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Artists Claes Oldenburg

Claes Oldenburg

American Sculptor

Movement: Pop Art

Born: January 28th, 1929 - Stockholm, Sweden

Quotes

"If I didn't think what I was doing had something to do with enlarging the boundaries of art, I wouldn't go on doing it."
Claes Oldenburg
"I'd like to get away from the notion of a work of art as something outside of experience, something that is located in museums, something that is terribly precious."
Claes Oldenburg
"It isn't that I have any opinions about ice cream cones or hamburgers or that kind of stuff. It just seems that that is what I see."
Claes Oldenburg
"I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all. I am for an artist who vanishes."
Claes Oldenburg
"Art is a technique of communication. The image is the most complete technique of all communication."
Claes Oldenburg
"My single-minded aim is to give existence to fantasy."
Claes Oldenburg
"I am for the art of underwear and the art of taxicabs. I am for the art of ice cream cones dropped on concrete."
Claes Oldenburg

"I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something more than sit on its ass in a museum."

Synopsis

With his saggy hamburgers, colossal clothespins and giant three-way plugs, Claes Oldenburg has been the reigning king of Pop sculpture since the early 1960s, back when New York was still truly gritty. In 1961 he rented a storefront, called it The Store, and stocked it with stuffed, crudely-painted forms resembling diner food, cheap clothing, and other mass-manufactured items that stupefied an audience accustomed to the austere, non-representational forms in Abstract Expressionist sculpture. These so-called "soft-sculptures" are now hailed as the first sculptural expressions in Pop art. While his work has continued to grow in scale and ambition, his focus has remained steadfast: everyday items are presented on a magnified scale that reverses the traditional relationship between viewer and object. Oldenburg shrinks the spectator into a bite-sized morsel that might be devoured along with a giant piece of cake, or crushed by an enormous ice pack. His work shows us just how small we are, and serves as a vehicle for his smart, witty, critical, and often wickedly funny insights on American culture over the past half-century.

Key Ideas

Whereas Pop artists had imitated the flat language of billboards, magazines, television, etc., working in two-dimensional mediums, Oldenburg's three-dimensional papier maches, plaster models, and soft fabric forms brought Pop art into the realm of sculpture, a key innovation at the time.
Oldenburg's objects, no matter how apparently insignificant in themselves, become expressive entities, almost like characters in a stage play. This is partly due to their dramatically outsized scale and partly due to the soft forms he chooses, like fabric or latex. This distances Oldenburg from the cool detachment of Warhol or Lichtenstein, and makes his sculptures, almost like portraits, highlight the absurdity of American culture with a gentler cynicism than his Pop art peers.
The notion of enlarging a diminutive, everyday object and placing it in a landscape - an idea integral to Oldenburg's monumental public art - comes to us from the Surrealists such as Magritte, Dalí, and Ernst). In this respect, Oldenburg is the most Surreal of the Pop artists and his sculptures are like Surrealist dreams made real.
Oldenburg's unconventionally squishy, rearrangable sculpture challenged the hard, vertical orientation that persisted through Abstract Expressionism. His was a true breakthrough in the history of sculpture.
No matter how ordinary his subjects may seem to be, for Oldenburg, a clothespin is never just a clothespin. The process of fine tuning and adjustment, typical of his approach to large-scale commissions, reflects an unwavering interest in the impact of form that aligns him with earlier masters in the tradition of sculpture, from Michelangelo to Brancusi.

Most Important Art

Pastry Case, I (1961-62)
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.
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Biography

Childhood and Education

The son of a diplomat, Oldenburg was born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1929 and settled with his family in Chicago in 1936. He and his younger brother, Richard, were educated at Yale and Harvard, respectively. Richard would later become the Director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City for over two decades (1972-1995). After graduating from Yale in 1950, where he studied literature and art history as well as studio art, Oldenburg took a job with the City News Bureau of Chicago and also intermittently attended the Art Institute of Chicago.

Early Training

Claes Oldenburg Biography

In 1953, Oldenburg became a naturalized citizen and moved to New York, committed to pursuing a career in art. According to the artist, the "most creative and stimulating" influence was the environment of the Lower East Side, where The Beats, Fluxus, and Pop art groups converged on performance and gallery spaces at Judson Memorial Church off Washington Square. Here, he got to know regulars such as Allan Kaprow, Yoko Ono, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Jim Dine. Most everyone in this circle agreed that Abstract Expressionism was dead, but no one knew what came next, and daring experiments in multi-media and performance art abounded, overlapping in generations, sensibilities and approaches. Another vivid resource for Oldenburg's imagination was the library at Cooper Union, where he worked for several years and held his first one person exhibition in 1959, consisting of figurative drawings. It was there that he discovered the imaginary architecture envisioned by the eighteenth-century Romantics, and the construction and installation of the Statue of Liberty, sources that inspired his own whimsical drawings for monuments, and later public sculpture.

Mature Period

Claes Oldenburg Photo

1960 was a breakthrough year for Oldenburg. The Harvard graduate appeared (sans pants), covered in garbage, with Patty Mucha (whom he later married) in his piece Snapshots from the City, inspired by the neighborhood and staged at Judson Memorial Church. Inspired by the smorgasbord of sights and sounds in life and art in Lower Manhattan, he collaborated with Mucha on other performances, and produced his first soft sculptures. Traces of the rough-hewn, graffiti-like collages of Rauschenberg and anti-artisanal Art Brut of Jean Dubuffet can be seen in Oldenburg's ripped, scribbled cardboard figures, objects, and signs from that year. They were an explicit, down and dirty take based on his own observations of the neighborhood, and were displayed in his Lower East Side storefront studio The Street. Several works from this show sold. His follow-up studio exhibition, The Store, inspired by the bodegas and immigrant businesses in the generally run-down and marginalized immediate area, was even more commercially successful. Also in 1960 (preceding Warhol's "Factory" by two years) Oldenburg began calling his studio the Ray Gun Manufacturing Company and produced bulbous, crudely-fashioned "ray guns," imitations of generic sci-fi weapons for display in his rented storefront. He also collected toys and kitsch objects that he displayed alongside these sculptures in installations.

The Store caught the attention of the high-profile Green Gallery on 57th Street, where Oldenburg displayed his three colossal sculptures Floor Cake, Floor Cone, and Floor Burger, sculptures in stuffed, painted and sewn canvas, in 1962. From then on his work received significant acclaim, and for the next few years his production of "soft" convenience foods and domestic objects was prolific and varied: sandwiches, fries spilling out of the to-go packet, a hot water bottle, telephones and toilets, and other kitchen utensils and mass-manufactured household items. Characterized by a fluid hand, his works on paper remained an important, ongoing aspect of his career. Over the second half of the 1960s, he began to produce an extensive series of drawings of fantasy architecture, which led to prints and later, public monuments. Also during the late 60s, he established a long-term affiliation with pre-eminent art dealer Leo Castelli, who supported his ambition to produce work on a monumental scale.

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Claes Oldenburg Biography Continues

In an effort to realize some of his larger projects, in 1967 Oldenburg participated in an "art and technology" program run by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that led to a residency at a branch of Walt Disney Enterprises. This facilitated his development of a cartoon mouse, a symbol first explored in his early drawings, into which he incorporated the shape of a movie camera. This became Oldenburg's personal symbol and inspired the painted steel mouse sculptures of varied sizes and colors included in his "Mouse Museum" exhibition for Documenta (the international contemporary art exhibition in Kassel, Germany) in 1972. A few years later, he created a similar museum-style installation of his stylized "ray guns."

In 1976, another breakthrough year, he executed his first monumental outdoor sculpture, Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks, and his first corporate commission, Clothespin (1976, Center Square Plaza, Philadelphia) shortly followed. From then on, he has focused nearly exclusively on large-scale public sculpture.

Late Period

Claes Oldenburg Portrait

Oldenburg married Dutch art historian, Coosje van Bruggen (1942-2009) in 1977, and collaborated with her on his colossal, polychrome outdoor sculptures from late 1976 until her death in 2009. Van Bruggen dealt with site logistics and solutions to logistical problems related to Oldenburg's sketches, freeing him to focus primarily on the designs for these public monuments, although these divisions were never clear-cut and Van Bruggen also contributed to creative ideas for the works. In this respect, their working relationship has been compared to that of the personal and professional duo Christo and Jean-Claude. Among their most popular projects are Spoonbridge and Cherry, (1988) a functional walking bridge over a stream in the form of a teaspoon holding a cherry (Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Walker Art Center), Shuttlecocks, (1994) which seem to have landed from a titan-sized badminton game (Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City), and Dropped Cone, (2001) a giant vanilla ice cream cone that collides with the corner of the roof of a shopping mall (Neumarkt Square, Cologne). Oldenburg's most recent completed public work is Paint Torch, (2011, Philadelphia). Still New York City-based, he now also works in California and France.


Legacy

Oldenburg's influences splinter off in numerous directions, touching an array of artists and movements that seem unrelated, in accordance with the subtlety and multi-valent meaning of his work. Oldenburg is as cynical as he is celebratory (who else would draw up a plan to replace the Washington Monument with a pair of castrating scissors?). Comfort food, his life-long obsession, is perhaps the ultimate symbol for inconsolable loneliness. First-generation feminists noticed this, and Niki de Saint-Phalle and Lynda Benglis were among the first sculptors drawn to his pliant, expressive forms which they emulated to some extent in their early work. In addition, as Donald Judd acknowledged in his seminal article "Specific Objects" (1965), in mimicking the process of food preparation (Floor Cake, for example, is stuffed with ice cream cartons, troweled with icing-like paint, and assembled in layers), Oldenburg anticipated the credo of Minimalism: "it is what it is."

One needn't understand the multi-layered references to art or art history to enjoy Oldenburg's work. Its bright color, oversized scale, and unabashed appeal to the viewer influenced a generation of subsequent contemporary sculptors focused on manipulating the scale, placement, and texture of everyday objects, among them Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. The missing link between Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, Oldenburg broke new ground in his embrace of consumer appetites, giving audiences what they wanted, to literally: "let them eat cake."

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Claes Oldenburg
Interactive chart with Claes Oldenburg's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Robert Rauschenberg
Marcel Duchamp
Rene Magritte
Jean Dubuffet
Jasper Johns

Friends

Allan Kaprow
Jim Dine
Donald Judd
Leo Castelli

Movements

Abstract Expressionism
Art Brut
Claes Oldenburg
Claes Oldenburg
Years Worked: 1960s - present

Artists

Jeff Koons
Damien Hirst

Friends

Hannah Wilke
Frank Gehry

Movements

Pop Art
Neo Pop Art



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Useful Resources on Claes Oldenburg

Books
Websites
Articles
Videos
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
biography
Claes Oldenburg: the Sixties

By Achim Hochdorfer, Benjamid H. D. Buchloch

Claes Oldenburg: An Anthology

By Germano Celant, Claes Oldenburg

Claes Oldenburg, Coosje Van Bruggen

By Germano Celant, Claes Oldengurg, Coosje Van Bruggen

Claes Oldenburg (October Files)

By Nadja Rottner

More Interesting Books about Claes Oldenburg
Art: When Bigger Is Better : Claes Oldenburg has spent the past 35 years blowing up and redefining everyday objects, all in the name of getting art off its pedestal

By Kristine Mckenna
LA Times
July 2, 1995

The Really Big Art of Claes Oldenburg

By Betty Py-Lieberman
Smithsonian Magazine
August, 1995

Dark Roots of a Pop Master's Sunshine

By Blake Gopnik
New York Times
April 12, 2013

Claes Oldenburg: Hold the Pickle?

By Bill Clarke
Artnews
April 4, 2013

More Interesting Articles about Claes Oldenburg
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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised by Ruth Epstein

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised by Ruth Epstein
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Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory: Abstract Expressionism
Pop Art
Pop Art
Pop Art
British artists of the 1950s were the first to make popular culture the dominant subject of their art, and this idea became an international phenomenon in the 1960s. But the Pop art movement is most associated with New York, and artists such as Andy Warhol, who broke with the private concerns of the Abstract Expressionists, and turned to themes which touched on public life and mass society.
TheArtStory: Pop Art
Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol was an American Pop artist best known for his prints and paintings of consumer goods, celebrities, and photographed disasters. One of the most famous and influential artists of the 1960s, he pioneered compositions and techniques that emphasized repetition and the mechanization of art.
TheArtStory: Andy Warhol
Roy Lichtenstein
Roy Lichtenstein
Roy Lichtenstein
Roy Lichtenstein was an American painter and a pioneer of the Pop art movement. His signature reproductions of comic book imagery eventually redefined how the art world viewed high vs. lowbrow art. Lichtenstein employed a unique form of painting called the Benday dot technique, in which small, closely-knit dots of paint were applied to form a much larger image.
TheArtStory: Roy Lichtenstein
Surrealism
Surrealism
Surrealism
Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
TheArtStory: Surrealism
Rene Magritte
Rene Magritte
Rene Magritte
Rene Magritte has achieved great popular acclaim for his idiosyncratic approach to Surrealism. His beautiful and troubling images of bowler-hatted men and nature scenes are popular in art and general circles.
TheArtStory: Rene Magritte
Salvador Dalí
Salvador Dalí
Salvador Dalí
Salvador Dalí was a Spanish Surrealist painter who combined a hyperrealist style with dream-like, sexualized subject matter. His collaborations with Hollywood and commercial ventures, alongside his notoriously dramatic personality, earned him scorn from some Surrealist colleagues.
TheArtStory: Salvador Dalí
Max Ernst
Max Ernst
Max Ernst
Max Ernst was a German Dadaist and Surrealist whose paintings and collages combine dream-like realism, automatic techniques, and eerie subject matter.
TheArtStory: Max Ernst
Michelangelo
Michelangelo
Michelangelo
Michelangelo was a Renaissance artist working in Italy in the sixteenth century. Although first a sculptor, he is perhaps best known for his large-scale painted frescos in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
Michelangelo
Constantin Brancusi
Constantin Brancusi
Constantin Brancusi
Constantin Brancusi, a Romanian artist working in Paris, was one of the founders of modern sculpture. His abstracted animals, portrait busts, and totem-like figures revolutionized the traditional relationship between the sculpture and its base.
TheArtStory: Constantin Brancusi
Fluxus
Fluxus
Fluxus
Fluxus was an international network of artists of the 1960s who worked in fields ranging from music to performance to the visual arts. Taking their name from the Latin 'to flow,' Fluxus artists adopted an often anarchic and satirical approach to conventional forms of art, and their ideas paved the way for Conceptual art.
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Allan Kaprow
Allan Kaprow
Allan Kaprow
Allan Kaprow was an American painter, collagist, assemblagist and performance artist. Kaprow was best known for trailblazing the artistic concept "happenings," which were experiential artistic events rather than single works of art.
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Yoko Ono
Yoko Ono
Yoko Ono
Yoko Ono is a Japanese-American artist, musician, author, and peace activist, known for her work in avant-garde art, music and filmmaking as well as her marriage to the lendary John Lennon. Ono was highly succcesful iin bringing feminism to the forefront of the art world through her performance and conceptual pieces.
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Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg, a key figure in early Pop art, admired the textural quality of Abstract Expressionism but scorned its emotional pathos. His famous "Combines" are part sculpture, part painting, and part installation.
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Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns is an American artist who rose to prominence in the late 1950s for his multi-media constructions, dubbed by critics as Neo-Dada. Johns' work, including his world-famous targets and American flags series, were important predecessors to Pop art.
TheArtStory: Jasper Johns
Jim Dine
Jim Dine
Jim Dine
Jim Dine is an American painter commonly associated with the Neo-Dada and Pop art movements. In addition to showing alongside such Pop icons as Warhol, Lichtenstein and Ruscha, Dine is also well known for collaborating with Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg and John Cage on a series of "happenings".
TheArtStory: Jim Dine
Romanticism
Romanticism
Romanticism
Romanticism was a nineteenth-century movement that celebrated the powers of emotion and intuition over rational analysis or classical ideals. Romantic artists emphasized awe, beauty, and the sublime in their works, which frequently charted the darker or chaotic sides of human life.
Romanticism
Art Brut
Art Brut
Art Brut
Art Brut, or in French "raw/rough art," was a label made by French artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art that was created by self-taught, naïve artists. Dubuffet concentrated on the art of the mentally unbalanced, whose aesthetics were not widely considered popular.
Art Brut
Jean Dubuffet
Jean Dubuffet
Jean Dubuffet
Jean Dubuffet was a French painter and sculptor, and arguably one of the most famous French artists of the mid-to-late-twentieth century. Dubuffet's paintings employed the impasto technique, in which oil paints were thickened by materials such as sand, tar and straw. He coined the term "Art Brut," otherwise known as "raw art."
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Christo
Christo
Christo
Christo is a Bulgarian land and environmental artist, best known as one half of the married artist team Christo and Jeanne-Claude (his wife who died in 2009). Together, Christo and Jeanne-Claude created temporary land art installations, so grand in scale and ambition that controversy often followed. The best known examples of their work include Wrapped Coast (1969) in Little Bay, Australian, Wrapped Reichstag (1995) in Berlin, and The Gates (2004) in New York City.
TheArtStory: Christo
Jeanne-Claude
Jeanne-Claude
Jeanne-Claude
Jeanne-Claude was a Moroccan-born French artist known for her environmental works and her collaborations with her husband Christo. Jeanne-Claude and Christo created monumental artworks that were both aesthetically beautiful, which was of great importance to Jeanne-Claude, and often overtly political.
Jeanne-Claude
Niki de Saint Phalle
Niki de Saint Phalle
Niki de Saint Phalle
Niki de Saint Phalle explored the various roles and representations of women in society. Her innovative use of found objects, unconventional materials, natural environments, graphic aesthetics, and assemblage in her art made her a prominent figure of 1960s Nouveau Realisme.
TheArtStory: Niki de Saint Phalle
Lynda Benglis
Lynda Benglis
Lynda Benglis
Lynda Benglis is an American artist associated with process-based and anti-form art. Best known for her floor-based "spills" and latex sculptures, she adds a critical feminist perspective to post-minimalist work.
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Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism emerged as a movement in New York in the 1960s, its leading figures creating objects which blurred the boundaries between painting and sculpture, and were characterized by unitary, geometric forms and industrial materials. Emphasizing cool anonymity over the passionate expression of the previous generation of painters, the Minimalists attempted to avoid metaphorical associations, symbolism, and suggestions of spiritual transcendence.
TheArtStory: Minimalism
Jeff Koons
Jeff Koons
Jeff Koons
Jeff Koons is an American sculptor, painter and Neo-Pop artist, best known for mirror-finished stainless steel constructions of animals and everyday objects. Koons' works are often large public installations, in which viewers are invited to interact with his art.
TheArtStory: Jeff Koons
Damien Hirst
Damien Hirst
Damien Hirst
Damien Hirst is a British installation and conceptual artist, and in the 1980s was a founding member of the Young British Artists (YBAs). His best known work is Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), comprised of a dead tiger shark suspended in a vitrine of formaldehyde.
TheArtStory: Damien Hirst
Marcel Duchamp
Marcel Duchamp
Marcel Duchamp
The French artist Marcel Duchamp was an instrumental figure in the avant-garde art worlds of Paris and New York. Moving through Dada, Surrealism, readymades, sculpture, and installation, his work involves conceptual play and an implicit attack on bourgeois art sensibilities.
TheArtStory: Marcel Duchamp
Donald Judd
Donald Judd
Donald Judd
Donald Judd was an early and influential Minimalist artist who made large-scale geometric objects, often of industrial materials and serially arranged on the floor or wall. He helped found the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, where many key works of Minimalism are installed.
TheArtStory: Donald Judd
Leo Castelli
Leo Castelli
Leo Castelli
Leo Castelli was an American art collector and gallery owner. His Castelli Gallery in New York, which opened in 1957, held several groundbreaking shows that revealed to the art world works by artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Castelli's gallery was considered an early proving ground for Neo-Dada, Pop, and Minimalist art.
TheArtStory: Leo Castelli
Hannah Wilke
Hannah Wilke
Hannah Wilke
Now seen as an iconic and path-breaking Feminist artist, Wilke's performances and photography are a crucial component of the Feminist movement in their use of the artist's own body in ways that addressed issues of female objectification, the male gaze, and female agency
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Frank Gehry
Frank Gehry
Frank Gehry
Frank Gehry is an American architect. He is best known for his asymmetrical, quasi-organic constructions, including the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. He is still considered among the more avant-garde, postmodern architects working today.
Frank Gehry
Neo Pop Art
Neo Pop Art
Neo Pop Art
Neo-Pop refers to Pop art's revival and evolution in the 1980s, when a renewed interest appeared in creating artworks based on the celebrities and popular culture of that decade. Artists such as Jeff Koons, Keith Haring and Takashi Murakami were major figures of early Neo-Pop, a movement that continues today.
Neo Pop Art
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