In 1967, Claes Oldenburg made a very funny collage in a notebook he kept of sculptural ideas. It showed a monumen tal work he wished to add to the facade of the Chicago Stock Exchange. Oldenburg cut out an ordinary magazine advertisement for a woman's panty girdle and pasted it to a rudimentary drawing of the building. The girdle, in its disarmingly new context, suddenly took on the formal cast of a triumphal arch, which led into a latter-day temple of high finance. The stabilizing keystone of the arch was made from a tummy-control panel, decorated with frilly lace rather than the Roman acanthus leaves one might expect.
The wickedly wry prospect of entering a rough-and-tumble bastion of uptight, traditionally masculine, mercantile Middle America through a gigantic image of the elastically bound legs of a woman would probably send Freud whirling in his grave. That, too, is typical of the most riveting of Oldenburg's multivalent art.
The collage drawing for the monumental girdle portal is included in the must-see retrospective of Oldenburg's compelling career that is currently at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
At MOCA, that work hangs next to another small collage from his notebook, this one made two years later, in which a building in the form of a pair of binoculars is envisioned. The collage uses half a dozen pictures of binoculars of various shapes and sizes, apparently clipped from newspaper ads or a catalogue, pictures that have been pasted on the sheet with the cylindrical viewing tubes facing down. Standing on two "legs" planted firmly in place, the pair of binoculars looks strangely human.
Another picture of a girdle, this one cut out in the shape of binoculars, is also pasted onto the same notebook sheet. The binoculars, rather like the girdle, seem a mutant cross between a classical architectural form and a chunky human figure. And all the while, they never lose their original identity as commonplace manufactured objects.
Oldenburg's collages, drawings and models for large-scale public monuments form an important and engaging subset within the retrospective exhibition. They also show how ideas from early in the artist's career can percolate, literally for decades, before emerging into actual sculptural form.
The 1967 and 1969 notebook collages, for example, step forward as revealing precedents for what became, in 1991, the giant concrete "Binoculars" that mark the facade of the Chiat/Day building at 340 Main St., Venice. Painted a dull black, the four-story sculpture forms a witty and imposing entry portal to the parking garage beneath the building, which was designed by celebrated architect Frank O. Gehry.
The greatest competition for Oldenburg's monumental sculptures has always been his own remarkable drawings for them. His earliest date from 1965, most memorably a crayon image of a fat, fuzzy teddy bear looming over the grassy fields of New York's Central Park. Others followed through the years, including an ambitious plan to replace the Statue of Liberty with a humongous electrical fan, which would blow away the smog from Manhattan Island.
Always, the common objects he chose to monumentalize were specific to the site. A teddy bear was perfect for a rambling urban park whose famous design of leafy grottoes was a tamed image of the rugged American wilderness. And a fan aimed at blowing away the city's air pollution would surely be of practical help to the huddled masses, ever yearning to breathe free.
It wasn't until the 1970s that Oldenburg's stature as an artist became substantial enough to begin winning him commissions, both in Europe and the United States, so that his notebook dreamings could begin to be realized. Replacing Lady Liberty or taking up acres of precious urban green space was never very likely, no matter how big the artist's reputation. But Oldenburg has managed to turn a host of common household objects into colossal outdoor sculptures, for a variety of parks, office buildings and city streets.
Through sheer size and dramatic visibility, Oldenburg's monuments enshrine the mundane stuff that surrounds modern daily life. The list of consecrated objects includes an enormous standing clothespin for Philadelphia; a gigantic columnar baseball bat for Chicago; a big black flashlight for Las Vegas; a long, snaking garden hose for Freiburg, Germany; a huge open book of matches for Barcelona; a silver spoon scooping up a red cherry for Minneapolis; an inverted shirt collar and necktie for Frankfurt, Germany, and a smashed bowl of fruit for Miami.
Altogether, he has completed about two-dozen public sculptures, many with the collaboration of his second wife, Dutch art historian Coosje van Bruggen. You could say that, sculpturally speaking, these manufactured objects are to the industrialized world what mythological gods and goddesses or Christian saints are to the classical or theocratic eras that came before. Attributes identifying common characteristics of modern men and women, they have been given positions of prominence in the public world.
Monuments are erected in order to keep alive the memory of people or human events, so it would be a mistake to regard Oldenburg's manufactured objects as mere celebrations of things . His most successful public sculptures are either anthropomorphic in feeling or at the very least put you in mind of human use. Visually, you read them first as objects, then as metaphors for modern lives.
Take "Clothespin" (1976), one of the first and still among the best of Oldenburg's monumental sculptures. It began life as a 1967 drawing, proposed as a rather late, ironic entry to the famous 1922 competition to design a skyscraper for the Chicago Tribune. That contest had elicited a wide variety of eccentric schemes--but none quite so outlandish as Oldenburg's cross between a laundry aid, a tall building and the Eiffel Tower.
Nine years later the clothespin turned up as a 45-foot-tall sculpture in another city. Made of Cor-ten and stainless steel, and standing upright in the manner of a standing person, it occupies a conspicuous plaza in the civic center of downtown Philadelphia. In fact, you can see the landmark sculpture of William Penn atop the nearby city hall, a fully human reflection of Oldenburg's eccentrically figural form below.
A clothespin's particular shape--two geometric pieces of carved wood held together by a wire coil--is also provocative. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is home to the greatest collection of Brancusi sculptures in America, assembled half a century ago by Los Angeles collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg. The sleek, stripped-down, modern sculptural forms Brancusi pioneered were first announced by one of the collection's greatest prizes, a carved block of upright stone called "The Kiss," in which two geometric figures are merged as one, their profiles meshing face to face and their linear arms wound around one another.
In Oldenburg's colossal clothespin, the two serrated pieces of Cor-ten held together by a coil of stainless steel create an uncanny, gleeful visual echo of Brancusi's famous sculpture. "Clothespin" is a monumental modern "kiss," planted in the urban heart of the City of Brotherly Love.
The artist can be very good at playing with context in his public sculptures. The flashlight on the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, stands upright in a plaza, perfectly scaled between two buildings. Its austere form recalls a classical Greek column, a fundamental architectural form. Prominently situated at a school, the flashlight becomes a contemporary symbol for a lamp of learning, meant to pierce the darkness. Yet it is positioned so that its beam of light shines downward into the ground--the opposite of all the skyward-reaching lights that make nighttime Las Vegas such an incomparable spectacle.
Oldenburg can also be arcane and pedantic, even though public sculpture that requires footnotes isn't a very good idea. The "Spoonbridge and Cherry," situated as the focal point of a sculpture park at Minneapolis' Walker Art Center, is one failure that suffers from a surfeit of trivial didacticism. The graceful spoon itself is a promising form, swooping like an eccentric bridge roughly 29 feet across a small pond to rest its bowl on a little island. The "bridge" also slyly recalls the form of an abstract Viking ship, sliding up to shore. But topping the spoon's bowl with a bright red cherry spouting water--which is said to be a commentary on the European tradition of the formal garden--visually undermines the evanescent sculptural references to bridge and ship. The obdurate spoon remains a spoon.
Sometimes, the mere technical requirements of building the sculpture intrude on the imaginative mutability of form essential to Oldenburg's successful work. To illustrate the narrative image of a sunbonnet being tossed to the ground and coming in for a landing, or of a bowl of orange slices that has just fallen to the ground and smashed, Oldenburg has balanced the flying objects, supposedly suspended in air, atop clumsy struts and poles. As with a ventriloquist whose lips move, the magic disappears.
Far more convincing are works like the Venice "Binoculars." They straddle the driveway as an imposing guardian figure for the all-important parking lot, much the way the ancient figure of Apollo, Colossus of Rhodes, once protected the entry to an island harbor. Binoculars are a man-made tool designed to expand the limits of ordinary human vision--which is a pretty good description of Oldenburg's monumental sculptures at their best.
* "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. Adults, $6; senior citizens and students, $4. Free Thursdays from 5 to 8 p.m. (213) 626-6222.