Claes Oldenburg Dies at 93; Pop Artist Made the Everyday Monumental

Claes Oldenburg, the Swedish-born American Pop artist known for his monumental sculptures of everyday objects, died on Monday at his home in New York City. He was 93.

His death was confirmed by Adriana Elgarresta, a spokeswoman for the Pace gallery in New York, which has long represented him.

Mr. Oldenburg entered the New York art scene in earnest in the late 1950s, embracing the audience-participation “Happenings” then in vogue and expanding the boundaries of art with shows that incorporated things like street signs, wire-and-plaster clothing and even pieces of pie.

As he focused more and more on sculpture, he began increasing the scale of his work, taking as his starting point ordinary objects like hamburgers, ice cream cones and household appliances and then enlarging them to unfamiliar, often imposing dimensions.

Mr. Oldenburg’s “Clothespin” was erected in 1976 in Philadelphia, to commemorate the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence.Credit…Dan Loh/Associated Press

One of his most famous installations, erected in 1976 — the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence — is “Clothespin,” a 45-foot-high, 10-ton black steel sculpture of precisely what the title indicates, complete with a metal spring that appropriately evokes the number 76. The work stands in stark contrast to conventional public sculpture, which Mr. Oldenburg, impersonating a municipal official, said was supposed to involve “bulls and Greeks and lots of nekkid broads.”

Like many Pop artists, he took cues from Marcel Duchamp, whose so-called readymade sculptures from the early 20th century were actually ordinary, mass-produced objects (a bicycle wheel, a urinal). Mr. Oldenburg’s sculptures, however, were handcrafted rather than store-bought, and he wanted them to be, as he put it, “just as mysterious as nature.”

“My intention is to make an everyday object that eludes definition,” he once said. He rarely depicted people; instead he focused on items closely associated with human needs and desires. “I’ve expressed myself consistently in objects with reference to human beings rather than through human beings,” he said.

“Shuttlecocks” by Mr. Oldenburg and his second wife, Coosje van Bruggen, a series of four sculptures on the grounds of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. Credit…Claes Oldenburg;, via the Oldenburg van Bruggen Studio

Claes Thure Oldenburg was born in Stockholm on Jan. 28, 1929, the son of Gosta and Sigrid Elisabeth (Lindforss) Oldenburg. His father, a diplomat, had postings in London, Berlin, Oslo and New York before being appointed in 1936 as the Swedish consul general in Chicago, where Claes grew up and attended the Latin School of Chicago.

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 the painter Paul Wieghardt, a student of Paul Klee’s at the modernist Bauhaus school in Weimar, Germany. During his early years in art school, Mr. Oldenburg worked for the City News Bureau of Chicago, where one of his duties included drawing comic strips. He was the only major artist associated with Pop Art to have drawn 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 objects made of papier-mâché.

“Floor Burger” (1962) and other works by Mr. Oldenburg at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.Credit…Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

His first significant shows in New York were The Street (1960), which consisted of cars, street signs and human figures made of cardboard and burlap, and The Store (1961), for which he opened his Lower East Side storefront studio to visitors, bringing art and commerce together in the artist’s atelier. Objects for sale included sandwiches, pieces of pie, sausages and clothing made of wire and plaster and painted in an exuberant dripping style recalling Abstract Expressionism. His work quickly increased in scale.

In 1960, Mr. Oldenburg married Patty Mucha, an artist who became his first collaborator and appeared in his films. He also participated in Happenings by Jim Dine, Robert Whitman, Simone Forti and other artists. Ms. Mucha, by her account, assisted Mr. Oldenburg with sewing his famed “soft” sculptures, made of canvas and later vinyl, filled with foam. “Floor Cake” and “Floor Burger,” both from 1962, led to a “Giant Toothpaste Tube” and an entire “Bathroom” installed at the Museum of Modern Art in 1969.

“Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks,” (1969).Credit…Claes Oldenburg; via the Oldenburg van Bruggen Studio
“Cupid’s Span,” created by Mr. Oldenburg and Ms. van Bruggen and installed in San Francisco’s Rincon Park in 2002.Credit…John G Mabanglo/EPA, via Shutterstock

Mr. Oldenburg was thinking even bigger, however, sketching tongue-in-cheek proposals for monuments like a “Fan in Place of the Statue of Liberty,” a “Design for a Tunnel Entrance in the Form of a Nose,” and a pair of “Scissors in Motion,” to replace the Washington Monument.

His first realized “Colossal Monument,” as he called this type of work, was “Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks.” Here a giant tube of lipstick fabricated in vinyl and mounted on tractor wheels, with obvious phallic and military overtones, was rolled onto Yale’s campus in 1969 at the moment Vietnam War protests and the student movement were rocking colleges and universities across the country.

Vincent Scully, the Yale architecture scholar and a champion of “Lipstick,” later described the scene as “a good deal like Petrograd, 1917.” “Lipstick” was fabricated in steel in 1974 and installed at Yale in the courtyard of the residential Morse College.

“Plantoir” (2001), by Mr. Oldenburg and Ms. van Bruggen, on display in Des Moines, Iowa.Credit…Daniel Acker for The New York Times

During his early years in New York, Mr. Oldenburg became acquainted with artists like Allan Kaprow, George Segal and Robert Whitman, and got involved in the Happenings that would blossom into performance art. He renamed his studio The Ray Gun Theater in 1962 and held performances there on weekends. In 1965, he rented the pool in a health club for a happening titled “Washes,” which involved colored balloons and people floating in the pool.

Two decades later, Mr. Oldenburg was still combining art and theater. In 1985, in collaboration with the Dutch writer and curator Coosje van Bruggen and the architect Frank Gehry, he staged an elaborate land-and-water spectacle in Venice titled “The Course of the Knife,” with a ship shaped like a Swiss Army knife as its centerpiece.

Mr. Oldenburg had met Ms. van Bruggen after he and Ms. Mucha divorced in 1970. Ms. van Bruggen was a staff member at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam at the time. Mr. Oldenburg’s first collaboration with her was in 1976, on the final version of “Trowel I,” an oversize garden implement installed on the grounds of the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands.

“Spoonbridge and Cherry” at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.Credit…Ben Garvin for The New York Times

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

Mr. Oldenburg is survived by a son, a daughter and grandchildren. Ms. van Bruggen died of breast cancer in 2009 at 66. His brother, Richard E. Oldenburg, the director of the Museum of Modern Art from 1972 to 1994, died in 2018 at 84.

In addition to his sculptural commissions, Mr. Oldenburg was 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 the retrospective “Claes Oldenburg: An Anthology.” His and Ms. van Bruggen’s work is in the collections of most major modern art museums in the United States and Europe.

While Mr. Oldenburg’s work is most often linked to the Pop Art of the 1960s, he saw his monumental versions of humble objects as more than just celebrations of the mundane.

“A catalog could be made of all such objects,” he was quoted as saying, “which would read like a list of the deities or things on which our contemporary mythological thinking has been projected. We do invest religious emotion in our objects. Look at how beautifully objects are depicted in ads in Sunday newspapers.”

Related Articles

Back to top button