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Big and Soft with Artist Claes Oldenburg (1929-2022)

Updated: Aug 1

By Laurence Lerman / New York City


Claes Oldenburg in 2012, with his 1966 soft sculpture Shoestring Potatoes, Spilling from a Bag
Claes Oldenburg in 2012, with his 1966 soft sculpture Shoestring Potatoes, Spilling from a Bag

Claes Oldenburg was my first Pop artist.

I discovered him on a trip to Philadelphia with my parents as a newly minted teenager back in 1977. We’d headed down to check out the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall and the Franklin Institute and Philly’s famed Nick’s Roast Beef eatery (my dad’s idea).

While driving down Market Street between our destinations in Center City, we passed Oldenburg’s “Clothespin,” an unmissable 45-foot steel sculpture of, well, take a guess. It had been installed outside of Philadelphia’s City Hall a year earlier and there it stood for pedestrians, cab drivers, office workers and everyone else to admire—or joke about.


Clothespin (1976)
Clothespin (1976)

We pulled over and parked—yes, we managed to wangle a spot in Center City!—and then got out to look more closely. Clothespin was a giant rendition of a common household object, yeah, but something more. It was a larger-than-life abstraction of that object—unrealistically and imposingly huge, highly stylized in its smooth appearance and deep colors, and subtly romantic in that the two halves of the pin that faced each other sort of resembled a pair of curvy individuals leaning in to give each other a kiss.

The impression Clothespin made on me stuck and ignited my decades-long interest in Pop Art, the modern art style most identified with imagery derived from popular and mass culture.

My appreciation of the comic book-styled paintings of Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein was not far behind, with works by Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns soon to follow.


Giant Fagends (1967) ("fag end" is a British expression for a cigarette butt)
Giant Fagends (1967) ("fag end" is a British expression for a cigarette butt)

But Oldenburg and his glorious public art installations featuring large-scale replicas of everyday objects and his large or traditionally-sized “soft sculpture” versions of the same were the first.

Oldenburg died on Monday, July 18, at his home and studio in the SoHo section of Manhattan, from complications of a fall and a fractured hip. He was 93.

Born in Stockholm to Swedish parents, raised in Chicago (his father was consul general of Sweden to Chicago) and educated in literature and art history at Yale and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Oldenburg moved to New York City in 1956. It was the dawn of what was to be called the Pop Art Movement.

Oldenburg produced his first significant works in the late Fifties—sculptures of simply rendered figures, letters and signs inspired by the Lower East Side neighborhood where he lived. Though his methods and materials for creating sculptures would change over the ensuing years, Oldenburg’s subjects remained constant: he regularly depicted everyday objects—clothing, food, appliances, household items. All of them were familiar and recognizable in their basic form; none of them would have been considered “art” at that point.


Floor Burger (1962)
Floor Burger (1962)

It was these early works, many of them early examples of the soft sculpture (sewed together by Oldenburg’s first wife, artist Patty Mucha) with which he would always be associated, were showed in the Pop Art movement’s much buzzed-about “happenings” of the early Sixties, performance art productions organized by artists and performers and staged in small downtown venues. Oldenburg’s work and approach, back then as it still is now, strongly contrasted the era’s prevailing sensibility that art was supposed to be “profound.” Nonetheless, Oldenburg’s sculptures received substantial exposure and his profile quickly rose.

By the mid-Sixties, Oldenburg began increasing the scale of his work,enlarging them to oversized—indeed, colossal—dimensions. By the end of the decade, he began receiving regular commissions to create freestanding public sculptures in this style. These large-scale pieces, always of recognizable objects and crafted in either soft or hard appearances, initially elicited ridicule from the general public.

But that was initially. By the early Seventies, Oldenburg’s pieces—large, colorful, startlingly contemporary sculptures of cheeseburgers, typewriters, ice cream cones, telephones, flatware, bowling pins, rubber stamps, lipsticks, pocket knives, slices of pie —came to be embraced and admired by nearly everyone who saw them.


Saw, Sawing (1995)
Saw, Sawing (1995)

Over the years, I was exposed to Oldenburg’s work primarily in New York City museums—the Guggenheim, the Whitney, MoMA—while I saw extensive coverage of his more expansive public oeuvre in books, online and in televised news segments. I regret that I never made it a point to seek out his many public works that are on display in cities here and abroad that I have traveled to—Cleveland, Dallas, Minneapolis, Venice, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo and others.

Oldenburg himself was pleased that his reach extended outside of cosmopolitan America’s art institutes.

"We like the idea that the sculptures are not all in, say, New York or someplace—that they're scattered around the cities of America and Europe,” he said on NPR’s All Things Considered in 2011.

My wife and I plan to travel to Jerusalem sometime next year and I just learned that Oldenburg’s 1992 Apple Core, a ten-feet-tall, enamel-painted aluminum sculpture of you-know-what proudly stands right outside the city’s Israel Museum.

I look forward to taking a bite.


 

Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.



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