The Giant Art of Claes Oldenburg

Claes Oldenburg in 1965.Photograph by Tony Evans / Getty

“I am for Kool-art, 7-Up art, Pepsi-art, Sunshine art, 39 cents art, 15 cents art. . . . I am for an art of things lost or thrown away on the way home from school.” When the artist Claes Oldenburg, who authored these words in 1961, died this week at ninety-three, one had a sense that it had been a long while since his vision of him, for good or ill, had engaged the center ring of the art world’s attention. If he had not exactly disappeared from view, he had faded a little. Examples of his outsized, monumental tributes to the sheer thingness of ordinary things, celebrated in the Whitman-esque list above, could be found in many American cities—a giant clothespin in Philadelphia, shuttlecocks in Kansas City—but, though his sculptures are often beloved, they exist by now more as local color than as visionary art. They have become, in an irony that Oldenburg would have appreciated, numbered among the vernacular eccentricities that have always dotted the American landscape: the giant elephant in Margate, the duck on Long Island, or the giant pickle that once stood at Fifth Avenue and Broadway .

Yet Oldenburg had his avant-garde moment. One of the three saints of the first rise of Popism in the United States, alongside Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, he was, in a way, the odd man out among them. The Duchampian “It’s art because I say it is!” him’s propositions in his work were less self-evident than they were in Warhol’s deadpan silk screens or Lichtenstein’s appropriated comic-book paintings—however much, in retrospect, those enterprises owed more to artful reimaginations and poetic transformations than might have seemed apparent. (Lichtenstein never “copied” a panel from a war or romance comic. Rather, he took the style and made his own idea of ​​what an iconic panel should be.) But Oldenburg was an artist of a more obviously pleasing and old-fashioned kind : a wizard of a draftsman, with a freehand, quick-scribbling touch that delighted with its liquidity even as its subjects were Park Avenue skyscrapers and American expressways. That play, between the soft and the hard, the large and the small, rose above the more familiar Pop tension between art and nonart. It was his signature from him, and gave his art its wit, mischief, and grace.

Raised in part in Scandinavia and the United States, as a binational citizen—tellingly, combining the identities, and the temperaments, of austere, melancholic Sweden with abundant, pneumatic America—Oldenburg first became famous for making ordinary-seeming objects into obviously expressive art . His downtown “Store,” from 1961, was filled with rough-hewn, painted plaster versions of edible food—cheeseburgers and cheap cakes. The aroma of European “art brut” and of Jean Dubuffet still rose from them—they were grungily bohemian in spirit even as they mocked, in their slapdash surfaces, the romantic rhetoric of American abstract painting. (Around this time, Oldenburg also invented a kind of evil yet transcendent American superhero named, eerily and presciently, RayGun—long before the B-movie actor ran for office.)

It was in the mid-sixties that Oldenburg came uptown and began making the more polished and finished soft objects, and the drawings for monuments for which he is still, rightly, best remembered: a Good Humor bar taking the place of the Pan Am building , with its wooden stick aloft and one bite taken from its corner to allow traffic to pass through; a “Proposed Colossal Monument to Replace the Washington Obelisk” that showed a pair of scissors pointed to the sky, with its shears in constant motion; a “Late Submission to the Chicago Tribune Architectural Competition of 1922,” a famous moment in American contemplation, and then rejection, of modernist architecture, in the form of a soaring, giant clothespin, hugging its metal spring to itself. These drawings were masterpieces of American deadpan, at once hilarious in their solemnity and blessedly free—quick-witted in their design and in their parody of heroic architectural renderings. They seem to belong to the best American satire of the time—what were called “spoofs” or “put-ons,” such as Stan Freberg’s spoofs of radio advertising that were also radio advertising.

Oldenburg’s monumental tributes to the sheer thingness of ordinary things—including “Shuttlecocks” in Kansas City—can be found in many American cities.Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith/Corbis/Getty

Like so many American artists, Oldenburg was a parodist of American abundance who then partook of it. Astoundingly, in the seventies and after, his projects for monuments began to be made into actual monuments in American cities. No matter how passionately one admired his drawings of him and loved the fine comic verve that he brought to the still-deadening business of lump-in-the-plaza art, the actual monuments never quite worked. They were. . . never remove big enough. Part of the charm of the drawings was that the things they imagined were not merely big but enormous—they were imagined at the scale of American skyscraper engineering, but then produced at the scale of American monumental sculpture, a smaller thing. Still, that his monuments of him got made at all was a triumph of the American capacity for belief.

A man of immensely serious mien whose humor sometimes seemed buried in a single glint in his eye, at once an art-world maverick and cynosure—his brother Richard, for many years, was the director of the Museum of Modern Art—Oldenburg went on to make many more monuments with his wife and collaborator, Coosje van Bruggen. Doubtless revisions and reëvaluations await his, and their reputation of him. It’s easy to overemphasize the “sweetness” or “nostalgia” of Oldenburg’s art. In truth, most of his pet objects look nostalgic only from our present vantage; in their day of him, his cheeseburgers and ice-cream desserts were demotic, slangy—a provocation. The more consequential, if lightly worn, idea in his art of him was neither soft nor sweet, but big. No artist has ever more intuitively understood, or illustrated, Whitman’s vision of an absolute sort of American materialism—of an art that might be made not of ideal imaginings but of “real things and real things only.” That’s what 7-Up art, 15 cent art, es.

But Oldenburg’s humor depended on his also having a caustic sense of that vision’s limitations. As this writer once wrote, Warhol showed us that the apotheosis and the burlesque of Whitman’s dream turned out to look more or less the same. Where Warhol and the other Popsters seem to have stumbled on this truth poetically, Oldenburg pursued it satirically. His jokes about him are the most serious thing about him. The monumental and the mock-monumental tango together in his imagination of him, with the pursuit and its parody part of a single dance of meaning. And so, if, like every artist, Oldenburg’s contribution to him was time-bound and specific, rising in the sixties and perhaps falling since, it was also, in retrospect, softly, masterfully, comically, enormous. ♦

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