Claes Oldenburg was born in 1929 in Sweden, but grew up in the United States. His family settled in Chicago, where his father was the Swedish consul-general. His mother had been a concert singer. Oldenburg attended a private school in Chicago before entering Yale University in 1946. He took only a few art classes during his senior year and received a Bachelor of Arts degree. Writing was Oldenburg's main interest at this time, so when he returned to Chicago, he worked as a newspaper reporter until 1952, when he entered the Chicago Art Institute to study art. He became an American citizen in 1953.
Oldenburg was an art editor and illustrator for a Chicago magazine from 1955 to 1956. One of his duties during that time was drawing comic strips for the magazine. In fact, Oldenburg is the only Pop artist to have professionally drawn comics, despite the importance of the comics to other pop artists, primarily Warhol and Lichtenstein.
In 1956, Oldenburg moved to New York City. He worked part time at the Cooper Union library, shelving books. At this time, his interest in traditional figurative paintings began to change to an interest in sculpture.
In the late 1950s, Oldenburg was influenced by Kaprow's "happenings," Duchamp's ready-mades, abstract expressionist painting, and Jim Dine's very unusual approach to art materials. In 1960, Dine and Oldenburg collaborated on a series of environments based on street themes. After this show, Oldenburg began working with chicken wire covered with muslin and burlap dipped in plaster and then painted. These brightly painted sculptures were replicas of pastries, vegetables, and meats and were displayed in a store that Oldenburg rented and used as a studio.
These life-size sculptures included a hamburger with pickle and tomato, pastry cases with actual dishes filled with plaster sculptures of ice cream, cookies, parfaits, bananas, baked potatoes, and entire restaurant meal consisting of sculptures of a filet mignon wrapped in bacon, a baked potato with a large pat of butter, a lobster tail and an ash tray filled with cigarette butts. Oldenburg has an exuberance for life which shows in much of his work, beginning with these plaster replicas of food.
He also, like several of the other Pop artists, became involved with happenings and, in 1962, named the store "The Ray Gun Theater."
By 1962, Oldenburg began creating soft sculptures from fabric, kapok (a soft material that was used to stuff furniture at that time), and foam rubber. He is not the first artist to make soft sculpture, but certainly the artist most closely associated with this medium. The studies for these were made from canvas and are referred to as "ghosts" because they are white in color. Some of the studies were then fabricated in vinyl as the final sculptures. Some of these soft sculptures were originally made to be touched (they felt like a beanbag), but that is no longer possible because they have become so valuable. In addition to being soft, these sculptures were much larger than the objects that they portrayed. These included a four-foot tall bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich, a nine-foot-high sack of French fries, and an oversized loaf of raisin bread.
Sometimes he created two sculptures of the same object at a very large scale: one made of hard material and the other made of soft material. These were usually not sculptures of food, but of objects that are part of our technology. We all know that our technology requires hardness or rigid surfaces in order to function. Oldenburg's hard and soft versions of these objects are humorous because it is obvious that the hard version has the potential to function, whereas, the soft version could never function. An example of this is two large sculptures of common light switches: one is made from soft material and is impossible to use, the other is made from rigid materials and looks like it could work.
Other works consist of only a single soft sculpture of an object that requires rigidity to function. To some critics, this has implied a criticism of contemporary technology and has brought about speculation that Oldenburg was saying that technology was becoming impotent. In other words, in technology, as in nature, some things must be hard to work. This simple and not so subtle erotic (but rather funny in this context) principle may very well be the basis of much of this work. Among these soft sculptures are a telephone, a typewriter, a mixer, a set of drums (with soft cymbals), and a complete bathroom (toilet, sink, bathtub, and medicine cabinet).
Oldenburg's objects incorporated reality and function as a source of humor. A French-fried potato four feet long is not just humorous, but it is also quite alarming. Oldenburg also created humor by representing a soft object like a baked potato in hard materials, or a hard object such as a bathtub in soft materials. These contradictions and the resulting humor not only come from Oldenburg's denial of the function of the objects, but also from the enlarging of a commonplace object to enormous proportions.
Oldenburg has also created a number of conceptual drawings as part of his "Colossal Monuments" series. Some of his monumental proposals include a vacuum cleaner for New York City's Battery Park, a giant Good Humor Bar for 5th Avenue in New York, two huge copper toilet balls to float and rise and fall with the tide in the Thames River in London, a lipstick tube for London's Piccadilly Circus, and a giant windshield wiper that would dip into Lake Michigan from a Chicago park, and a kinetic pair of scissors to replace the Washington Monument.
Oldenburg donated his first monument, "Lipstick [Ascending] on Caterpillar Track," to Yale University (his alma mater) in 1969. This sculpture, which symbolized love, was presented at a time of much campus unrest and was opposed by administration, faculty, and staff at Yale.
A major Oldenburg retrospective was held in 1969 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City. Several of Oldenburg's colossal monuments have been executed with the help of a factory specializing in the construction of large sculpture. These colossal monuments include the fifty foot high "Clothespin", in Philadelphia, a huge sculpture of a rubber stamp with the word "Free" near the Rock and Roll Museum in Cleveland and "Spoon and Cherry", a giant spoon with a cherry fountain on it in Minneapolis.
Early in his career, Oldenburg married Patricia Muschinski, who assisted him in many of his sculptures. There is considerable debate as to what role she played in the creation of his work. It is known she was an experienced seamstress and helped him the technical aspects of his soft sculptures, although for reasons that remain unclear, her name is never identified with his work. They later divorced. He is presently married to the art historian and critic, Coosje van Bruggen, who since 1985 has collaborated with Oldenburg on much of his work.
Page author: C.A.