Claes Oldenburg will be remembered as “an extraordinary man” for his impact on the art world and beyond, says an art gallery curator and longtime collaborator.
“Claes was an extraordinary man, an incredible artist and someone we will all miss dearly,” said Steven Henry, senior partner at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York How it happens Guest presenter David Cochrane.
Henry worked on projects with Oldenburg for decades, including the artist’s final piece earlier this year.
The Swedish-American sculptor who rocked the art world with his whimsical depictions of everyday objects and massive public works of art died this week at the age of 93.
“The loss feels deep for us in the art world, but… also outside of the art world because his work has touched so many,” Henry said.
“Someone will say, ‘Meet me by the baseball bat’ or ‘Meet me by the clothespin,’ and I don’t think they might even realize it’s a Claes Oldenburg, but they’re delighted and smitten with the play .”
Inspired by everyday objects
Oldenburg was born in Stockholm in 1929. He raised alive between Sweden, Norway and the USA due to his father’s job advertisements as a diplomat. Oldenburg studied literature and art history at Yale University and then went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
In 1956, the budding artist moved to New York City. He was fascinated by the city’s streets, which were adorned with shop windows, graffiti, advertisements and rubbish.
Over the next few years, his art was inspired by the everyday objects sold in a bodega. He made “soft” sculptures out of canvas or vinyl filled with foam and taking the form of objects such as sandwiches, oranges and cigarettes.
“They have a great one in Canada,” Henry said, referring to Oldenburg’s 1962 work. Big hamburger.
“It’s hilarious. It’s, you know, sewn fabric that’s been painted. And then you kind of bump into him and say, ‘Wait, that’s a hamburger!’ and “What’s it doing in a museum?” It’s funny and subversive, I think.”
Big hamburger was purchased by the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1967. At that time, some people did not think about the sculpture that was renamed floor burger, belonged in the museum. Some students responded by leading protests while carrying a nine-foot ketchup bottle.
“Oldenburg’s art continues to inspire and challenge,” wrote AGO curator Xiaoyu Weng in an email How it happens
“The work has generated many stories, some controversial (such as the public’s initial protest against acquiring the work due to its experimental nature at the time) and some joyful (there is a little boy who came to see the work two years in a row on his birthday),” wrote Weng, the AGO’s Carol and Morton Rapp curator of modern and contemporary art.
Henry remembers Oldenburg for the ironic humor that the artist incorporated into his work. In the 1960s, Oldenburg made a name for itself on New York’s explosive pop art scene with its oversized, ordinary objects in Manhattan’s tiny gallery spaces – a radical departure from the traditional exhibitions of the time.
“I think he was commenting on this notion of representation of power and how traditional monuments were these visualizations of typical men, standing or on horseback, and producing or at least communicating that notion of power and hegemony,” he said.
“And I think he’s like, ‘Okay, these other things can also be upgraded in a way that we might ask, what is a memorial?'”
Art a la carte
Food has played a prominent part in Oldenburg’s work over the years – so much so that he took a sketchbook to the dining table.
“He pulled it out in the middle of a conversation,” Henry recalled. “And he started drawing. And often it was a kind of imaginative interpretation of a meal.”
One reason he drew his food was because his wife, Coosje van Bruggen, had food allergies and was on a simple diet.
“He drew these wonderful, fantastic foods that she could visually consume,” Henry explained. “We actually did a show called it Pictures a la carte, that was an exhibition of those very cute drawings he made for Coosje…. It was a very sweet and loving tribute to her.”
Van Bruggen was also a sculptor and worked on several monuments in collaboration with Oldenburg, including the clothespin in philadelphia, saw, saws in Japan and Apple Core including in Israel. She died in 2009.
According to Henry, Oldenburg stopped working on major projects after his wife died. But when Henry spoke to Oldenburg a few years ago about what projects he would like to complete, a project from 20 years ago came up.
Oldenburg created a giant red shovel for his estate in France. He wanted to create another shovel like this one in blue, but only managed to do it earlier this year. As the idea took shape, it was eventually planted in Rockefeller Center in New York City.
“It became this metaphor of rebirth,” Henry said.
“He’s always loved how the work was viewed between buildings… where people could really engage with it one-on-one. We were thrilled that it was possible to do it before he died.”
Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview with Steven Henry produced by Chris Trowbridge.