Portrait of Claes Oldenburg, 1985. Photograph by Christopher Felver/Getty Images, courtesy of Pace Gallery.
Claes Oldenburg, who died on July 18 at the age of 93, wrote one of the most famous art manifestos in 1961: “I am for an art that is political-erotic-mystical, that does something other than sit on your ass in a Museum,” he began. “I’m for all art that forms from the lines of life itself, that squirms and stretches and piles and spits and drips and that’s heavy and coarse and dull and sweet and stupid like life itself.”
The Swedish-born American pop artist insisted that this text was neither a rallying cry nor a reflection of his own beliefs, but rather a “poetic ode” to the art movement he and his colleagues were pursuing. Still, it’s a fitting sentiment for Oldenburg’s mind-expanding, boundary-pushing oeuvre.
Oldenburg a The business, 107 East Second Street, New York, 1961. © 2022 Estate of Robert R. McElroy / Licensed by VAGA to Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
Oldenburg knew how to make the familiar funny. Legendarily, in 1961 he rented a New York storefront to turn it into a business The business– an immersive market for food made from plaster. Soon after, he was collaborating with his first wife, Patty Mucha, to create “soft sculptures” — seductively squishy creations sewn to resemble an oversized club sandwich, a clothespin, or a slice of layered cake. Later, the artist, along with his influential creative collaborator and second wife, Coosje van Bruggen, transformed everyday objects like spoons and bowling pins into monumental public sculptures that tower tall as buildings and inspire awe in cities from Minneapolis to Eindhoven.
To honor the artist’s legacy after his death, below we share the thoughts and memories of gallery owners and curators who have worked with Oldenburg and its art.
Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Balzac Petanque2002. © Oldenburg/van Bruggen, courtesy of Pace Gallery.
“Claes Oldenburg was, in his own words from 1961, ‘for an art that grows up without knowing that it is art at all.’ The irreverence of his work cannot hide its brilliance and depth. As much as a giant, soft sculpture of an ice cream cone may make you smile, it is a deeply serious sculpture, part of a far-reaching oeuvre that had an immense impact on subsequent generations of artists and whose lasting impact will keep them young forever.”
– Ann Temkin, Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art
Claes Oldenburg and Arne Glimcher at Pace Gallery, New York, 2021. Courtesy Pace Gallery.
“I’m honored to have this amazing friendship with one of the most radical artists of the 20th century. In addition to his inseparable role in the development of pop art, he changed the nature of sculpture from hard to soft, and his influence is still visible today.”
—Arne Glimcher, founder of Pace Gallery, which has represented Oldenburg since 1960
“The loss of Claes Oldenburg, a great artist and good friend, is deeply saddening. Although I was introduced to his work by Henry Geldzahlener in 1960, I did not meet Claes until the mid 1960’s when I was working at Park Place. By then, he was already a notably powerful force among his peers. The strikingly original early work had a great influence on many artists who were shaped by his freedom of thought and radical style of expression. When he began collaborating with Coosje van Bruggen, with whom I became a close friend, the work became grander and bolder. Claes was exciting to work with, his quirky approach was delightful and completely turned the mood.”
—Paula Cooper, founder of the Paula Cooper Gallery, representing Oldenburg since 2002
Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Spoonbridge and Cherry, 1985-1988, Minneapolis. Gift of Frederick R. Weisman in honor of his parents, William and Mary Weisman, 1988 © Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.
“Oldenburg had the ability to uncover the mystery and power of everyday objects to create a work that is completely unique. His approach to everyday subjects and his imaginative way of transforming them through scale and materials has had an incredible influence on subsequent generations of artists.”
—Siri Engberg, senior curator and director of visual arts at the Walker Art Center
“Claes was – in every way – monumental.”
—David Platzker, curator and director of Specific Object
“Claes Oldenburg is an important part of the MCA Chicago story. In 1967, Oldenburg’s Projects for Monuments was one of the museum’s two inaugural exhibitions, and was also Oldenburg’s first solo exhibition in his hometown of Chicago. The exhibition was dedicated to themes that crop up again and again in Oldenburg’s work, including urban beautification, commodity culture and the spectacle of so-called public art in public space. It is an honor for me to have a significant portfolio of Oldenburg’s works in our MCA collection and to tie in with this history in my current exhibition [“Based on a True Story…”].”
– Bana Kattan, Pamela Alper Associate Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
“Pop meets happenings/performance, best illustrated in Oldenburg The business but also in 1985 when he worked with Frank O. Gehry, Coosje van Bruggen and Germano Celant The course of the knifein Venice, Italy.”
—Claudia Gould, director of the Jewish Museum, where Oldenburg’s work will be on view in New York: 1962–1964 from July 22, 2022 to January 8, 2023
“Today we mourn Claes Oldenburg, one of the greats of the art world. We are honored to have hosted him and his wife Coosje van Bruggen Plantoir blue this spring, a work of visionaries in the heart of their hometown. New York will miss you!”