Claes Oldenburg wanted to magnify the American dream with gentle pop art

That the pop artist Claes Oldenburg was also a performance artist is evident from his most famous artwork: The store, from 1961. That year he ran a neighborhood shop in New York where he sold ordinary store products for a month: petticoats, corsets, pies, ham, but all fake. Running the cake shop was performance and pop art in one, accessible art with a twist. Or, as Oldenburg himself said: “I am in favor of an art that is political-erotic-mystical, that does something other than sit on the back of a museum.”

Art that did not sit back, but actively magnified the American dream that characterized Oldenburg’s work (Stockholm 1929). He died on Monday at his home in Manhattan at the age of 93.

He was the son of a Swedish diplomat and was still a child when his family emigrated to the United States. From 1946 to 1956 he attended art courses in New York and Chicago, after which he settled in New York. There he met Jim Dine, Red Grooms, Allan Kaprow, stayed at home on the performance circuit and made his first soft sculpture in 1957 by stuffing a women’s stocking with newspapers. This is how his spatial objects representing clothing and food were created.

They were sewn by his first wife, Patty Mucha, who also contributed to his performances in the 1960s. For example, he had diggers dig a hole and in 1965 organized a meeting where everyone had to stop. Only visitors wearing a Mickey Mouse mask were allowed to sit. With the exception of Marcel Duchamp, he was also allowed to sit down because he was old. And he was Marcel Duchamp.

The Flying Pins at Eindhoven University of Technology, designed by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen and unveiled in 2000.

Photo ANP / Paulien van de Loo


Playful and fetishistic

With his objets trouvés, Duchamp was considered a forerunner of pop art, although there was little else European about this art that embraced American life and was also embraced by America in reverse. Rarely has a new art movement become so popular. This also applied to the large cute objects by Claes Oldenburg, art with a humor that never became cynical. Compared to the glossy pop art of Warhol or Lichtenstein, or even more the glossy art of Koon later, Oldenburg’s work is gentle. Its touchability makes it both playful and fetishistic.

His first solo exhibition was in 1959 at the Judson Gallery in New York, figurative drawings and papier-mâché figures. In 1966 he had a solo exhibition at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, followed by the MoMA in New York (1969), the Tate Gallery in London and other museums. He appears in every overview of pop art. He and his Dutch wife Coosje van Bruggen also received various art prizes and honorary doctorates from art schools from the 1980s onwards. In 1992, the couple bought a château in France near the Loire to fill with their own design collection.

Claes Oldenburg, Screwarch (Screw Arch)1982.
Photo Ronald van den Heerik/Hollandse Hoogte

Also read: Memoirs of Coosje Oldenburg

Oldenburg and Van Bruggen met in Amsterdam in 1970 at an exhibition of his work at the Stedelijk Museum, where she worked as a curator. They married in 1977 and began working together on the large outdoor sculptures that he had meanwhile begun to design. An early example is the trowel (1971-’76) at the Kröller-Müller Museum. Together, until her death from breast cancer in 2009, they provided the world with more than forty giant objects: a safety pin, saw, pliers, core, badminton shuttle, bow and arrow, umbrella and much more. Often they were half stuck in the ground, a fallen giant ice is upside down on a roof in Cologne and towering.

Bicycle of 46 meters

They are huge. An installation with a bowling ball and flying cones in Eindhoven measures more than 37 meters, in a park in Paris, parts of a buried bicycle that appear to be 46 meters long stick out from the lawn. In Los Angeles, where Oldenburg had moved to in 1963, a towering telescope forms the entrance to an office building by the architect Frank Gehry.

It couldn’t be big enough. In the garden of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen stands a bent screw (1977). This was a serious design for a bridge in Rotterdam, which opted for the more conventional Willemsbrug. Separately, a similar design for an office building in Cleveland, Ohio was rejected due to the sexual double meaning of the word screw English. ‘Meet you at the screw’ – too ambiguous. It’s not like that in Dutch. So if the city wants another striking bridge, there’s a plan.

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