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Artists Claes Oldenburg
Claes Oldenburg Photo

Claes Oldenburg

American Sculptor

Movement: Pop Art

Born: January 28th, 1929 - Stockholm, Sweden

Claes Oldenburg Timeline

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."

Claes Oldenburg Signature

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, DalĂ­, 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

Claes Oldenburg Famous 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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Claes Oldenburg Artworks in Focus:

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.

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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 RauschenbergRobert Rauschenberg
Marcel DuchampMarcel Duchamp
Rene MagritteRene Magritte
Jean DubuffetJean Dubuffet
Jasper JohnsJasper Johns

Friends

Allan KaprowAllan Kaprow
Jim DineJim Dine
Donald JuddDonald Judd
Leo CastelliLeo Castelli

Movements

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

Artists

Jeff KoonsJeff Koons
Damien HirstDamien Hirst

Friends

Hannah WilkeHannah Wilke
Frank GehryFrank Gehry

Movements

Pop ArtPop Art
Neo Pop ArtNeo Pop Art

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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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Useful Resources on Claes Oldenburg

Videos

Books

Websites

Articles

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of 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: An Anthology

By Germano Celant, Claes Oldenburg

Claes Oldenburg: the Sixties

By Achim Hochdorfer, Benjamid H. D. Buchloch

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 Recomended resource

By Betty Py-Lieberman
Smithsonian Magazine
August, 1995

Dark Roots of a Pop Master's Sunshine Recomended resource

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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