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Claes Oldenburg

American Sculptor

Movement: Pop Art

Born: January 28th, 1929 - Stockholm, Sweden

Claes Oldenburg Timeline

Important Art by Claes Oldenburg

The below artworks are the most important by Claes Oldenburg - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Pastry Case, I (1961-62)
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Pastry Case, I (1961-62)

Artwork description & Analysis: A plate of frosted cookies, two sundaes, a cake, an oversized rack of ribs, and a half-eaten caramel apple vie for our attention inside a display case. Roughly to scale, these unappetizing models of classic American diner fare reach out to us, rather like embarrassing relatives. Like portraits, but without the human figure, the magic of Oldenburg's sculpture is the expressive element he imparts to it. The most emotional (and hilarious) of the Pop artists, his brilliance is in the balance he strikes between irony and earnestness in his references to American culture.

Painted plaster, ceramic and metal - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Floor Cake (1962)
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Floor Cake (1962)

Artwork description & Analysis: Oldenburg introduced sculpture to Pop art, beginning with a series inspired by Duchamp's "readymades" and the bluntly prosaic subjects chosen by Pop artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein. Floor Cone, Floor Burger, and Floor Cake (shown here) were among the monumental structures based on comfort food fashioned by the artist in the early 1960s. A Surrealist element arises from the dramatic shift in scale. Floor Cake, a giant squishy triangle five feet high and nine-feet long, reverses the familiar relationship between this object and the spectator (it looks like it might eat us). More so than other Pop artists, Oldenburg drew inspiration from the process that comprised the items on which his art was based. Floor Cake, for instance, was assembled in layers, as one might make a cake, its soft medium and opaque, slightly splotchy paint mimics frosting, and finally, even though this element is invisible, empty ice cream cartons and foam rubber were used for the interior filling, giving metaphorical guts to the piece.

Fabric - Museum of Modern Art

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Soft Toilet (1966)
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Soft Toilet (1966)

Artwork description & Analysis: By the mid-1960s, Oldenburg was leading a full-fledged rebellion against the non-figurative sculptural tradition of Abstract Expressionism. Soft Toilet belongs to a series of straightforwardly representational forms generated by the artist during this period - sandwiches, egg beaters, toasters, and other mundane household items - roughly to scale and comprised of parts that fit together, much like the actual household objects themselves, with one glaring inconsistency. Soft materials, like fabric, or in this case latex, prevent these forms from holding their shape. Soft Toilet slumps forward, as if it may spill its contents into the room. By placing a toilet on a pedestal, Soft Toilet is an obvious homage to Marcel Duchamp's Fountain (an upturned urinal presented as art in 1917). Like its infamous predecessor, it is a mundane feature of the modern home intended for private use as opposed to aesthetic contemplation. Surrealism - a persistent element in Oldenburg's compositions - persists in the faux-melting effect. While unapologetically representational, this form is powerful in presence, not merely an imitation of the thing it represents, but an independent, expressive form capable of expression, like the human body.

Latex - Whitney Museum of American Art

Lipstick Ascending on Caterpillar Tracks (1969)
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Lipstick Ascending on Caterpillar Tracks (1969)

Artwork description & Analysis: Unlike most of his Pop art peers, Oldenburg's work conveyed an unambiguously anti-war message at the height of U.S. military intervention in Vietnam. An alumnus of Yale, Oldenburg mobilized a group of students to assist him in creating a mixed-media anti-war monument in 1969 and initially installing it in the Beinecke Plaza on campus. In the original version, the lipstick was capped with a flimsy fabric peak that required the activation of a mechanical pump to inflate, and rose over twenty feet in the air from the plywood base, fashioned in the shape of an army tank which functioned as a speaker platform. The double reference to female excitement and male impotence was designed to call attention to the absurdity of U.S. military aggression, and served as a rallying point for the fierce, impassioned anti-war demonstrations of that year. It was removed, ostensibly for the purposes of structural maintenance, and later replaced with the painted metal version shown here, reinstalled on campus outside the Morris College building. The first public artwork installed by the artist, it worked to solidify his alignment with the peace movement, and shaped his goals for larger future commissions.

Corten steel, aluminum, cast resin, polyurethane enamel - Yale University

Clothespin (1976)
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Clothespin (1976)

Artwork description & Analysis: A series of sketches of imaginary monuments and skyscrapers, completed in the 1960s, served as a blueprint for Oldenburg's signature strategy: reproducing mass-manufactured objects on a scale and in a context where one wouldn't normally find them. This 54-foot high Clothespin, erected outside the entrance to the SEPTA metro station in Philadelphia in 1976, makes people look up before they descending into the subway. Without presupposing a specific level of education or familiarity with the history of art or sculpture, Clothespin asks us to consider the manner in which small innovations in design transform the way we live. This work was based on a sketch for an imaginary skyscraper and was the artist's first public commission, built in collaboration with the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority's "one percent for art" program (a progressive development in favor of public funding for the arts).

The sculpture itself is far from simple (Oldenburg's sculptures are never merely enlarged replicas of the things they represent). Among Oldenburg's own clever alterations to the instantly-recognizable object is the augmented angle of the bottom legs (further apart, to facilitate broader views of the sculpture from directly beneath it), and its hinge twisted to resemble a 7 and 6 (in accordance with the date of the commission, '76). Profoundly democratic in its overarching message, like the best of Oldenburg's work, Clothespin is no mere Pop witticism, but a celebration of the role of design in everyday life.

Weathering Steel - Philadelphia

Stake Hitch (1984)
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Stake Hitch (1984)

Artwork description & Analysis: Having ceased locking horns with Abstract Expressionism, Oldenburg's work after 1980 grew more abstract, conceptual and site-specific. Stake Hitch, a sculpture commissioned for a large exhibition vault within The Dallas Museum of Art, highlights the manner in which Oldenburg continued to challenge the perspective of the viewer and even some of the institutions that have commissioned his work. Stake Hitch, an arrestingly powerful form that consisted of a bright red aluminum stake and illusionistic rope, transformed the viewer's experience of the soaring vault in an optical illusion - the rope appeared to anchor the ceiling to the floor. The piece also served as a counterweight to the Sol LeWitt Mural commissioned for the same space. Despite widespread acclaim for the sculpture, it was removed in 1994. The current museum director argued that it interfered directly with the display of temporary exhibitions, and no plans to reinstall it have been announced.

Stake: aluminum, steel, resin, painted with polyurethane enamel. Rope: polyurethane foam, plastic materials, fiberglass-reinforced plastic, painted with latex - Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX

Paint Torch (2011)
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Paint Torch (2011)

Artwork description & Analysis: Paint Torch, an inverted paint brush erected outside the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 2011, epitomizes Oldenburg's life-long approach to democratic, site-specific, accessible subject matter multi-layered in its symbolism. The orange blob on the plaza pavement below the 50-foot-high sculpture lights up, as does its orange tip, celebrating the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts' steadfast commitment to defending painting as the backbone of Western tradition (despite significant challenges to painting's supremacy in the late twentieth century). The paintbrush-as-torch motif evokes the most patriotic of figures, the Statue of Liberty. The diagonal tilt of the piece adds forward thrust, linking its two sections and heightening the implicit eroticism of the phallic form, injecting a note of wry, irreverent humor typical of Oldenburg's refusal to take seriously any form of authority, even (or perhaps especially) the authority of art.

Steel, fiberglass, urethane, LED lighting - Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts



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Claes Oldenburg Photo

Related Art and Artists

Canyon (1959)
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Canyon (1959)

Artist: Robert Rauschenberg

Artwork description & Analysis: Among Rauschenberg's most iconic and controversial combines, Canyon features amongst its mixed media; pieces of wood, a pillow, a mirror, and a stuffed bald eagle. The eagle appears to emerge directly from the canvas, perched on top of a cardboard box and peering down on a pillow dangling below the assemblage. A photograph of Rauschenberg's son emerges from the incongruous cacophony of objects, boldly outlined with black above a mint green patch of paint so that it stands out amidst the fragments of printed matter.

Rauschenberg acquired the taxidermied eagle from fellow artist Sari Dienes, who retrieved the bird from the detritus of a recently departed neighbor that had shot the bird during his time as one of the last of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders. While Rauschenberg submitted a notarized letter in 1988 that the bird was killed well before the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act went into effect, the stuffed eagle still became the source of recent governmental ire. In 2007, the estate of the former owner - Ileana Sonnabend - declared that Canyon was of zero value because it could not be sold without violating the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. However, in 2011, the United States government appraised the work at 15 million dollars, and also levied a penalty for an undervaluation at Sonnabend's heirs. In the end, the U.S. government dropped the 40 million plus dollar claim against Sonnabend's estate after the work was donated to the Museum of Modern Art. While the eagle became the source of immense bureaucratic drama over the course of many years, it is also the most potent source of allegory and imagery within the work. Critics cite references ranging from nationalism in the guise of McCarthyism to the Greek Ganymede myth embedded within the taxidermied bird, yet Rauschenberg always left the interpretation open to the viewer.

Oil, pencil, paper, metal, photograph, fabric, wood, canvas, buttons, mirror, taxidermied eagle, cardboard, pillow, paint tube and other materials - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Fountain (1917)
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Fountain (1917)

Artist: Marcel Duchamp

Artwork description & Analysis: The most notorious of the readymades, Fountain was submitted to the 1917 Society of Independent Artists under the pseudonym R. Mutt. The initial R stood for Richard, French slang for "moneybags" whereas Mutt referred to JL Mott Ironworks, the New York-based company, which manufactured the porcelain urinal. After the work had been rejected by the Society on the grounds that it was immoral, critics who championed it disputed this claim, arguing that an object was invested with new significance when selected by an artist for display. Testing the limits of what constitutes a work of art, Fountain staked new grounds. What started off as an elaborate prank designed to poke fun at American avant-garde art, proved to be one of most influential artworks of the 20th century.

Urinal - Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991)
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The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991)

Artist: Damien Hirst

Artwork description & Analysis: Damien Hirst's shark preserved in formaldehyde is perhaps the most famous work of the Young British Artists movement in the 1990s. Hirst's presentation of a once deadly beast as a carcass that has been preserved to appear lifelike, forces the viewer to confront their fears in the institutional setting of a gallery rather than in a private space, while also playing on Baudrillard's notion of the real and its image. The viewers would have likely only seen an animal of this size and ferocity as an image in a book or on television. Even by having an actual shark placed in the gallery, it may have been difficult for viewers to see the animal as "real" rather than as a replica or simulacra, in Baudrillard's terms, because the shark is dead and has lost its power to harm. The sheer monumentality of the creature and the sense of spectacle - its to-be-looked-at quality - derived from its new status as a commodity art object along with the fact the work was commissioned by dealer, Charles Saatchi at an expense of over 6,000 Pound Sterling in 1991 marked a new era in postmodern conceptual art that did not just draw on the consumerist boom, but wholeheartedly embraced it. This piece was included in the infamous Sensations exhibition along with works by Tracey Emin and Rachel Whiteread.

Glass tank, Steel, Tiger Shark, Formaldehyde - Private Collection

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Edited and revised by Ruth Epstein

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Edited and revised by Ruth Epstein
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