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Pie in the sky? Nope

Special to The Times

Loving stuff that isn’t especially lovable is Pop art’s great theme and achievement.

Andy Warhol’s affection for soup cans made them look majestic. Roy Lichtenstein found adventure, danger and romance in comic strips. Wayne Thiebaud transformed cheap cafeteria fare into a parade of tasty treats fit for a king. And Edward Ruscha turned throwaway graphics into sensuous, brain-bending delights.

Of all the major Pop artists, Claes Oldenburg is the most down-to-earth. That means in-the-street, because Pop is a thoroughly urban art, with zero tolerance for the woebegone sentimentality of country bumpkins.

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Oldenburg’s scrappy love of everyday stuff celebrates the magical mysteries of little lives lived in big cities -- where homey comforts disappear in a sea of anonymity, desperation lurks in the shadows and otherwise forgettable incidents are loaded with pathos that never makes the headlines.

At Pepperdine University’s Weisman Museum of Art, a sweeping survey of profoundly likable drawings traces Oldenburg’s love affair with American products not ordinarily cherished for their loveliness. Some of his images depict goods from grocery lists: bananas, potatoes, ketchup, ice cream bars and cigarettes. Others show household items: electric juicers, razors, vacuum cleaners and ceiling fans, as well as scissors, shirts, ironing boards and typewriters. Still others picture hardware-store stuff, including sockets, light switches, faucets and drainpipes. Larger appliances, such as refrigerators and toilets, and furniture, such as beds and dressers, are also part of Oldenburg’s inventory of consumer goods.

In his drawings, all are stripped of brand names. Labels and advertisements are nowhere to be seen. Although Oldenburg’s art begins in the commercial world of readily available consumables, it travels far beyond their normal orbit.

Unlike most works of Pop art, Oldenburg’s put a higher priority on objects than on images. His gritty, energized drawings do not explore the machinations of packaging or exploit the eye-catching tricks of window displays. Instead, they get down and dirty with the palpable things that ordinarily get dressed up in flashy wrappers and far-fetched advertisements.

The worldview evoked by Oldenburg’s drawings is shared by many immigrants, for whom the cornucopia of goods and services available in American shop windows is both at the fingertips and just out of reach. Born in Stockholm in 1929, Oldenburg moved with his family between New York and Norway before settling in Chicago in 1936.

What his works depict tells less than half the story. Most of their content resides in how they are rendered.

The first eight works, which don’t take you even a quarter of the way around the first of three galleries, look as if four different artists made them. The first two are crayon drawings from 1959. They are Oldenburg’s most conventional images. Depicting a bicycle lying on its side and a women reading in bed, their swiftly sketched lines capture quiet moments while paying affectionate homage to Willem de Kooning and Richard Diebenkorn.

In the next two pencil drawings, from 1960, Oldenburg abandons shading and the illusion of depth for the point-blank bluntness of images typically drawn by children or outsiders. The meatiness of Oldenburg’s previous two works is replaced by wiry line-work best described as anorexic.

Color explodes across the surfaces of the next two whiplash crayon drawings, which include messy puddles of watercolor. Made in 1961, they depict clothes in store windows. They also transform the flourishes of virtuoso Abstract Expressionist brushstrokes into perfunctory, rudimentary and occasionally mean gestures.

This rebarbative edge takes strongest shape in the seventh and eight drawings displayed. Inspired by the economy of cartoons, both resemble greeting cards from life’s ugly underbelly. The first, from 1960, flaunts a buck-naked cheerleader sandwiched between a misshapen U.S. flag and a grade-schooler’s spelling lesson. The second pairs Mickey Mouse’s evil twin with a blood-red valentine. A malignant, unwholesome atmosphere emanates from these pictures of otherwise ordinary things.

As a group, the first eight drawings show Oldenburg trying on styles as fast and furiously as a hard-to-please shopper tries on outfits in the dressing room. They reveal restless energy, ambitious drive and an impressive command of a wide range techniques and styles.

One of the best things about the exhibition is that most of its drawings remain true to the insatiable experimentation of Oldenburg’s early works. Beyond the initial eight, many in the first gallery are studies for sculptures Oldenburg fantasized about making: a giant shrimp for Ellis Island, a monstrous teddy bear for Central Park and an ice-cream bar the size of a skyscraper for Park Avenue. Each flaunts the artist’s skills as a stylist and draftsman, giving vivid form to its own mood and meaning.

The second gallery features drawings of a variety of half-serious, less tongue-in-cheek public sculptures, including enormous typewriter erasers, cigarette butts, tubes of lipstick, fireplugs and drainpipes. The six renditions of a Chicago fireplug, 1968-69, highlight the range of associations Oldenburg is able to wrestle from such an unlovely object. Using various combinations of graphite, colored pencil, ink, crayon and watercolor, he suggests that the humble bit of city plumbing is a solitary stage performer, a terrifying periscope, a top-hatted descendant of W.C. Fields, an impenetrable gun turret, a bustier and a sex toy that’s as hot as a pistol.

More often than not, Oldenburg’s preposterous proposals were primarily great excuses to make great drawings. In nearly all of his fantastic forms, niggling details -- like a lack of sponsors, no funding, no permits and no engineering -- didn’t slow him one bit. Oldenburg’s vision, like all strong versions of the American dream, didn’t wait for the paperwork.

Eventually, enough other folks came around and Oldenburg’s Pop monuments began to be built. A tube of lipstick, mounted on a military tank’s tracks, was the first. Its drawing, “Study for Feasible Monument: Lipstick, Yale” (1969), adds geometric precision to his expanding repertoire.

Upstairs in the third gallery, the extremes between which Oldenburg careened with such masterful abandon in his early works settle into a comfortable middle road of tasteful, accomplished illustration that is more button-down and stingy than anything that preceded it. Most of these drawings, which depict slices of blueberry pie, badminton shuttlecocks and wood saws, are signed by Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, the museum curator and writer he married in 1977. But two, from 1994, are attributed solely to Oldenburg. It’s hard to say who contributes what to the collaboration. Both husband and wife insist that each contributes equally to everything.

The exhibition’s title and format are less clear. It’s billed as two shows: “Claes Oldenburg: Drawings, 1959-1977" and “Claes Oldenburg With Coosje van Bruggen: Drawings, 1992-1998, in the Whitney Museum of American Art.” This makes you wonder what happened between 1977 and 1992.

In any case, the two downstairs galleries include enough fascinating work to make a visit more than worthwhile. Driving home the point that style and substance are not opposed, Oldenburg raises this bit of contrarian folk wisdom to the next level. In his hands, style is art’s heart and soul -- the unique imprimatur talented individuals bring to the stuff of everyday life, transforming it into something that stirs the passions.

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Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen drawings

Where: Weisman Museum of Art, Pepperdine University, 24255 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu

When: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays

Ends: Aug. 8

Price: Free

Contact: (310) 506-4851


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