Claes Oldenburg, a whimsical father of pop art, dies at the age of 93

Claes Oldenburg, a Swedish-born artist whose cheerful caricatures of everyday things – such as monumental depictions of lipstick and binoculars, and “soft sculptures” of hamburgers and ice cream cones – made him a leading force in pop art, passed away on July 18 his house in Manhattan. He was 93.

His death was confirmed by Steve Henry, senior partner at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, representing him. He said Mr Oldenburg was in poor health but gave no specific reason.

No pop artist – not even his contemporaries Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein – has produced a public work that can rival his. “Art had to mean more than just making objects for galleries and museums,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. “I wanted to locate art in the experience of life.”

In 2017, while reflecting on Mr. Oldenburg’s career, New York Times art writer Randy Kennedy remarked that it’s easy to “forget how radical his work was when it first came out, expanding the definition of sculpture.” , by somehow making them more approachable and human at the same time cerebral.”

Mr. Oldenburg’s outdoor installations included a giant cherry balanced on a spoon in the sculpture garden at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; a monumental steel clothespin in Center Square in Philadelphia; a 20-ton baseball bat in front of the Chicago Social Security Administration building; and a 38-foot-tall flashlight at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.

In Washington, his work is represented by a giant steel and fiberglass typewriter eraser in the sculpture garden of the National Gallery of Art. Though the subject of the sculpture is a mystery to many younger visitors, the giant pink wheel and wavy bristles give it a compelling form.

At least one quirky Oldenburg proposal for the capital never materialized: a plan to replace the Washington Monument with a giant pair of scissors.

In “Claes Oldenburg: Object into Monument,” the catalog of a 1973 exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. Oldenburg described the ideas behind the scissors. As he envisioned the piece, the red hilts would be buried in deep hollows, their exposed blades opening and closing over the course of a day.

“Like scissors, the US is screwed together,” he wrote, “two violent parts destined to meet in their arc into one.”

Mr. Oldenburg probably never expected that the scissors would be built. David Pagel, professor of art theory and art history, wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 2004 that “mostly” Mr. Oldenburg’s “absurd suggestions” were “primarily great excuses to make great drawings.” (In the case of the scissors, one of these drawings is in the National Gallery collection.)

Mr. Oldenburg’s second wife, the Dutch-born sculptor Coosje van Bruggen, was his collaborator from 1976 until her death in 2009. Although critics sometimes questioned the extent of van Bruggen’s role, the couple maintained that their partnership was a true artistic partnership. It was said that the ideas for the sculptures came about together. Then Mr. Oldenburg made drawings while she took care of the fabrication and siting.

Mr. Oldenburg’s work delighted both collectors and critics. His 1974 Clothespin Ten Foot fetched more than $3.6 million at auction in 2015. In 2019 he sold his archive of 450 notebooks (along with thousands of drawings, photographs and other documents) to the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.

When Mr. Oldenburg arrived in New York in 1956, the era of abstract expressionist painting was drawing to a close. Young artists pioneered conceptual, performance and installation art. After painting for a few years, Mr. Oldenburg threw himself into the new movements. “I wanted work that was meaningful, messy, and a bit mysterious,” he told the New York Times.

His first one-man show in 1959 at the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village consisted largely of abstract sculptures made of paper, wood, and string—things he was said to have found on the street. His early work, “based on the discarded and the raw, on the flotsam and flotsam of modern life – was an instant hit with his contemporaries,” Kennedy reported in the Times.

In 1960, while Mr. Oldenburg was washing dishes in Provincetown, Massachusetts, he was fascinated by the shapes of food and tableware. In early 1961 he unveiled an installation called “The Store” made up of plaster models of real grocery stores.

At that point, his colors became “very, very strong,” Mr. Oldenburg said in a 2012 recorded lecture. And his plays got curvaceous. “My disposition is really for the tactile,” he said. “I see things around and I want to get them around. I want to be able to pet and touch her.”

For a second version of “The Store,” Mr. Oldenburg rented an actual storefront on East Second Street in Manhattan in late 1961. There, he displayed a 10-foot ice cream cone, a 5-foot by 7-foot hamburger, and a 9-foot slice of cake. The pieces were made of fabric and her chief seamstress was Patricia Muschinski, known as Patty Mucha, an artist who was married to Mr. Oldenburg from 1960 to 1970. These were among the first of hundreds of soft sculptures he produced over the years.

According to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which owns a poster for The Store, the piece was “a milestone in pop art” that reflected “Oldenburg’s interest in the slippery line between art and merchandise and the artist’s role per se self-announced promotion.”

By the mid-1960s, Mr. Oldenburg was a star of the art world. In 1969 he was the subject of the first major Pop Art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition included more than 100 of his sculptures (including a recreation of The Store) and dozens of drawings.

But he was already thinking beyond the confines of museums and galleries.

In 1969 he created Lipstick (Ascending) on ​​Caterpillar Tracks, a giant lipstick with an inflatable tip mounted on a plywood base reminiscent of military tank tracks. Commissioned by a group of Yale architecture students, it was parked prominently on the university campus.

The sculpture was both a physical manifestation of the anti-war slogan “Make Love, not War” and a platform from which to deliver speeches. But in 1974 (after Mr. Oldenburg converted the piece into metal) the university moved it to a less prominent location.

After “Lipstick”, Mr. Oldenburg created one “Colossal Monument” after the other. These included a large Robinson Crusoe umbrella at Des Moines; a Brobdingnagian electrical connector in Oberlin, Ohio; and a giant rubber stamp in Cleveland. How the piece was connected to the place was sometimes only clear to Mr. Oldenburg and van Bruggen.

Occasionally, the Oldenburgers worked with architect Frank Gehry, who built their giant binoculars into the West Coast headquarters he designed for the Los Angeles advertising agency Chiat/Day, which opened in 1991. Cars drive into the building’s garage.)

Claes Thure Oldenburg was born on January 28, 1929 in Stockholm. His mother was a concert singer and his father was a Swedish consular officer whose job required the family to move frequently.

The Oldenburgs moved to Chicago in 1936. Claes’ strongest memories of this period, he says, were of his mother filling notebooks with photographs from American magazines, including promotional images, resembling those that later appeared in his work.

Mr. Oldenburg studied literature and art at Yale. After graduating in 1950, he worked as a reporter in Chicago while taking art classes at night. He also spent time in San Francisco, where he made a living drawing weevils for pesticide advertisements, before moving to New York.

He divided his time between Lower Manhattan, where he had lived since 1971, and Beaumont-sur-Deme, France. The survivors include two stepchildren, Maartje Oldenburg and Paulus Kapteyn; and three grandchildren. His younger brother Richard, who died in 2018, was director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art for 22 years and later chairman of Sotheby’s America.

For all of Mr. Oldenburg’s successes, only a small fraction of his proposed monuments were built.

Unrealized ideas include installing a giant rear-view mirror – a symbol of a backward-looking culture – in London’s Trafalgar Square (1976) and replacing the Statue of Liberty with a giant electric fan to blow immigrants out to sea (1977).

He also suggested a drain pipe for Toronto, a windshield wiper for Chicago’s Grant Park, an ironing board for Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and a banana for Times Square, and scissors for Washington.

Sometimes he didn’t expect to be taken seriously. In a recorded interview accompanying an exhibition in Vienna in 2012, Mr. Oldenburg said: “The only thing that really saves the human experience is humour. I don’t think it would be much fun without humor.”

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