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Klaas Oldenburg dies at the age of 93; The pop artist made everyday life monumental

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Claes Oldenburg, a Swedish-born American pop artist known for his monumental sculptures of everyday objects, died Monday at his home and studio in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood. He was 93 years old.

His death was confirmed by Adriana Elgarresta, spokeswoman for the Pace Gallery in New York, which, along with the Paula Cooper Gallery, has long represented him.

Mr. Oldenburg entered the New York art scene in earnest in the late 1950s, taking part in the “happenings” that were then in vogue and pushing the boundaries of art through exhibitions that used such things as street signs, clothes made of wire and plaster, and even pieces of cake. His approach to everyday objects, performance and collaboration continues to influence generations of artists.

The early project The Store (1961) opened in a shop window in the East Village and sold absurd plaster replicas of everyday objects like shoes or a comic book cheeseburger, only covered in recognizable drips and improvisational dashes. abstract expressionism.

As he focused more and more on sculpture, he began to scale up his work, taking ordinary objects such as hamburgers, ice cream cones, and household appliances as a starting point, and then scaling them up to unfamiliar, often imposing sizes.

One of his most famous installations, erected in 1976 for the bicentenary of the Declaration of Independence, is “The Clothespin,” a 45-foot, 10-tonne black steel sculpture, exactly as the title suggests, complete with a metal spring that appropriately evokes the number 76 is remembered. The work contrasts sharply with traditional public sculpture, which, according to Mr. Oldenburg, depicting a municipal official, should have involved “bulls, Greeks and many naked women.”

Mr. Oldenburg was heavily influenced by the French artist Jean Dubuffet, who brought so-called outsider art to galleries and museums, disrupting the status quo of institutional art. But like many pop artists, Mr. Oldenburg also took a cue from Marcel Duchamp, whose so-called early 20th-century readymades were actually ordinary mass-produced items (a bicycle wheel, a urinal). However, Mr. Oldenburg’s sculptures were handmade, not store bought, and he wanted them to be, as he put it, “as mysterious as nature”.

“My intention is to create an everyday item that defies definition,” he once said. He rarely portrayed people; instead, he focused on subjects closely related to human needs and desires. “I constantly expressed myself in objects in relation to people, and not through people,” he said. As art dealer Arne Glimcher, who knew and worked with Oldenburg since the early 1960s, said in an interview on Monday, “his work was almost psychoanalytic.”

Mr. Glimcher noted that Mr. Oldenburg’s work was based on precise drawings. “He was a draftsman comparable to Ingres or Picasso,” he said, “but with the audacity to spoil everything.”

According to Mr. Glimcher, his most important contribution to sculpture was the transformation of something hard, such as bronze or wood, into something soft. The sculptures deflated, and Mr. Glimcher recalled how Mr. Oldenburg instructed his colleagues to “fluff them up”.

Paula Cooper, a New York-based art dealer who represented Oldenburg for many years, said of his everyday sculptures: “They were whimsical, but always formal, and as time went on, the works became grander. He took a simple idea and expanded it.”

Claes Thure Oldenburg was born in Stockholm on 28 January 1929 to Gosta and Sigrid Elisabeth (Lindfors) Oldenburg. His father, a diplomat, worked in London, Berlin, Oslo and New York before being appointed Consul General of Sweden in Chicago in 1936, where Klaas grew up and attended Chicago’s Latin School.

Mr. Oldenburg studied literature and art history at Yale University from 1946 to 1950. He returned to the Midwest to study at the Art Institute of Chicago in the early 1950s with painter Paul Wieghardt, a student of Paul Klee at the modernist Bauhaus school in Weimar, Germany. During his early years at art school, Mr. Oldenburg worked at the Chicago City News Bureau, where one of his duties was to draw comics. He was the only major pop art artist who drew comics professionally.

Mr. Oldenburg became a United States citizen in 1953 and moved to New York in 1956. His first exhibition at the Judson Gallery in May 1959 included drawings, collages and papier-mâché objects.

His first significant exhibitions in New York were The Street (1960), which consisted of cars, road signs, and human figures made of cardboard and burlap, and The Store (1961), for which he opened his studio, which then occupied a shop window on st. Lower East Side, for visitors, combining art and commerce in an artist’s studio. Items for sale included sandwiches, pieces of cake, sausages, and clothing made from wire and plaster and painted in a flamboyant style reminiscent of Abstract Expressionism. His work expanded rapidly.

In 1960, Mr. Oldenburg married Patty Mucha, an artist who became his first collaborator and starred in his films. He painted objects that he turned into sculptures, such as his famous “soft” sculptures, made of canvas and then foam-filled vinyl, and Ms. Mucha sewed them for the most part. Floor Cake and Floor Burger, both from 1962, led to the Giant Tube of Toothpaste and the entire Bath, installed at the Museum of Modern Art in 1969.

He has also participated in the Happenings of Jim Dine, Robert Whitman, Simone Forti and other artists.

However, Mr. Oldenburg thought even more, scribbled derisive proposals for such monuments as “A Fan for the Statue of Liberty,” “The Nose Tunnel Entrance Project,” and a pair of “Scissors in Motion” instead of the Washington Monument.

His first realized “Colossal Monument”, as he called this type of work, was “Lipstick (ascending) on ​​caterpillars”. Here, a giant tube of lipstick, made of vinyl and mounted on tractor wheels, with obvious phallic and military overtones, was rolled onto the Yale campus in 1969, when anti-Vietnam War protests and student movement rocked colleges and universities across the country.

Vincent Scully, Yale architectural scholar and Lipstick champion, later described the scene as “much like Petrograd in 1917”. “Lipstick” was made of steel in 1974 and installed at Yale University in the yard of Morse Residential College.

During his early years in New York, Mr. Oldenburg met artists such as Allan Kaprow, George Segal and Robert Whitman and took part in happenings that later turned into performance art. In 1962, he renamed his studio The Ray Gun Theater and performed there on the weekends. In 1965, he rented a pool at a health club for an event called “The Laundry” which featured colorful balloons and people floating in the pool. Two decades later, Mr. Oldenburg still combined art and theater. In 1985, in collaboration with the Dutch writer and curator Kusje van Bruggen and architect Frank Gehry, he staged an elaborate water and land spectacle in Venice called “The Knife Course” with a ship shaped like a Swiss Army knife. as its centerpiece.

Mr Oldenburg met Ms van Bruggen after he and Ms Mucha divorced in 1970. At that time, Ms. van Bruggen worked as an employee of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Mr. Oldenburg’s first collaboration with her was in 1976 with the final version of the “Trowel I”, a large garden tool installed on the grounds of the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, The Netherlands.

The couple got married in 1977. They collaborated on over 40 projects including “Spoonbridge and Cherry” from 1985 to 1988 in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and “Giant Binoculars” (1991) which was included in Mr Gehry’s design for the Chiat-Day Building in Venice, California.

Mr. Oldenburg is survived by two adopted children, Paulus Kaptein and Martje Oldenburg, and three grandchildren. Ms van Bruggen died of breast cancer in 2009 at the age of 66. His brother, Richard E. Oldenburg, director of the Museum of Modern Art from 1972 to 1994, died in 2018 at the age of 84.

In addition to his sculptural commissions, Mr. Oldenburg has been the subject of many solo exhibitions, including one at the Museum of Modern Art in 1969. In 1995, the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Guggenheim Museum in New York jointly organized a retrospective. “Klas Oldenburg: An Anthology”. His and Mrs. van Bruggen’s work is in the collections of most major contemporary art museums in the US and Europe.

Although Mr. Oldenburg’s work is most often associated with the pop art of the 1960s, he saw in his monumental versions of modest objects something more than just a celebration of the ordinary.

“One could catalog all such objects,” he was quoted as saying, “which reads like a list of deities or things onto which our modern mythological thinking is projected. We put religious emotions into our objects. See how beautifully the objects are depicted in the advertisements in the Sunday papers.

Mr. Glimcher in the interview went even further, viewing Mr. Oldenburg as an observer of American culture, in which certain objects, even a humble telephone, a hamburger or an ice cream cone, gain popularity and mean something. “They were prophetic,” he said of Mr. Oldenburg’s sculptures. “These were sociological statements.”

Danielle Kroes contributed to the report.

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