SALINAS, Calif. — This is a love story involving three hats, one town and the right shade of yellow paint.
For decades a trio of giant hat sculptures in a scraggly grass field here had been treated like derelict pieces of playground equipment. Teenagers climbed to the top of what they knew as the “Salinas Hats.” The metal grew rusty and was scarred with gang graffiti.
Few seemed to remember that this was “Hat in Three Stages of Landing” by well-known artist Claes Oldenburg and his wife, Coosje van Bruggen. Or that Salinas had once believed public art should be part of life not just in cities such as San Francisco, Paris and Cologne, where other Oldenburg works towered, but in an agricultural town surrounded by lettuce fields.
That changed this month. The sculpture, restored under the direction of its 84-year-old artist, returned to this city of 150,000 with great fanfare. At the rededication ceremony, hundreds of residents tossed their hats into the air.
“We’re not the kind of community where you would expect monumental public art,” said Trish Triumpho Sullivan, who runs Salinas’ tourism board. “It shows great imagination.”
Life here is tied to the fields. Farmworkers pay middle-class mortgages by working more than one job. The wealthy families have ties to the land dating back generations.
The city is just 18 miles from Monterey and the coast.
“But they’re the longest miles in the world,” said Gary Smith, art gallery director at Hartnell Community College. “It really is different worlds.”
In 1977, local art lovers landed a $50,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant. They matched it with $75,000 from private donations and commissioned Oldenburg to create a sculpture representing Salinas. Art critics said his oversized twists on commonplace objects — think giant binoculars on L.A.'s Westside — heightened awareness of the beauty in the everyday.
Oldenburg and van Bruggen visited. “It was a warm day. Everyone was wearing a hat. Everyone was wearing a different hat,” Oldenburg recalled.
He sketched hats in a little notebook. He made note of the rolling hills of the Salinas Valley and the rodeo stands on two sides of the field where the art would stand.
“Our formula was to get a deep impression of a place, then go back to New York, think about it and come to a conclusion about what we should do,” he said.
Van Bruggen suggested a hat. Their idea grew into a hat being tossed from the rodeo field and landing with three hops.
It was one of their first artistic collaborations. They had met in 1970 when he had a show at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, where she was a curator. But she avoided him.
“I was on my way to becoming what they called a pop artist. And the most horrible thing she could imagine was an American pop artist,” he said with a smile.
They married in 1977.
“She changed my direction completely,” Oldenburg said. “I’d had a whole career before then. But now we wanted to bypass museums and galleries and speak directly to the community.”
The artists showed their model of three yellow hats with turned-down brims punched with holes like a colander. The city of Salinas almost balked.
“The reaction was, ‘Oh, my God, it isn’t a Stetson,’” Smith said.
Witty, impassioned letters flew back and forth between the darlings of the world art scene and the citizens of Salinas, who knew what a Western hat should look like.
“But our aim was not to create a sculpture of a hat. We were creating a work of art,” Oldenburg said. “It was important it not be a hat that belonged to one group of people.”
When the sculpture was unveiled, many in Salinas grumbled that the three 10-foot-by-18-foot hats were an insult to Western heritage. Outsiders were enthralled. The director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art declared it “the most important public sculpture in California.”
Communities had often taken time to warm to Oldenburg’s work — from his 45-foot-tall clothespin in Philadelphia to his giant lipstick at Yale.
“Usually, puzzlement gradually becomes possessiveness,” Oldenburg said.
But Salinas’ residents didn’t take care of the hats as their own.
In 2004 Oldenburg and van Bruggen visited to investigate reports of disrepair.
“Boys were on top of the middle hat. Coosje yelled to them, ‘You’re not supposed to stand on it! You’re supposed to look at it, it’s art,’” Oldenburg recalled.
The couple wrote letters of complaint to the city. In 2008 they gave an ultimatum: Take care of the art or we’ll take it down.
“We never heard back,” Oldenburg said.
Van Bruggen fell ill with cancer. She died in 2009.
Homeless people started camping beneath the hats, though the perforated aluminum offered little protection from sun or rain.
In 2010 Dennis Donahue, a radicchio grower and then-mayor of Salinas, took a business trip to New York City. He visited Oldenburg.
“Imagine an overcast Sunday, a flat in SoHo and this iconic art figure,” Donahue said. Together they looked at the old letters debating the shape of a hat and poetic license, and how to get people to work together when they don’t agree.
Donahue recognized the signatures on the letters, many of people now gone. Oldenburg spoke of how much van Bruggen had liked Salinas.
“It was a deeply personal conversation,” Donahue said. “We both had lost people we had to get this done for. To him it was more than a piece of art — it was a love story in action. For Salinas it was a second chance.”
Donahue fanned fundraising efforts and pressured the City Council to front funds. Oldenburg donated $44,000 from his foundation. For a total of $160,000 the structures were saved — their steel beams reinforced, the rust removed. They are back to the original, except this time Oldenburg chose a richer yellow. One easier to touch up.
“Color is important to everything,” he said, eyeing the gleaming gold hats. A rainstorm had just passed and they seemed to shift hue with the clouds.
The only thing left was to add Coosje van Bruggen’s name to the artist’s plaque, as the city had promised in the first place.
It has never been Oldenburg’s habit to discuss his works.
But during Hat Celebration Week in Salinas, the Yale-educated son of a Swedish diplomat chatted freely. He told any Salinas resident who asked how he and van Bruggen had arrived at yellow for agricultural sun, a saddle shape in the upside-down brim, a colander as a tie to vegetables.
“Even one man who had always called the hats the silliest thing he’d ever seen, changed his mind,” Sullivan said. “I think there were so many people who didn’t understand what we had, who didn’t know who Claes Oldenburg was. But now they’re saying, ‘This is ours.’”
Smith, the gallery director, said he always knew “Hat in Three Stages of Landing” belonged in Salinas.
“There’s a joy to it that transcends style or even knowing the artist, " he said. “A hat being thrown in the air is a feeling you don’t have every day. But it’s important — especially in a community that works so hard — to be reminded there are moments when you just scream ‘Yes!’”