Size matters

Twanging reality like his own personal 80-foot-long rubber band, Claes Oldenburg restored a child's-eye sense of wonder to a weary world.

Published December 22, 1998 12:45PM (EST)

"I am for an art that is political-erotic-mystical, that does something else than sit on its ass in a museum."
-- Claes Oldenburg, 1961

In the early 1960s, when pop art detonated in New York City, it blasted the dreary earnestness right out of the art world (at least for a few seconds). When it first hit, pop was the rock-and-roll of art (and rock was still an angry toddler). Like rock, it reset the culture clock, rewrote the rules, recast the performers -- awop-bop-a-loo-bop-awop-bam-boom! And after the fluorescent dust settled and the glimmering, giggling debris stopped bouncing around, out of the ground-zero crater crawled pop art's own Fab Four: Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and, last but most, Claes Oldenburg.

Oldenburg, who turns 70 on Jan. 29, has spent much of his life bending, inflating, melting and enlarging the ordinary objects of 20th century American reality. Over the last four decades, Oldenburg has made it his business to soften the hard, harden the soft and transmute the modest into the monumental. He has created shirts and ties and dresses and ice cream cones and pies, and even the contents of an entire store, out of plaster-soaked cloth and wire. Using vinyl stuffed with kapok, he built pay telephones, typewriters, light switches and a complete bathroom -- sink, tub, scale and toilet. He constructed a catcher's mitt, 12 feet tall, out of metal and wood, and built a four-and-a-half-story clothespin out of Cor-Ten steel. In the last two decades, focusing almost exclusively on giant monuments, he has created a 38-foot-tall flashlight, a 10-story baseball bat, a 60-foot-long umbrella, a three-story-high faucet with a 440-foot water-spewing red hose, a 40-foot-tall book of matches and a partially buried bicycle that would fill most of a football field, among numerous other projects located from Tokyo to Texas.

"The main reason for the colossal objects is the obvious one, to expand and intensify the presence of the vessel -- the object," Oldenburg has said. "Perhaps I am more a still-life painter -- using the city as a tablecloth." At another time he remarked, "Because my work is naturally non-meaningful, the meaning found in it will remain doubtful and inconsistent -- which is the way it should be. All that I care about is that, like any startling piece of nature, it should be capable of stimulating meaning."

It works. His eccentric props make the so-called real world seem like an absurd stage for the "truly real" life being played out in Oldenburg Land. In the case of his 1994 piece "Shuttlecocks," for example, the artist installed four 17-foot-tall badminton birdies on the sweeping lawn surrounding the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. At first glance, the effect is not so much that you're looking at Brobdingnagian birdies, but that a tiny Beaux-Arts building has been rudely plopped in the middle of the badminton court, and that any moment a hand will remove the toy structure so the game can continue.

The still-prolific Oldenburg has also managed to eroticize the most unlikely of subjects. His "Soft Switches" (1964), a 4-foot-square drooping double light switch constructed of orange vinyl filled with Dacron and canvas, resembles nothing so much as Marilyn Monroe oozing out of an evening gown -- a light switch that looks fully capable of singing "Happy Birthday, Mr. President." Likewise, his "Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks" (1969), a 25-foot-tall phallic-shaped cosmetic mounted on what looks like a battle vehicle, evokes both male and female sexuality, while unmistakably referencing the Vietnam War, which was still raging when the piece was installed at Yale University.

"Man-made things do look like human beings," he has said, "symmetrical, visage-like, body-like. What I see is not the thing itself, but myself in its form." Yes, Oldenburg was morphing before morphing was cool. He possesses an uncanny associative vision, an ability to see in one thing the image of another; to imagine how one form might become the next -- a natural instinct for topology. Thus a faucet is turned into a cathedral, a fireplug into a skyscraper; a colossal drainpipe is the source of a waterfall; an immense spoon serves as a bridge; a human nose becomes a gigantic tunnel; Swedish Kndckebrvd crackers are bitten off to make buildings of different heights; an elephant head is also an outboard motor and a Swiss army knife is transformed into a medieval Venetian rowing galley, with silver oars protruding from its great red body.

Enormous clothespins are funny, of course. But Oldenburg has done more than give us a laugh. As Robert Hughes wrote in "American Visions," "The aspects of pop that lasted best are the very ones its bright hardheadedness was supposed to have expelled -- namely, mystery and metaphor. Here, the outstanding figure was Claes Oldenburg." And still is.

"Everything I do is completely original," Oldenburg explained in 1966. "I made it up when I was a little kid." He wasn't joking. Born in Stockholm, the oldest son of a Swedish diplomat, Oldenburg grew up in New York and then in Chicago, where his father was the Swedish consul and later consul general. But Oldenburg and his younger brother spent much of the time in Neubern, a country of their own invention, which the older boy documented with a newspaper, maps and scrapbooks. He was also often left to entertain himself with the consulate's various office machinery -- typewriters, staplers, adding machines and the like. "We do invest religious emotion in our objects," Oldenburg would say years later. "Look at how beautifully objects are depicted in ads in Sunday newspapers -- it's all very emotional. Objects are body images, after all, created by humans, filled with human emotion, objects of worship." Yet the First Church of Oldenburg didn't invent America's religious attachment to things; it merely recognized it and brought the objects to life.

In 1959, Oldenburg had his first exhibition: a group of drawings depicting a painter and friend of his named Pat Muschinski. Later that year, his first one-man show featured wood-and-newspaper constructions. By May 1960 he was already producing oversize three-dimensional objects for a collection of pieces known as "The Street," based, he said, on "whatever I could find on the way home." Also at that time, Oldenburg began integrating performance into his exhibitions and, influenced by the early Happenings created by Alan Kaprow, produced his own Happening -- the first of many -- at New York's Judson Gallery in "The Street" environment he had built there. He was supporting himself as a dishwasher.

His first major recognition came with the 1961 installation "The Store," a large collection of goods one might find in a neighborhood market (if the neighborhood was inside Oldenburg's brain). Among the shoppers at the East Second Street storefront that housed "The Store" was the Museum of Modern Art. From 1962 on, his work was closely identified with the burgeoning pop art movement, and as the '60s progressed he became an international figure. In 1995 the vast retrospective exhibition "Claes Oldenburg: An Anthology," was co-organized by the National Gallery of Art and the Guggenheim Museum in association with the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland of Bonn and the Hayward Gallery of London. A suitably large, lavish book -- from which some of the material in this article is drawn -- complemented the show.

Anyone who has ever been a child is familiar with the child mind's predilection for animating the inanimate -- for amusement, but also to remedy loneliness. Who among us, as a youngster in solitude, has not wished that the table, chairs and telephone might get up and waltz around the dining room? (And who's to say they haven't?) The admirable thing about Oldenburg is the degree to which he has held onto, and capitalized on, that gift. He has a genius for profound playfulness filtered through an adult appreciation for the anarchic nature of play; a subversive refusal to be serious in the conventionally accepted manner. The irony is that by gently insisting on his view of things, Oldenburg, who now regularly collaborates with his wife, Coosje van Bruggen, has brought the rest of the world around -- governments, corporations and museums now take him very seriously and commission him to produce his grand follies.

Among the virtues of Oldenburg's work is the implication that there is nothing childish about the speculations of childhood. As adults, we discount those beliefs because we can't remember being convinced of them, or how clearly and surely we grasped them. But what if, just maybe, everything is the opposite of what we think? What if all the important stuff isn't as important as the unimportant stuff? What if big is little and little is big? If hard is actually soft, might six, in fact, turn out to be nine? Do chairs talk and tables walk? In this glib era, good answers are easy to come by, but artful questions -- what Oldenburg brings to the landscape -- are rarer than canvas clarinets.

In the course of shaping parts of the urban world to his own specifications, Oldenburg has, more than any of his pop art colleagues, mined his own interior as much as he's excavated the iconography of American industrial culture. But he is not just playing with paradoxes. He is one of our finest social satirists, using vehicles that command our attention in the most affable manner. By embalming and memorializing the objects of the industrial age he is, among other things, celebrating the dwindling dinosaurs of the mechanical epoch and, by extension, the gods who made them in their own image (us). "In electronics," he has said, "as things get smaller and smaller, and more and more refined, they lose their particular existence as objects." As mankind's products increasingly tend to resemble one another (is it a computer, a bread-making machine or a heater?), Oldenburg seems to have appointed himself undertaker to the machine age: "At one point I said I was creating a cemetery of industrial objects."

What his art means (if it means anything) is not so important. Meaning is slippery and subjective at best, while reality, as Lily Tomlin pointed out, is a collective hunch. What we can be sure of is that Oldenburg's work skews our perceptions, and jostles our noggin sauce, by being obtrusive, forceful and jarring at the same time that it exudes good humor -- like the large, fur-covered Good Humor bars (leopard, tiger, cow and polka-dot) that he produced in 1963. He keeps us awake with the most novel of devices.

Unlike most of pop art (or any art, for that matter), there is something timeless and substantial beneath the wry, glossy surfaces of Oldenburg's works; something singular and right. Maybe it's what Hughes calls mystery and metaphor. Or perhaps it's some kind of modern alchemy: the ability to take the dull and somber and make it shine with warmth and humor. Whatever it is, it's rare stuff and we're desperate for it. (There is an unmistakable hope-inducing quality to Oldenburg's mammoth acts of wackiness -- how can one be melancholy in the presence of a 45-foot-tall pair of binoculars?) Besides, in times like these, good art that's smart, true and funny, without being coldly ironical, is not only a blessing, it's the neatest trick of the century. Which is why Claes Oldenburg matters now just as much as he did when pop was young.

In his 1961 "I am for" manifesto, he wrote, "I am for U.S. Government Inspected Art, grade A art, Regular Price art, Yellow Ripe art, Extra Fancy art, Ready-to-Eat art, Best-for-less art, Ready-to-cook art, Fully cleaned art, Spend Less art, Eat Better art, Ham art, Pork art, chicken art, tomato art, banana art, apple art, turkey art, cake art, cookie art." And he has been nourishing us with big helpings of it ever since.

If being brilliant, artful and jocularly humane, and playing out those qualities in public over decades, makes an exemplary American, then one hopes that someday the U.S. government will build a monument -- a medal the size of a tire on a Peterbilt truck would do nicely -- to pop art's preeminent public servant and five-star general, Claes Oldenburg. He is certainly a national treasure, and unquestionably a hoot and a half. And right now, as society's supposed paragons of logic and practicality have stopped making any sense at all, Oldenburg's take on things makes more sense than ever.

By Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

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