Claes Oldenburg
Biography of Pop-Art Sculptor and Surrealist.

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Apple Core (1992)
Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

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Claes Oldenburg (b.1929)

One of the most popular 20th century sculptors, the Swedish-born American sculptor, painter and pop artist Claes Oldenburg began his career in New York where he participated in numerous Happenings with artists including Jim Dine, Allan Kaprow and George Segal. This led to his joining the Pop Art movement at the beginning of the 1960s, and the creation of a series of large-scale sculptures of everyday items like toothpaste and hamburgers, which brought him instant recognition and fame. Famous works by Claes Oldenburg include Dual Hamburger (1962, Museum of Modern Art New York); Lipsticks in Piccadilly Circus (1966, Tate, London); Tube Supported by Its Contents (1979-85, Utsumomiya Museum of Art, Japan); Apple Core (1992, Israel Museum, Jerusalem); Match Cover (1992, Barcelona) and Apple Core (1992, Jerusalem). His role in elevating banal but instantly recognizable everyday objects into stimulating if ironic plastic art, not only made him the leading 3-D artist of the Pop movement, but also one of the most popular and amusing of all contemporary American sculptors.


Free Stamp (1985-91)
Willard Park, Cleveland.
By Claes Oldenburg & Van Bruggen.

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Early Career

Born in Sweden in 1929, Oldenburg's family moved to Chicago when he was an infant. Between 1946 and 1950 he studied at Yale before deciding to return to Chicago to study at the Art Institute. Here he trained under the direction of the artist Paul Wieghard. While developing his artistic skills, he also worked as a reporter at the City News Bureau of Chicago.

In 1953 he opened his own studio, selling his first recorded works later that year at the 57th Street Art Fair in Chicago. He sold 5 works, for a total price of $25. In 1956 Oldenburg moved to New York, where he came into contact with the Abstract Expressionist Movement. He met the plaster sculptor George Segal (1924-2000); the Neo-Dadaist and Pop Artist Jim Dine (b.1935); the multimedia artist Red Grooms (b.1937); and the Assemblage painter Allan Kaprow (1927-2006) - all of whom were involved at the time in 'Happenings' and performance art. Their performances anticipated Oldenburg's later sculptures which celebrated everyday life as a performance.

 

First Sculptures

Oldenburg's early sculptures were made from objects like toilets and fans. Although he is classified by art historians as a Pop Artist, he differs from Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein in that his subject matter has close affinities with Dada and Surrealism. (His works have strong echoes of the Verism of Rene Magritte, one of the top surrealist artists.) Where Warhol tried to retain the identity of a consumer object, Oldenburg tended to transform it, delving beneath the surface in search of what he called 'parallel realities'. This is a main feature of Neo-Dada art and its European equivalent "Nouveau Realisme". He explored how a common item could take on multiple identities through change of material, scale and physical setting. One of this first monumental sculptures was Geometric Mouse. He created the Mouse in five different sizes. He also created sketches and lithographs on the same subject, showing the Geometric Mouse in various outlines. The Mouse was to appear in future works including Print Notes (1968). In 1961 Oldenburg organised The Store, in New York, a shop where plaster sculptures of everyday items were displayed.



Giant Pop Art Sculptures


In the mid 1960s Oldenburg completed his first drawings for his giant scale projects. In 1967 an exhibiton of these proposals was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Many of these ideas, like a giant teddy bear for Central Park were never realised, but some were, including: Lipstick on Caterpillar Tracks (1969, Yale), which created a scandal when first erected; Giant Icebag (1969-1970), which was motorised and deflates and inflates; and Flashlight (1981, University of Nevada, Las Vegas), a 38-foot steel monument. (Compare works by European pop sculptors, such as La Pouce (Thumb) by the French artist Cesar Baldaccini.)

Other artists associated with Pop Art include Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97), Robert Indiana (b.1928), Andy Warhol (1928-87), Jim Dine (b.1935), Ray Johnson (1927-95), Alex Katz (b.1927), Ed Ruscha (b.1937), James Rosenquist (b.1933), and Tom Wesselmann (b.1931).

Around the same time, Oldenburg moved his studio to a larger scale facility in New Haven, which was close to a fabricating plant that specialised in working with artists. Here he created gigantic colourful sculptures of lipsticks, toothpaste, toothbrushes, half eaten apples, upturned ice-cream cones and slices of cake made from vinyl and cloth. The monumentality of his work was meant to reflect the object fetishism of a captalist society, a society obsessed with colourful consumer goods, although making art out of ordinary objects was still a novelty during the 1960s. In Oldenburg's universe small objects became giant and hard objects became soft. And in the spirit of the surrealists, he switched around the usual sensations, so things soft, he made hard, or the other way around (a muslin-and plaster roast of beef, a saggy portable typewriter); while things smooth, he turned furry (ice-cream lollies made of fake-fur) and so on.

Exhibitions and Art Theory

Oldenburg's first exhibition took place in 1958 in New York, when a selection of his drawings were included in a group show at the Red Grooms City Gallery. The following year he had his first solo-exhibition at the Judson Gallery, New York. In 1962 his works were included in the New Realists Exhibition, which came to ultimately define the Pop Art Movement. The show, which took place at the Sidney Janis Gallery, included several of the artists who have since been defined with the movement including Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and Tom Wesselmann.

Note About Sculpture Appreciation
To learn how to evaluate modernist Pop art sculptors like Claes Oldenburg, see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture. For earlier works, please see: How to Appreciate Sculpture.

Dutch Artist Van Bruggen

In 1976 Oldenburg started to collaborate with the Dutch artist Coosje van Bruggen (1942-2009) (they married the following year). Van Bruggen is considered to have had a classicising influence on Oldenburg. In the 1990s the bought a house in France and, inspired by the musicians on the Paris Metro, they made a series of sculptures of musical instruments. The instruments, including a sliced Stradivarius, look as though they have been plucked from a Hieronymus Bosch painting. A connection between music, love and morality became a common theme in any works that the couple produced together. In 2000 the National Gallery in London commissioned a work by Oldenberg entitled, Resonance, After J.V., which reinterprets Vermeer's paintings of young women playing an instrument. Van Bruggen died in 2009.

Legacy

Oldenburg's sculpture, like that of many of his contemporaries, did much to question the meaning of art. Can ordinary objects become true art? Do everyday objects trivialise the very idea of monumental art? Philosophically, Oldenburg saw himself as a Realist, and his work was a social commentary on popular American culture. In 1995 the National Gallery of Art and the Guggenheim Museum organised a travelling exhibition of his works which travelled to Los Angeles, Bonn and London.

Examples of Works in Public Collections

Oldenberg's sculptures are in some of the best art museums in the world. They include:

- Pastry Case, I (1961–2, Museum of Modern Art, New York)
- Floor Cone (1962; Museum of Modern Art, New York)
- Dual Hamburger (1962, Museum of Modern Art New York)
- Bedroom Ensemble (1963, Ottawa Museum of Fine Art)
- Lipsticks in Piccadilly Circus, London (1966, Tate, London)
- Chapel in the Form of a Swedish Extension Plug (Krannert Museum, Illinois)
- Giant Trowel (1976, Kröller-Müller Museum, Holland)
- Tube Supported by Its Contents (1979-85, Utsumomiya Museum, Japan)
- Apple Core (1992, Israel Museum, Jerusalem)
- Match Cover (1992, Barcelona)

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