Art : When Bigger Is Better : Claes Oldenburg has spent the past 35 years blowing up and redefining everyday objects, all in the name of getting art off its pedestal.
‘I don’t even notice any more when people categorize me as a Pop artist,” says Claes Oldenburg, who believes that his work encompasses a lot more than that.
The Swedish American artist--subject of “Claes Oldenburg: An Anthology,” a survey of 35 years of work that opens today at the Museum of Contemporary Art--did indeed find his creative voice as part of the Pop generation, but he went on to develop such a wildly diverse body of work that his intentions have frequently been misunderstood. This show of 200 works--which was organized by Guggenheim Museum curator Germano Celant and was on view earlier this year at the National Gallery of Art in Washington--attempts to clarify the deeper currents in Oldenburg’s exploration of the metaphoric potential of common objects.
Taking as his muse forms from everyday life--toilets, musical instruments, food, appliances--Oldenburg transforms the small and insignificant into the huge and monumental. Monuments are traditionally in service of the ruling order, but Oldenburg’s whimsical works subvert authority in their elevation of the mundane. The visual equivalent of a conspiratorial elbow in the ribs, it is very viewer-friendly work.
“My art is made for human beings, and it’s important that people enjoy the experience of seeing it,” says the 66-year-old artist, who has worked in performance and film and made installations, drawings, collages, lithographs and sewn and fabricated sculpture. He has also completed 26 large-scale public sculptures in collaboration with his wife of 18 years, Dutch art historian Coosje van Bruggen.
The through line in this diverse body of work is Oldenburg’s desire to get art off the pedestal, out of the museum and into the flow of real life.
“The objects that attract me as subject matter for my art are often a bit out of date--the first vacuum cleaner I made, for instance, was based on an early-model Hoover,” Oldenburg says during an afternoon interview in a MOCA conference room. “This isn’t to say the work is inflected with nostalgia; rather, it reflects the fact that the object only serves as a starting point. I suppose I’m also attracted to obsolete industrial designs because in the past objects tended to have more sculptural character than they have now. Things are pretty cold and sleek these days, and you have to go back to the ‘40s to recapture a typewriter.”
An acute affinity with objects has been evident in the artist’s work from the start, but it’s hard to pinpoint the roots of that affinity in his upbringing. The elder of two sons born to a Swedish consular official, Oldenburg lived in Sweden until he was 7, when the family settled in Chicago.
“My earliest memories of my childhood in Chicago are images from an album of collages my mother made out of clippings from American magazines,” he recalls. “I think she was trying to create a satirical image of the ideal home, and the collages included lots of objects and appliances--several of which subsequently turned up in my work.
“My parents were fairly cultured, but they didn’t follow contemporary art, and the paintings in our house were mostly 19th-Century Swedish landscapes they’d inherited from relatives. My father spent a great deal of time reading and was good at language, and my mother loved music, but I wouldn’t describe them as intellectuals.
“I felt like an outsider as a child, but it wasn’t because I was Swedish--there were lots of Swedish people in Chicago. It had more to do with the fact that my interests were different from the interests of most boys I knew. For instance, my younger brother and I invented elaborately detailed imaginary worlds. His was called Humbolt and mine was Neubern, and I did lots of drawings describing this country--what kinds of trains, cars and airplanes they had, how the people dressed and so forth.”
(His brother, Richard, was director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art for 22 years and recently was appointed chairman of Sotheby’s America.)
“Perhaps because I had to deal with a language barrier as a child, I was always able to make myself clear through drawing,” Oldenburg says. “It never occurred to me to pursue a career as an artist, though, because growing up in the Midwest you simply couldn’t imagine life as an artist. In those days if you wanted to do something creative you pursued writing, so my first direction was literary. In high school Thomas Wolfe was important to me, and when I went to Yale in 1946, I enrolled with a double major in literature and art.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1950, Oldenburg took a job as an apprentice reporter at the City News Bureau of Chicago.
“I was assigned to cover stories that were considered unimportant but which I found fascinating. I once covered the death of a man who’d spent his life collecting nuts and bolts--every drawer and receptacle in his apartment was full of nuts and bolts, and I can remember standing there and having an illumination of an unimaginably lonely life. I covered lots of stories like that, but nothing I wrote ever got printed,” he says with a laugh. “I can now see that the valuable thing about that job was that it was my first real contact with a city. My childhood had been very protected, so I was always trying to get to the world outside, and I finally felt that I had.”
By 1952 Oldenburg concluded that his career as a reporter was a bust, so he started taking night classes at Chicago’s Art Institute, figuring that “I could fall back on my drawing and try to become an artist.”
(It was during this time that he met his first wife, Pat Muschinski, whom he would marry in 1960 and divorce in 1969.)
“I don’t know what gave me the drive to leave the world I was born into and become an artist,” he says. “I guess some people just have a lot of imagination, which is a great gift, as is the ability to render it in some way. Those must’ve been the forces driving me then.
“My real education began at the Art Institute. I was 23 but still hadn’t been exposed to much contemporary art, and as a student there I saw lots of new things. I experimented with different mediums but eventually came to the conclusion that for me, being an artist meant more than mastering various techniques; it meant defining what art is . To do that I first had to become familiar with previously existing definitions, but then I had to create one of my own.”
Oldenburg didn’t arrive at that point, he says, until after he’d moved to New York, where he has lived since 1956.
“It was there I realized that art had to mean more than just producing objects for galleries and museums and that I wanted to locate art in the experience of life,” he says.
Steeping himself in the writings of Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Samuel Beckett, Oldenburg supported himself during his early years in New York with a job shelving books at the Cooper Union Library. At the time, he was thinking about Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, the latter of which was the reigning sensation of the art world at the time.
“The Surrealists were important for me because they investigated human consciousness and fetishism. As for Abstract Expressionism, if you live in New York you’re surrounded by graffiti and paint action,” says Oldenburg, whose early work displayed some elements of Abstract Expressionism. “There are walls in New York that look like Abstract Expressionist compositions, but they’ve been created by chance, and the Abstract Expressionism in my work is more a result of that.”
Oldenburg began toying with the idea of soft sculpture in 1957, when he completed a free-hanging piece made from a woman’s stocking stuffed with newspaper. (The piece was untitled when he made it but is now referred to as “Sausage.”) At that point, however, the streets of New York were more compelling to him than anything in his studio, and in 1959 he went into the street and began drawing what he saw.
The following year he took the street indoors with “The Street,” an installation at the Judson Gallery that served as the backdrop for a performance, “Snapshots From the City.” Then in 1961, he rented a store on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to house “The Store,” an installation stocked with sculptures roughly in the form of consumer goods--16 of which wound up in MOCA’s permanent holdings when it acquired works from the collection of Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo.
“The palette in ‘The Store’ was a simple one of store-bought paints with names like ‘school bus yellow,’ ” says Oldenburg, who marks “The Store” as the point at which he began making a living with his art. “The colors were never mixed, because in their pure form they had an archetypal quality that appealed to me. Of course, I’m not the first to use paint in this manner--Picasso painted for a period with enamels from a hardware store.”
Oldenburg’s work appears to have little to do with Picasso, so it is surprising when the name comes up. Oldenburg, however, is quick to point out that “Picasso has been a huge influence on every artist who’s come after him--we’ve all had to work our way through him.”
Oldenburg had to work his way through Picasso in order to resolve “The Store,” but he also had to come to grips with Marcel Duchamp, originator of the vastly influential idea of the “ready-made.” (A ready-made is a common object that is transformed into art simply by the artist declaring it so.) Investing the everyday with the properties of art is obviously central to Oldenburg’s practice; however, he sees his approach as markedly different from Duchamp’s:
“There’s a big difference between a found object, an altered object and a created object. In my work objects are always transformed, which is a major difference from how Duchamp approached them. But the idea of leaving life alone and allowing it to be itself, to use things as they are and open yourself to the influence of chance, is a potent one, and Duchamp played a crucial role in translating that idea into art.”
Duchamp spent a good deal of time in New York before his death in 1968 and was but one of the luminaries of the New York avant-garde of the ‘50s and ‘60s that also included the younger generation of John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. It was a young, mutually supportive scene then, and the cast of colleagues who appeared in Oldenburg’s performances of the early ‘60s is impressive--among them are artists Lucas Samaras, Tom Wesselman, Carolee Schneemann, Oyvind Fahlstrom and Richard Artschwager, dealer Annina Nosei, critic Barbara Rose and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer.
“There’s a certain amount of truth to the romantic notions we have about New York’s creative community of the ‘60s,” Oldenburg recalls. “It was a time when many things that had been pent up in the ‘50s were released and forces from all over the world converged in Manhattan then--it really hasn’t been comprehensively documented yet. By 1962, however, that period had ended for me. I’d had enough of the chaotic lifestyle of New York and had run out of inspiration.”
Oldenburg’s solution to the creative fatigue he was suffering was to go west.
“I came to L.A. in 1963 because it was the most opposite thing to New York I could think of,” he says. “At that point L.A. was quite removed from the East Coast.
“This isn’t to suggest I looked down my nose at the artists here--they looked down their noses at me because I couldn’t surf and didn’t have a motorcycle,” he jokes, in obvious reference to the artists associated with L.A.'s legendary Ferus Gallery.
Oldenburg felt revitalized by the change of scene, but it wasn’t long before he was restless again.
“Over a period of six months here I did a lot of things. I did a performance which I felt summed up my experience here,” he says, referring to “Autobodys,” performed in the parking lot of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics on Dec. 9-10, 1963. “And I made ‘Bedroom Ensemble,’ which signaled the beginning of a new direction on my work.”
The artist describes “Bedroom"--an installation based on a memory he had of Las Tunas Isles, a Malibu motel in which each room was decorated with different patterns of faux animal skin--as “a tomb about the freezing of life into patterns.” (“The Bedroom” included in the MOCA show is one of three in existence.)
Returning to New York, Oldenburg continued experimenting with scale and the idea of soft sculpture, and in 1964 he began drawing up proposals for far-fetched public monuments.
“Those proposals were an ironic critique of the conventions that dominate public monuments,” he says. “One of the things this show illustrates is how those ironic proposals for imaginary monuments evolved into real large-scale sculptures that reflect people’s real concerns.”
The first of his public works to be realized was “Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks,” which was installed at Yale in 1969, only to be removed 10 months later after some trustees objected to it. (It was reinstalled in 1974.)
A dramatic shift in Oldenburg’s art took root that same year when a retrospective of his work organized by the Museum of Modern Art traveled to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. There he met Van Bruggen, who was a curator at the Stedelijk at the time.
“Coosje was married then, and we didn’t meet again until 1976,” says Oldenburg, who has officially signed all the work he has done since 1981 with both his own name and his wife’s. “We married in 1977, and her presence in my life has been good for my art. She’s helped take the work in a direction that’s less self-centered and more lyrical, and I think the work has expanded due to the fact that she and I are opposites: I’m American, she’s European; I’m male and she’s female, and we’re of different generations. We’re both concerned with the senses, however, and our art projects that.”
“We work together beautifully,” says Van Bruggen, who has written two books on Oldenburg, as well as books on Bruce Nauman and John Baldessari. “Sometimes he comes up with an idea and I help him develop it; other times it’s the reverse. It’s a very flexible partnership in terms of who does what.”
Oldenburg speaks of “our art” and considers his work of the past 14 years an equal collaboration between him and Van Bruggen. Nonetheless, the vocabulary central to their artistic practice was hammered out by Oldenburg alone in the two decades of art-making that preceded their marriage.
Their collaborative work has focused almost exclusively on large-scale public projects, among them two L.A. projects in collaboration with architect Frank O. Gehry: “Toppling Ladder With Spilling Paint,” which was installed at Loyola Law School in 1986, and “Binoculars, Chiat/Day Building,” completed in Venice in 1991.
Their collaboration with Gehry also involved a return to performance for Oldenburg when the trio presented “Il Corso del Coltello,” in Venice, Italy, in 1985. “Coltello” is the source of “Knife Ship,” a large-scale sculpture that served as the central prop; it was first seen in L.A. in 1988 when Oldenburg, Van Bruggen and Gehry presented “Coltello Recalled: Reflections on a Performance.” It will be on view on the Plaza at MOCA for the duration of the show.
“Knife Ship,” a gigantic Swiss Army knife complete with moving blades, oars and corkscrew, is a wonderfully audacious form that is clearly reflective of a comment Oldenburg once made about his work being in pursuit of a “satanic vulgarity.” Elaborating on that comment today, he observes that “for me, vulgarity means ‘of the people,’ and there’s always an element of vulgarity in art that attempts to bridge the gap between art and life.
“That’s always been the overriding idea in my art; it’s anti-elitist, it makes use of its surroundings, it’s located in personal experiences and relationships, it struggles to get out of the museum, and it revolves around the forms that hold man together. At the bottom of everything I’ve done is a desire to touch and be touched.”
* “Claes Oldenburg: An Anthology,” Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave. Through Sept. 3. Tuesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursdays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. (213) 626-6222.