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Claes Oldenburg conquered a carefree (and consumerist) America | Pro Club Bd

Of all the great American pop artists, Claes Oldenburg was the only one born in Europe. He was still in elementary school when his father, a Swedish diplomat, moved the family to that country. They settled in Chicago, a city with a lauded architectural history and rightly credited with being the birthplace of the skyscraper.

This was undoubtedly significant for Oldenburg, whose work possesses the outsider’s disbelief in American size and scope. His sculptures hark back to an Eisenhower-era moment of complacency, a time when Americans built the tallest buildings and drove finned cars and ate big, cheese-covered, high-cholesterol hamburgers instead of small Swedish meatballs — a carefree time before concerns about the Carbon footprints or a national obesity epidemic have led to a reassessment of the pursuit of pleasure.

Oldenburg, who died Monday at his Manhattan home at the age of 93, revolutionized our idea of ​​what a public monument could be. Instead of bronze sculptures of men on horseback or long-forgotten patriots standing on a pedestal, hand over heart and speaking through the ages, Oldenburg filled our bourgeois spaces with nostalgic objects inflated to absurd proportions. It is interesting that so many of his motifs derive from the realm of the home and traditional female occupations. His sculpture of a lipstick case or a garden spade, his “Clothespin” (a 45-foot-tall steel version of a wooden clothespin in Philadelphia’s Center City), or, nearby, his “Split Button” sculpture (a popular haunt at the University of Pennsylvania) – all based on the kind of items that would be found at the bottom of our mother’s purses.

The same is true of “Typewriter Eraser, Scale X” (1999) in the sculpture garden of the National Gallery of Art in Washington – has a man ever handled such an object? The sculpture is a 20-foot tall stainless steel version of an old eraser with a small brush, favored by a generation of secretaries who typed on IBM Selectrics before the advent of computer delete keys. Upside down, its blue bristles arranged to look windswept, Typewriter Eraser remains a powerful homage to the act of erasing, a reminder that art isn’t just what you put in it, it’s what one takes out.

In 1956, after graduating from Yale University, Oldenburg moved to New York, arriving just in time to partake in a bohemian milieu on the brink of extinction. His career began in a spirit of radical passion. Like Jim Dine, one of the last survivors of the original pop artists, Oldenburg was the organizer of “happenings”, those theatrical events staged by non-actors in non-theaters. Dressed in costume, the painters counted on audience participation to achieve their stated goal of erasing the line between art and life.

Oldenburg’s now historic installation, The Store, had a bluntly generic title that referred to the increasingly commercialized gallery world. It opened in December 1961 in a rented storefront at 107 East Second Street, and visitors could buy food, clothing, jewelry, and other items — or rather, painted plaster reliefs that have a raw and endearingly crumpled look. (One of the items from The Store, “Braselette,” a cartoonish, paint-splattered depiction of a woman’s corset being pressed against a crooked red rectangle, will be featured in “New York: 1962-1964,” a major poll starting Friday his exhibition in the Jewish Museum.)

Certainly the most memorable relic from The Store is Pastry Case I (1961-2), which lives in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. It consists of a display case of the kind that once stood on diners’ worktops. Inside you’ll find a wide slice of blueberry pie, a candied apple, and a sundae that probably belongs in a freezer, but whatever. Let it melt! Let it flow! These aren’t the desserts of a gastronomically savvy 21st-century America smitten with Baked by Melissa’s mini cupcakes — but rather big, sloppy desserts that are plentiful enough to share with your date.

Oldenburg was hardly the first artist to create sculptures from everyday objects. Just prior to the opening of The Store, Jasper Johns had pushed the still life tradition into the third dimension when he exhibited a painted bronze sculpture of two Ballantine ale cans placed side by side, leading the viewer to wonder if they were real traded cans or handcrafted objects. Instead of such philosophical conundrums, Oldenburg pursued a classic pop agenda, inseparably linking his sculptures to their identity as consumer goods. He possessed a unique ability to bring sculptural life and a sense of animation to unusual subjects.

Many of his strongest works would be unthinkable without the involvement of his first wife, Patty Mucha, an artist who appeared in his happenings and sewed his so-called soft sculptures. An exhibition at the Green Gallery in 1962 featured a giant slice of sponge cake, an ice cream cone and a hamburger – all about the size of a living room sofa and appropriately placed on the floor. She and the soft sculptures that follow—a soft typewriter, a soft light switch—represent his best work, I think, in part because their limp, lumpy presence feels clothed in the pathos of the human body.

In an unpublished paper she shared with me, Mrs. Mucha describes the precise role she played in the genesis of her husband’s work. For example, in 1962, for his “Floor Burger,” she brought her Singer portable sewing machine to the Green Gallery, “which has now become our studio. I say our Studio because at that point all construction was done by sewing – a technique Claes had little knowledge of.”

She continues, “The sewing itself was strenuous work. Sitting on the floor and pulling the bulky mass of fabric through the handheld sewing machine’s throttle was at times almost physically impossible.” The needle broke; she bled on the sculptures. After sewing them, Oldenburg helped her fill the sculptures with putty and then paint them.

Oldenburg divorced Mrs. Mucha in 1970 after a decade of marriage, and the truth is that by this point his art was losing some of its warmth and tenderness. Instead of soft sculptures with their hilariously lumpy weight, he began making monumental sculptures with hard metallic surfaces. One wonders if he felt guilty for leaving his first wife, who played such a big part in his early success. As if in expiation, he began to give credit to his second wife, Coosje van Bruggen, who was trained not as an artist but as an art historian and whose name would appear along with his on all his future works.

Unlike his pop peer Andy Warhol, Oldenburg was never a public figure and his art was more recognizable than he was. As a personality, he could come off as grumpy. The art critic Barbara Rose, who wrote the catalog for his 1969 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, described him in her diaries as “looking like an accountant going through his accounts – sober and thrifty”.

Tatyana Grosman, the caring founder of legendary print publisher Universal Limited Art Editions, once recalled taking offense when Oldenburg turned down a proposal of hers, admonishing her, “I already have a mother.”

Oldenburg’s advocates point out that he was a brilliant draftsman and a profound thinker, producing many clever sketches for sculptures that never came to fruition (and there’s nothing ‘intellectual’ like a noble failed project). In 1965, he drew up plans for an anti-war memorial, consisting of a concrete monument inscribed with the names of those who died in the war – that would permanently block traffic on Broadway and Canal Street. But I don’t think these will improve his reputation. He will no doubt be remembered as a first class artist and one who, like his ambassador father, was a force for world democracy. But funnier.

Sometimes his work was cheap. In the 1990s, the gift shop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art sold Oldenburg’s NYC Pretzel (1994), a six-inch cardboard version of the salt-flecked pretzels sold on New York street corners. I think I paid a whopping $50 for it, and knowing it was part of an open edition (rather than a limited edition) I liked it better. It’s still on my mantelpiece.

I also bought a smaller Oldenburger – a piece of cake on a white dessert plate. The cake portion is a two inch long piece of painted plaster, but the plate is a real plate that the artist bought from a real store. I say this so that you understand my horror when I opened my dishwasher one morning and found that someone in my house (who will remain nameless) had left the Oldenburg plate to wash. I took it out and the plate was still hot. I turned it over and gasped. The artist’s signature – “CO” written in black – had been washed away.

But other than that, the piece is as cute as ever, and I feel it’s a tribute to Oldenburg that he’s the only artist I know whose work survives the dishwasher.

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