Pop art may have surprised people in its early phase as loud, colorful and bold, but from Claes Oldenburg’s point of view it was flat in the literal sense. The Swedish-born artist believed in the impact of everyday objects, but he went a step further than his contemporaries.
He elevated 1960s Pop Art, which took place primarily in prints and paintings, to sculpture and recontextualized consumer objects in a manner that was as humorous as it was laconic, for example by sewing a vinyl hamburger together or forming a light switch in limp strips of fabric.
The Swedish-American artist died on Monday at the age of 93, a spokeswoman for the Pace Gallery in New York said. Along with Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, he was one of the greatest representatives of Pop Art. The Pace gallery has represented Oldenburg since 1960. Most recently, he recovered from a fall in his studio in the Soho district, where he also lived, according to the spokeswoman.
He had been in poor health for some time, having broken his hip a few years ago. Even with the help of a bicycle training device at home, he had fought against it and continued to work for a long time. “Some days are wonderful, others are terrible. That’s the way it is,” he told the New York Times a few years ago.
The important thing about Oldenburg’s art was its insignificance, as he himself once explained. “The meaning in it will remain ambiguous and inconsistent – and that’s how it should be.” Meaning was merely simulated, and fans and critics alike were left puzzled at times when they gave a deeper meaning to a giant teaspoon with a cherry, the sculpture of a giant shuttlecock, or wobbly slices of cake wanted to make sense of.
Claes Thure Oldenburg was born in Stockholm in 1929, a few years later the family moved to the USA, where he grew up. He studied at Yale and tried his hand as a reporter at the City News Bureau in Chicago, but then attended the Art Institute of Chicago and illustrated for magazines.
After moving to New York in 1953 – he now had American citizenship – he experimented with papier-mâché and plaster of paris in his first exhibitions. “Sausage” was the name of the first of his “soft sculptures” – soft objects made of fabric, which he stuffed with newspaper or rags and scraps of clothing.
Oldenburg created the space from the world of everyday consumption when he rented a shop called “The Store” on the Lower East Side. He sold plaster imitations of such mundane things as shoes, shirts and cake slices, which he made “en masse” in a back room. There, as with the “soft sculptures” – bathtubs, typewriters and fans – he remained close to the everyday life of the public. Today, these works are considered the first sculptures of Pop Art.
In New York, where Oldenburg mainly lived and worked in addition to stays in California and the Loire Valley in France, he also met Jim Dine and Allan Kaprow. Together they tried to break through what they saw as the encrusted thinking of the Abstract Expressionists of the previous generation.
Oldenburg also got to know Yoko Ono, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol here. The representatives of Pop Art, Beat and Fluxus did not know what was to come next. But everyone agreed on one thing: Abstract Expressionism, which was supposed to depict the inner life of the artist in an aloof way, was dead.
With increasing fame, Oldenburg’s sculptures also grew. The massive lipstick on a tracked vehicle on the Yale campus and the massive clothespin “Clothespin” in Philadelphia (both 1976) were early outdoor works. At the World’s Fair in Osaka in 1970, Oldenburg represented the USA with a floating “giant ice bag”, at Documenta 5 in 1972 he invited visitors to the “Mouse Museum”, a giant sculpture based on the ground plan of Mickey Mouse’s head.
In 1977 he married the art historian Coosje van Bruggen, with whom he worked closely until her death in 2009.
In his work, Oldenburg did not remain at a cool distance like Warhol or Lichtenstein and in a certain way brought trains of thought of surrealists like René Magritte and Salvador Dalí to an end: he actually blew up small, everyday things in oversize, placed them in a landscape and thus in a landscape environment to which they were completely alien. The best-known of these works is the “Spoonbridge and Cherry” developed with Van Bruggen, a spoon for giants complete with a cherry, which is now one of the symbols of the city of Minneapolis.
But, Oldenburg noted in 2015, “a small sculpture can be just as powerful as a large one.” And like many of his works, this sentence could also be interpreted in a sexual-erotic context. The sometimes slack, sometimes taut objects of Oldenburg sometimes have an erotic aura, which may not always come into its own in the rooms of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Tate Gallery in London or the Kunstmuseum Basel.
The art world received him enthusiastically – also in Germany. In Kassel he was at the documenta several times, and for example hewed a twelve meter high pickaxe into the banks of the Fulda. In Frankfurt it was a tie that was almost as high, in Münster billiard balls, in Cologne an ice cream cone and in Freiburg a water tap with a hose.
But no matter how banal an object may seem – at Oldenburg a clothespin is never just a clothespin. Soft materials such as vinyl, latex and faux fur not only made the sculptures stretchy, but also their interpretation. Above all, in his eyes, work should not simply be an end in itself. Oldenburg put it this way: “I’m for political-erotic-mystical art that does more than just sit on your butt in a museum.”