The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

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MAY 2013 Issue

CLAES OLDENBURG The Street and The Store and Mouse Museum/Ray Gun Wing

On View
Museum Of Modern Art
April 14, 2013 – August 5, 2013
New York

An American born in Sweden in 1929, Claes Oldenburg is a true pop-surrealist. Of his early work, contemporary critics variously classified it as pop-expressionism, installation art, and “Happenings’ props and sets.” Today, however, Oldenburg’s pioneering creations are being re-evaluated with a fresh sense of relevance to the true beginning of American pop art, even as they also are being placed in context with foundational movements such as neo-Dadaism, Surrealism, and Art Brut.

Claes Oldenburg, "Pastry Case, I," 1961 - 62. Painted plaster sculptures on ceramic plates, metal platter and cubs in glass-and-metal case. 20 3/4 x 30 1/8 x 14 3/4". The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection. (c) 1961 - 62 Claes Oldenburg. Photo: MoMA Imaging Services.

The genesis of the current show dates back several years in Europe, in an exhibit of some 150 of Oldenburg’s drawings, collages, and cardboards figures “à la Dubuffet,” via the Museum Moderne Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Wien (mumok), and rather generically titled The Sixties.

This exhibition, organized by Achim Hochdorfer, Curator of the mumok Ann Temkin, Chief Curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA and Paulina Pobocha, Assistant Curator, constitutes the largest-ever presentation of Oldenburg’s earliest witty and gritty expressionistic sculptures, arranged within an immersive, oversized environment. Made from materials such as chicken wire, plaster, burlap, papier-mâché, and newspaper, they were finished off in enamel paint. These everyday objects foretold the iconic, ironic codification of consumer culture as it evolved in New York City’s Lower East Side, at the confluence of American, Latino, and Jewish cultures.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree from Yale in 1950, the Stockholm-born Swedish ambassador’s son, artist/sculptor began working as an apprentice reporter at the City News Bureau of Chicago. “I was assigned to cover stories that were considered unimportant, but which I found fascinating,” he recalled in an interview with an Los Angeles Times reporter in 1995 about his early struggles. “I once covered the death of a man who’d spent his life collecting nuts and bolts—every drawer and receptacle in his apartment was full of nuts and bolts.” Oldenburg also tried his hand as an illustrator for Chicago magazine beginning in 1955, with greater success.

In 1956, after moving to 107 East 2nd St. in the East Village, Oldenburg began collecting discarded objects—found “city-culture” materials—that fascinated him. His first installation of a dozen cardboard figures, “The Street,” was inspired mostly by his life in Chicago, but was conceived in the Lower East Side. The works later became a backdrop for “Snapshots from the City” (1960), in which the artist and his first-wife-to-be, Pat Muchinski, were tied up in bandages and danced around his graffiti-layered studio. A re-creation of that performance in front of his art was videotaped in the basement of the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village and is being shown here.

The cut-out characters on display were carefully constructed with a sculptor’s hand, depicting parts of the body (a head, a leg, etc.) made from pieces of cardboard blackened at the edges for a singed effect, and then connected by rope. They reveal a knowledge of European experiments that date to Picasso’s 1914 “Le Verre d’Absinthe” (“Glass of Absinthe”), a small, painted plaster object done cubist-style, as well as the 1930s surrealist technique of fumage (using soot from burning candles as a brush), and on through Daniel Spoerri’s 1950s food assemblages and 1960s Arte Povera (the use of cheap “poverty” materials).

My favorite food-art pieces are the exploding “Baked Potato #1” (1963) with a square of butter on top, an oversized dish nevertheless enticingly delicious, two pork-chops in a yin yang position in a small metal skillet, “Frying Pan With Pork Chops” (1961–62) and of course the iconic giant soft ice cream cone, “Floor Cone” (1962), or made from burlap soaked in plaster and painted in synthetic polymer paint. By their surreal simplicity, they are an embodiment of hunger and desire (the eyes are bigger than the stomach), bigger than life and expressionistic in appearance. The viewer feels like a Lilliputian child in a colossal giant candy store.

In his “Notes” (1959), Oldenburg wrote: “Expressionist art is a war between form and anti-form, between order and disorder, between reason and anti-reason, between taste and propriety, and bad taste and impropriety.”

There are scores of other pieces filling the walls, as if directly transported from the magical junk store that 107 East 2nd St. became, including a flying yellow dress dipped in enamel, a pair of giant black sneakers, white enamel pies in a glass display case and giant chocolate cakes, all lumpy, misshapen, dripping sloppily in a vaguely Pollockian style.

In addition to “The Street & The Store” on the sixth-floor exhibit, two Oldenburg installation projects from the 1970s are in the atrium on the second floor. Picking up on Duchamp’s notion that an ordinary object can be chosen by an artist to become an “object d’art,” Oldenburg encouraged a debate about authorship and originality, dissolving the distinction between sanctioned museum pieces and iconic everyday objects. In “The Mouse Museum/Ray Gun Wing” (1969–1977), two black walk-in containers, one shaped like the flat head of Mickey Mouse and the other in a shape of a gun, contain 385 bizarre Dada objects and absurd ready-mades (often with an assist from the artist). The gun container alone holds 258 objects that resemble guns, in an atmosphere of sound and music.

For a while, Oldenburg was a compulsive hoarder who collected antiques with a purpose and vision, creating an altar of quasi-surrealistic, Duchampian household objects. A viewer can’t help but giggle at the sight of a lollipop in the shape of a penis or a long rubber double-headed dildo, but these and other pieces fit just fine in the context of a consumer society: dress up, eat, drink, smoke, play, have sex, kill.

Illustrating the banal in a crude, expressionistic manner, Oldenburg approached his subjects with a brand of rough-edged irreverence that would become his personal trademark, forcing a rethinking of “the object as art or as a collectable.” His deadpan attitude expresses his views on consumerism and the conspicuous consumption of food, hence his giant “Floor Burger” (1962), a canvas filled with foam acrylic paint. “The Lingerie Counter” (1962) is sexually humorous, and all a part of the theater of happenstance of New York City.

 Another delightful work is “Upside Down City” (1962), a landscape of 12 skyscrapers painted on long fabric tubes hanging as if left to dry. Oldenburg redefined sculpture, first as common household objects destined for indoor exhibition, and then in the late 1960s with public outdoor space construction.

As Oldenburg observed in Craft Horizons in 1963, talking about the dialectics between the industrial produced object and hand made creation, “I’ve never made the separation between the museum and the hardware store, I mean I enjoy both of them and want to combine the two.”

The artist’s hunger for original invention and playfulness produced many icons of a bygone era, relics of cheap coffee and “39 cent” idioms that have all but disappeared. He preserved an era of American consumerism that promised alleviation from want by way of mass production. Oldenburg also opened the sculptural/painting space with three-dimensional color, soft bodies and surfaces and a utopian view of the future. The two exhibits of “body related objects of extreme originality” (Barbara Rose, 1966) comprise a must-see retrospective of the still-living patriarch of pop art that reopens the dialogue about the artist’s response to a society of the spectacle. 


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

All Issues