Claes Oldenburg, eccentric father of pop art, dies at 93


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Klas Oldenburg, the Swedish-born artist whose carefree caricatures of everyday things such as monumental lipstick and binoculars, and “soft sculptures” of hamburgers and ice cream cones made him a leading force in pop art, died on July 18 at his home on Manhattan. He was 93 years old.

His death was confirmed by Pace Gallery and Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, who represent him. The cause was complications from the fall, said Adriana Elgarresta, director of communications for Pace.

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

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

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

In Washington, his work is featured by a giant steel and fiberglass typewriter eraser in the sculpture garden of the National Gallery of Art. While the subject matter of the sculpture remains a mystery to many young visitors, its giant pink wheel and wavy bristles give it an eye-catching shape.

At least one of Oldenburg’s bizarre proposals for a capital never came to fruition: a plan to replace the Washington Monument with giant scissors.

In the catalog for a 1973 exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, Claes Oldenburg: An Object in a Monument, Mr. Oldenburg described the ideas behind scissors. According to his plan, the red hilts were to be buried in deep gutters, and the open blades were to open and close during the day.

“Like scissors, the United States is screwed together,” he wrote, “two cruel parts that are destined to meet as one on their arc.”

Mr. Oldenburg probably never expected the scissors to be built. David Pagel, a professor of art theory and history, wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 2004 that “more often than not” Mr. Oldenburg’s ridiculous suggestions were first and foremost an excellent pretext for making great drawings. (In the case of the scissors, one of these drawings is in the collection of the National Gallery.)

Mr. Oldenburg’s second wife, the Dutch-born sculptor Kusje van Bruggen, was his companion from 1976 until her death in 2009. Although critics have sometimes questioned the extent of van Bruggen’s role, the pair have maintained that their collaboration was a true creative partnership. According to them, the ideas for the sculptures were thought up jointly. Then Mr. Oldenburg made the drawings, and she took care of the fabrication and placement.

The work of Mr. Oldenburg appealed to both collectors and critics. His 1974 Ten Foot Clothespin sold at auction in 2015 for more than $3.6 million. 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 expressionism was coming to an end. The young artists were pioneers in conceptual, performance and installation art. After spending a couple of years drawing, Mr. Oldenburg plunged headlong into new movements. “I wanted the work to say something, to be dirty, a little mysterious,” he told the New York Times.

His first solo exhibition, held in 1959 at the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, consisted mainly of abstract sculptures made of paper, wood and rope, things he said he found on the street. His early writings, “based on the rubble and the roughness, the rubble and rubble of modern life, were a hit with his contemporaries from the outset,” Kennedy wrote in The Times.

In 1960, while working as a dishwasher in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Mr. Oldenburg found himself fascinated by the shape of food and dishes. In early 1961, he presented the “Shop” installation, consisting of plaster models of actual grocery stores.

At this point, his colors became “very, very bright,” Mr. Oldenburg said in a recorded speech in 2012. And his figures became magnificent. “I’m really touchy,” he said. “I see things as round and I want to make them round. I want to be able to pet them and touch them.”

For the second version of The Store, in late 1961, Mr. Oldenburg rented a real storefront on East Second Street in Manhattan. There, he demonstrated a 10-foot-long ice cream cone, a 5-by-7-foot hamburger, and a 9-foot-long piece of cake. The pieces were made from fabric and their 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 created over the years.

According to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which owns the “Shop” poster, the work was “a milestone in pop art” that “heralded Oldenburg’s interest in the slippery line between art and commodities and the role of the artist in oneself.” -promotion.”

By the mid-1960s, Mr. Oldenburg had become a worldwide art star. In 1969, he became the subject of the first major pop art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition featured more than 100 of his sculptures (including a recreation of The Store) and dozens of drawings.

But he was already thinking outside of museums and galleries.

In 1969, he created Lipstick (Climbing) on ​​Caterpillars, a giant inflatable tip lipstick mounted on a plywood base resembling the tracks of a military tank. Commissioned by a group of Yale architecture students, it was parked in a prominent location on the university campus.

The sculpture was both the physical embodiment of the anti-war slogan “make love not war” and a platform from which speeches could be made. But in 1974 (after Mr. Oldenburg had remade the metal sculpture) the university moved it to a less prominent place.

After “Lipstick” Mr. Oldenburg created one “colossal monument” after another. These include the large Robinson Crusoe umbrella in Des Moines; a Brobdingnagian electrical plug in Oberlin, Ohio; and a huge rubber stamp in Cleveland. How the work was related to the place was sometimes clear only to Herr Oldenburg and van Bruggen.

Oldenburg and van Bruggen occasionally collaborated with architect Frank Gehry, who built his giant binoculars into the West Coast headquarters he designed for Chiat/Day advertising agency in Los Angeles, which opened in 1991. through which cars enter the garage of the building.)

Claes Thure Oldenburg was born in Stockholm on January 28, 1929. His mother was a concert singer, and his father was an employee of the Swedish consulate, whose work required the family to move frequently.

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

Mr. Oldenburg studied literature and art at Yale University. After graduating in 1950, he worked as a reporter in Chicago and attended drawing classes in the evenings. He also spent time in San Francisco, where he made a living painting weevils for pesticide advertisements, before moving to New York. For decades, he divided his time between Lower Manhattan and Beaumont-sur-Dem in France.

President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Arts in 2000.

Survivors include two adopted children, Martje Oldenburg and Paulus Kaptein; and four grandchildren. His younger brother Richard, who died in 2018, served as director of the Museum of Modern Art for 22 years and was later chairman of Sotheby’s America.

Despite all the successes of Mr. Oldenburg, only a small part of the monuments he proposed was built.

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

He also suggested a drainpipe 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 did not expect to be taken seriously. In a taped interview accompanying the 2012 exhibition in Vienna, Mr. Oldenburg said: “The only thing that really saves the human experience is humor. I don’t think it would be much fun without humor.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that there are three grandchildren among Claes Oldenburg’s survivors, based on inaccurate information from Paula Cooper’s gallery. He is survived by four grandchildren. The article has been corrected.

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