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ART REVIEW : Sculpture With a Smile : Witty, Compelling Works Are Part of Long-Anticipated Oldenburg Retrospective

TIMES ART CRITIC

Claes Oldenburg’s 1964 sculpture “Giant Toothpaste Tube” sprawls across its horizontal pedestal like a 16th-Century Venetian nude luxuriously recumbent, or Canova’s icy carving of an imperious Pauline Borghese reclining on a daybed, or a Henry Moore abstraction of sensuous female form. At 5 1/2 feet in length it’s human-size, while its body, made from white vinyl and canvas filled with kapok, is even squeezable.

The tube has, in fact, been caressed: An unmistakably phallic cylinder of white toothpaste has pushed forward from its erect spout, uniting male and female sensuality into an inseparable whole. “Giant Toothpaste Tube” is quintessential Oldenburg, an ordinary household object deftly transformed into a witty and erotic projection of the audience, who comprise its everyday users.

This funny and remarkable sculpture is one among some 200 works arrayed in “Claes Oldenburg: An Anthology,” the eagerly anticipated retrospective of the artist’s sculptures and drawings from the past 35 years, which opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art over the holiday weekend. Organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where it had its debut in February, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, where it will travel in the fall, the exhibition is adept in unfolding the important and puzzling story of Oldenburg’s art.

There’s a conundrum at the core of the Swedish-born, American-raised artist’s career. The Abstract Expressionist wave of the 1950s witnessed the rise of dozens of notable painters; but, comparatively speaking, few sculptors of commensurate significance simultaneously emerged. Oldenburg, born in 1929, is a sculptor who came to maturity in a great age of painting.

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Painters prevailed even among the Pop artists with whom Oldenburg was associated in the 1960s. The exhibition suggests some explanations for this sculptor’s success in a medium that, at least since the Renaissance, has had a limited number of stellar practitioners.

For one thing, Oldenburg draws like a dream--literally and figuratively. His graphic dexterity is everywhere to be seen in a gallery devoted to studies for monumental outdoor sculptures, which he began to work on in 1965 but didn’t actually start to fabricate in a substantial and prolific way until more than a decade later.

Rendered in crayon, pencil, watercolor, felt pen and collage, his sketches never feel labored. Typically they’re drawn in a light, quick, airy line, highlighted with fluid marks of washy and transparent color; a lot of unadorned white space is usually left on the page. The feeling is of a drawing made with exuberant spontaneity, as if an idea had struck like lightning and had to be jotted down before it got away.

Oldenburg’s drawings meld childlike playfulness with the Surrealist tactic of displacing familiar objects into unfamiliar settings. The image of a gigantic teddy bear set down on the grass in New York’s Central Park, or of a colossal nose embedded in a hillside as the entrance to a highway tunnel certainly adds to a sense of ethereality, as an inexplicable apparition is suddenly encountered in the landscape.

The ordinariness of the object being represented reverberates against the imaginative leap of the image--which also describes the vibrant tension inherent in Oldenburg’s first triumph, 1961-62’s “The Store.” Oldenburg rented a storefront in Lower Manhattan, which he filled with homemade merchandise fabricated from muslin soaked in plaster and stretched over an armature of wood and wire. The MOCA gallery devoted to some three-dozen of these classic works, including 15 from the museum’s own collection, is a high point in the show.

The oversized hats, shoes, blouses, jackets, hunks of pie and ice cream cones are like handicraft replicas of mass merchandise. Brightly painted in drippy, glossy enamel paints, the lumpy clothing, souvenirs and foodstuffs form a dazzling and unlikely bridge between Abstract Expressionist painting and figurative sculpture.

In a way, Oldenburg’s jerry-built “Store” insisted on injecting bodily pleasures into the barrenness and sterility associated with mass-production. His best work exudes an uncanny sexiness, which accelerates in 1963 with his production of sculptures that are soft, not hard.

An erotic charge is inescapable in these pendulous works, as a pay telephone or an electrical fan becomes all sagging orifices and limp protuberances when it goes soft. Oldenburg’s light-switches are a Swinging Sixties turn-on, while his colossal three-way plugs monumentalize standard electrical components, with their interlocking male and female parts.

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A collapsed drum set suggests a tangle of spent bodies after a Dionysian orgy of musical exuberance. A grinning typewriter, a phallic and Fallopian drainpipe, a busty fireplug, a seemingly pregnant Chrysler engine and even an androgynous bathroom toilet all become surrogates for the human figure.

(Incidentally, the fusion of male and female in so much of Oldenburg’s sculpture is reflected in the significant involvement of two women in his work. His first wife, Pat Muschinksi, sewed many of the early soft sculptures, while his second wife, Coosje van Bruggen, has collaborated on numerous outdoor monuments.)

In an American art world long-dominated by painting, Oldenburg’s soft, sagging objects were also pretty declarative about the state of his own chosen artform. Sculpture was flaccid. With an admirable plain-spokenness fitting for the common objects that populate his work, he made sculpture that not only didn’t shy away from the flabby fact, but was instead exactly that.

In the process Oldenburg revivified his medium. Embracing what was real meant working against typical, basic sculptural urges, such as overcoming gravity. Instead, his sculptures succumb to it. The earthly pull interacts with his materials, “drawing” the object in space. If there’s an opposite to uplifting , which moralizing Americans so often demand in their do-gooder conception of art, that’s what Oldenburg’s down-to-earth, user-friendly sculpture is.

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It’s exceedingly difficult to transfer that imaginative openness from the artist’s studio, where he’s in complete control, to the always conflicted arena of the public world. But Oldenburg has attempted that in public sculptures made since the late 1970s.

A gallery near the end of the show is filled with models for them, accompanied by a slide show of the sites: a huge baseball bat for Chicago, an immense flashlight for Las Vegas, a giant clothespin for Philadelphia, an enormous pair of binoculars for Santa Monica and more. Because, like architecture, you can only truly experience this work at its actual site, the show does wind down with a whimper.

Yet, when Oldenburg’s work is compelling, it’s usually because it’s elusive and can’t be pinned down. Everything is fluid and fecund, metamorphosing into something else. In a culture where shallow, by-the-book entertainment is more often the norm, his transmogrification of a toothpaste tube into a sensuously reclining nude puts the free play of open-ended imagination front and center--right where it belongs.

* Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., (213) 626-6222, through Sept. 3. Closed Mondays.

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