Claes Oldenburg - Biography and Legacy
Biography of Claes Oldenburg
Childhood and Education
The son of a diplomat, Oldenburg was born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1929 and settled with his family in Chicago in 1936. He and his younger brother, Richard, were educated at Yale and Harvard, respectively. Richard would later become the Director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City for over two decades (1972-1995). After graduating from Yale in 1950, where he studied literature and art history as well as studio art, Oldenburg took a job with the City News Bureau of Chicago and also intermittently attended the Art Institute of Chicago.
In 1953, Oldenburg became a naturalized citizen and moved to New York, committed to pursuing a career in art. According to the artist, the "most creative and stimulating" influence was the environment of the Lower East Side, where The Beats, Fluxus, and Pop art groups converged on performance and gallery spaces at Judson Memorial Church off Washington Square. Here, he got to know regulars such as Allan Kaprow, Yoko Ono, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Jim Dine. Most everyone in this circle agreed that Abstract Expressionism was dead, but no one knew what came next, and daring experiments in multi-media and performance art abounded, overlapping in generations, sensibilities and approaches. Another vivid resource for Oldenburg's imagination was the library at Cooper Union, where he worked for several years and held his first one person exhibition in 1959, consisting of figurative drawings. It was there that he discovered the imaginary architecture envisioned by the 18th-century Romantics, and the construction and installation of the Statue of Liberty, sources that inspired his own whimsical drawings for monuments, and later public sculpture.
1960 was a breakthrough year for Oldenburg. The Yale graduate appeared (sans pants), covered in garbage, with Patty Mucha (whom he later married) in his piece Snapshots from the City, inspired by the neighborhood and staged at Judson Memorial Church. Inspired by the smorgasbord of sights and sounds in life and art in Lower Manhattan, he collaborated with Mucha on other performances, and produced his first soft sculptures. Traces of the rough-hewn, graffiti-like collages of Rauschenberg and anti-artisanal Art Brut of Jean Dubuffet can be seen in Oldenburg's ripped, scribbled cardboard figures, objects, and signs from that year. They were an explicit, down and dirty take based on his own observations of the neighborhood, and were displayed in his Lower East Side storefront studio The Street. Several works from this show sold. His follow-up studio exhibition, The Store, inspired by the bodegas and immigrant businesses in the generally run-down and marginalized immediate area, was even more commercially successful. Also in 1960 (preceding Warhol's "Factory" by two years) Oldenburg began calling his studio the Ray Gun Manufacturing Company and produced bulbous, crudely-fashioned "ray guns," imitations of generic sci-fi weapons for display in his rented storefront. He also collected toys and kitsch objects that he displayed alongside these sculptures in installations.
The Store caught the attention of the high-profile Green Gallery on 57th Street, where Oldenburg displayed his three colossal sculptures Floor Cake, Floor Cone, and Floor Burger, sculptures in stuffed, painted and sewn canvas, in 1962. From then on his work received significant acclaim, and for the next few years his production of "soft" convenience foods and domestic objects was prolific and varied: sandwiches, fries spilling out of the to-go packet, a hot water bottle, telephones and toilets, and other kitchen utensils and mass-manufactured household items. Characterized by a fluid hand, his works on paper remained an important, ongoing aspect of his career. Over the second half of the 1960s, he began to produce an extensive series of drawings of fantasy architecture, which led to prints and later, public monuments. Also during the late 60s, he established a long-term affiliation with pre-eminent art dealer Leo Castelli, who supported his ambition to produce work on a monumental scale.
In an effort to realize some of his larger projects, in 1967 Oldenburg participated in an "art and technology" program run by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that led to a residency at a branch of Walt Disney Enterprises. This facilitated his development of a cartoon mouse, a symbol first explored in his early drawings, into which he incorporated the shape of a movie camera. This became Oldenburg's personal symbol and inspired the painted steel mouse sculptures of varied sizes and colors included in his "Mouse Museum" exhibition for Documenta (the international contemporary art exhibition in Kassel, Germany) in 1972. A few years later, he created a similar museum-style installation of his stylized "ray guns."
In 1976, another breakthrough year, he executed his first monumental outdoor sculpture, Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks, and his first corporate commission, Clothespin (1976, Center Square Plaza, Philadelphia) shortly followed. From then on, he has focused nearly exclusively on large-scale public sculpture.
Oldenburg married Dutch art historian, Coosje van Bruggen (1942-2009) in 1977, and collaborated with her on his colossal, polychrome outdoor sculptures from late 1976 until her death in 2009. Van Bruggen dealt with site logistics and solutions to logistical problems related to Oldenburg's sketches, freeing him to focus primarily on the designs for these public monuments, although these divisions were never clear-cut and Van Bruggen also contributed to creative ideas for the works. In this respect, their working relationship has been compared to that of the personal and professional duo Christo and Jean-Claude. Among their most popular projects are Spoonbridge and Cherry, (1988) a functional walking bridge over a stream in the form of a teaspoon holding a cherry (Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Walker Art Center), Shuttlecocks, (1994) which seem to have landed from a titan-sized badminton game (Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City), and Dropped Cone, (2001) a giant vanilla ice cream cone that collides with the corner of the roof of a shopping mall (Neumarkt Square, Cologne). Oldenburg's most recent completed public work is Paint Torch, (2011, Philadelphia). Still New York City-based, he now also works in California and France.
The Legacy of Claes Oldenburg
Oldenburg's influences splinter off in numerous directions, touching an array of artists and movements that seem unrelated, in accordance with the subtlety and multi-valent meaning of his work. Oldenburg is as cynical as he is celebratory (who else would draw up a plan to replace the Washington Monument with a pair of castrating scissors?). Comfort food, his life-long obsession, is perhaps the ultimate symbol for inconsolable loneliness. First-generation feminists noticed this, and Niki de Saint-Phalle and Lynda Benglis were among the first sculptors drawn to his pliant, expressive forms which they emulated to some extent in their early work. In addition, as Donald Judd acknowledged in his seminal article "Specific Objects" (1965), in mimicking the process of food preparation (Floor Cake, for example, is stuffed with ice cream cartons, troweled with icing-like paint, and assembled in layers), Oldenburg anticipated the credo of Minimalism: "it is what it is."
One needn't understand the multi-layered references to art or art history to enjoy Oldenburg's work. Its bright color, oversized scale, and unabashed appeal to the viewer influenced a generation of subsequent contemporary sculptors focused on manipulating the scale, placement, and texture of everyday objects, among them Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. The missing link between Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, Oldenburg broke new ground in his embrace of consumer appetites, giving audiences what they wanted, to literally: "let them eat cake."