Claes Oldenburg, whose large-scale public sculptures elevated the mundane and brought art closer to everyday life, died on July 18 at the age of 93.
Over a career spanning six decades, the American Pop Art icon has expanded the definition of public sculpture; his oversized renderings of everyday objects, including a 45-foot-tall steel clothespin, a 19-foot-tall typewriter eraser, and a 52-foot-long spoon, are both imposing and idiosyncratic .
“It’s really hard to overstate how radical Oldenburg’s work was at the time,” said Anne Reeve, associate curator at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Guardian. Smithsonian magazine. “The impulses he first picked up are now all over the art realm. It is impossible to imagine contemporary artists working in a mode that does not take [from] the legacy he established and extended.
Born in 1929, Oldenburg grew up in Stockholm, Sweden and Chicago. He studied literature and art at Yale University and hoped to become a writer. After graduating, he worked as a journalist in Chicago while studying at night at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Oldenburg moved to New York in 1956 and held his first major exhibition, “The Street”—featuring cardboard and newsprint pieces—in 1960. For his next major exhibition, “The Store” (1961–64), he created sculptures of commercial goods: cigarettes, hamburgers, sandwiches.
A second version of “The Store” featured similar everyday items (with names like Floor cake and ground burger) made of fabric. These are some of the artist’s first “soft” sculptures, made of canvas or vinyl and filled with foam. For the most part, his then-wife, Patty Mucha, sewed these pieces, working from her husband’s sketches.
These early works – concerned with “the scraps and the rough, about the wrecks and wrecks of modern life”, according to the New York Times‘ Randy Kennedy – quickly found an audience. Oldenburg also began participating in “Happenings”, a precursor to performance art that gained traction in the art world in the 1950s.
Over time, Oldenburg began to push his experiments with scale (often in collaboration with his second wife, Coosje van Bruggen), creating the sculptures for which he is best known.
As the Time‘ Martha Schwendener writes that Oldenburg “saw her monumental versions of humble objects as more than mere celebrations of the mundane”.
In the artist’s own words, “A catalog could be made of all these objects, which would read like a list of the deities or things onto 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.
One of Oldenburg’s first large-scale pieces, which appeared at Yale in 1969, was also a symbol for anti-war activists: a tube of lipstick resting on a military vehicle. Upon installation, the sculpture sparked immense controversy.
“It always starts like that,” the artist told NPR’s Joel Rose in 2011. “The newspapers give a bad review. And you’d hear a lot of people complaining on the radio. And then it faded. That what happened in many cases is that the coin would become a symbol. … Its popularity would rise. And people got attached to it. That’s the status of most of them now.
Today, across the world, giant apples, toothbrushes and binoculars are instantly recognizable as Oldenburg’s creations. Often located in public spaces, they serve as familiar landmarks to the general public.
“He was really invested in the artwork living with people, and people were able to recognize something both as a sculpture and as part of their everyday life,” says Reeve. “I think it was important to him, for example, that art not just exist on the coasts, that it was in places where people who maybe don’t have regular access to museums , or who might simply not visit museums, can still get involved. with that.”
Reeve, who grew up in the Midwest, remembers walking past spoonbridge and cherry in Minneapolis almost every day. The whimsical image (a spoon, holding a cherry, straddles a pond) stuck in his mind.
Oldenburg, says Reeve, believed that “art was something that lives with us, not behind glass, or outside of us”.