represented Mr. Oldenburg for many years, said of his everyday sculptures: “They were great but still formally strong, and over time, the work has become grander. He took a simple idea and developed it.
Claes Thure Oldenburg was born in Stockholm on January 28, 1929, the son of Gosta and Sigrid Elisabeth (Lindforss) Oldenburg. His father, a diplomat, was posted to London, Berlin, Oslo and New York before being appointed Swedish consul general in Chicago in 1936, where Claes grew up and attended the Latin School of Chicago.
Mr. Oldenburg studied literature and art history at Yale University from 1946 to 1950. He returned to the Midwest to study at the Art Institute of Chicago in the early 1950s with the painter Paul Wieghardtstudent of by Paul Klee at the Bauhaus modernist school in Weimar, Germany. During his early years in art school, Mr. Oldenburg worked for the City News Bureau in Chicago, where one of his jobs was drawing comics. He was the only major artist associated with Pop Art to draw comics professionally.
Mr. Oldenburg became an American citizen in 1953 and moved to New York in 1956. His first exhibition, at the Judson Gallery in May 1959, included drawings, collages and papier-mâché objects.
His first significant exhibitions in New York were The Street (1960), which consists of cars, traffic signs and human figures in cardboard and burlap, and The Store (1961), for which he opened his studio, then occupies a storefront on the Lower East Side, to visitors, bringing art and commerce together in the artist’s studio. Items for sale included sandwiches, pieces of pie, sausages, and clothes made of wire and plaster and painted in an exuberant dripping style reminiscent of Abstract Expressionism. His work is rapidly gaining momentum.
In 1960, Mr. Oldenburg married Patty Mucha, an artist who became his first collaborator and appeared in his films. He made drawings of the objects which he transformed into sculptures, like his famous “soft” sculptures, made of canvas and later of vinyl, filled with foam, and Mrs. Mucha, for the most part, sewed them. “Floor Cake” and “Floor Burger”, both from 1962, led to a “giant tube of toothpaste” and an entire “bathroom” installed at the Museum of Modern Art in 1969.
He has also participated in Happenings by Jim Dine, Robert Whitman, Simone Forti and other artists.
Mr Oldenburg thought even bigger, however, sketching ironic proposals for monuments like a “fan in place of the Statue of Liberty”, a “design for a tunnel entrance in the shape of a nose” and a pair of “Scissors in Motion”, to replace the Washington Monument.
His first “Colossal Monument”, as he called this type of work, was “Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks”. Here, a giant tube of lipstick made of vinyl and mounted on tractor wheels, with obvious phallic and military overtones, was rolled around the Yale campus in 1969 as Vietnam War protests and the student movement rocked colleges and universities across the country.
Vincent Scully, the Yale architectural scholar and a champion of “Lipstick”, later described the scene as “a bit like Petrograd, 1917”. “Lipstick” was fabricated from steel in 1974 and installed at Yale in the courtyard of residential Morse College.
During his early years in New York, Mr. Oldenburg became acquainted with artists such as Allan Kaprow, George Segal and Robert Whitman, and became involved in the Happenings that would blossom into performance art. He renamed his studio The Ray Gun Theater in 1962 and gave weekend performances there. In 1965, he rented a health club pool for an event called “Washes”, which involved colorful balloons and people floating in the pool. Two decades later, Mr. Oldenburg was still combining art and theater. In 1985, in collaboration with the Dutch writer and curator Coosje van Bruggen and the architect Frank Gehry, he staged an elaborate land and water show in Venice titled “The Journey of the Knife”, with a ship in the shape of a Swiss army knife as its centrepiece.
Mr Oldenburg had met Ms van Bruggen after he and Ms Mucha divorced in 1970. Ms van Bruggen was then a member of staff at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Mr. Oldenburg’s first collaboration with her was in 1976, on the final version of “Truelle I”, an oversized garden tool installed on the grounds of the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands.
The couple married in 1977. They have collaborated on more than 40 projects, including “Spoonbridge and Cherry,” from 1985 to 1988 at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, and “Giant Binoculars” (1991), which was incorporated into the M. Gehry’s design for the Chiat-Day Building in Venice, California.
Mr. Oldenburg is survived by two stepchildren, Paulus Kapteyn and Maartje Oldenburg, and three grandchildren. Mrs. van Bruggen died breast cancer in 2009 at age 66. His brother, Richard E. Oldenburg, director of the Museum of Modern Art from 1972 to 1994, died in 2018 at age 84.
In addition to his sculpture commissions, Mr. Oldenburg has been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions, including one at the Museum of Modern Art in 1969. In 1995, the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Guggenheim Museum in New York jointly organized the retrospective “Claes Oldenburg: An Anthology.” His work and that of Ms. van Bruggen are in the collections of most major museums of modern art in the United States and Europe.
While Mr. Oldenburg’s work is most often tied to 1960s Pop Art, he viewed his monumental versions of humble objects as more than mere celebrations of the mundane.
“A catalog could be made of all these objects,” he reportedly said, “which would read like a list of deities or things upon which our contemporary mythological thought has been projected.” We invest religious emotion in our objects. Look how beautifully the objects are depicted in the Sunday newspaper advertisements.
Mr. Glimcher, in the interview, went further, seeing Mr. Oldenburg as an observer of an American culture in which certain objects, even the humble telephone, the hamburger or the ice cream cone, are gaining ground and mean something. “They were prophetic,” he said of Mr. Oldenburg’s carvings. “These were sociological statements.”
Danielle Cruz contributed reporting.