If you’ve been following lines and colors for the last month or so, you know I’ve been using the PBS broadcast on Monday nights of Simon Schama’s The Power of Art as a springboard for posts about related painters. Tonight’s show, however, is about Mark Rothko. Even though I occasionally like Rothko’s early Miro-like fantasies, and the later paintings of big, rough edged rectangles of color for which he is most known, I find it hard to generate any enthusiasm about him.
I’m resisting the temptation to write an entire post expressing my dumbfounded amazement at his inclusion with the great painters and sculptors that have been the other subjects of Schama’s series; which I’ve likened to doing a special on Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and Brahams and tossing in Axl Rose.
I’ve also mercifully decided against one of my acerbic rants about post-war modernism. Instead I thought “Why not write about a post-war modernist that I actually do like?” Though that’s a small group, the first one to pop into my mind was Claes Oldenburg, a post-war modernist whose work puts a genuine smile on my face, not simply one of bemusement.
In the midst of a wave of modernist painters who took themselves way too seriously (e.g. Rothko), Oldenburg was a breath of fresh air. His giant renditions of ordinary objects are at once hilarious and thought-provoking.
Oldenburg is primarily known for his large scale outdoor sculptures, usually of mundane objects that have been recreated at many times their original size and placed out of context not only by proportion and by being displayed in public spaces, but also by arrangement in unique and fun ways; like a sculpture of giant handlebars, partially visible so as to suggest a Buried Bicycle, a giant Dropped Bowl that has spilled 6-foot long apple slices and peels, or a half sunken bowling ball and an arrangement of 24 ft long Flying Pins.
One of the best gifts an artist can bestow on the viewer is to make that miraculous connection in the brain that allows you to see the world, or some small part of it, with fresh eyes.
Have you really looked at that pencil eraser on your desk? Have you noticed what that button on your dresser really looks like? Did you pay attention to the way your garden hose curled when you last walked by it?
Art that takes things out of their ordinary context, from Marcel Duchamp’s signed urinal and upturned bicycle wheel in a stool, to the work of the pop artists of the sixties, with whom Oldenburg is loosely associated, utilizes the juxtaposition of ordinary objects with unusual settings, sizes or presentations to make us stop and shift our perceptions; and can often, particularly in the case of Oldenburg, be hilarious.
Oldenburg’s smaller scale indoor works are frequently of commonplace objects that appear to be melting or soft. You can see some of his large scale works on the web site he shares with his wife and collaborator, sculptor Coosje van Bruggen, and some preliminary drawings and concepts on Ciudad de la pintura.
There was a time when I was frequently on the University of Pennsylvania campus, and I would often walk by the University Library, outside of which was Oldenburg’s Split Button (also here), a 16 foot wide white enameled aluminum sculpture of a broken button, that never failed to make me smile. (In a hilarious send-up of the story behind Alexander Stirling Calder’s Swann Fountain in Logan Circle, Oldenberg said of the button: “The Split represents the Schuylkill. It divides the button into four parts–for William Penn’s original Philadelphia squares.” — For more on Calder, see my post on his son, Alexander Calder.)
The next year I had occasion to frequently walk down 15th Street in Philadelphia, near City Hall, and past Oldenburg’s Clothespin (also here and here), a stainless steel representation of the familiar object that is 45 feet high and has over the years acquired a patina of rust, making it even more interesting. Anyone who lives or works in Center City Philadelphia knows it as simply “The Clothespin”, whether they’re aware of Oldenburg or not.
It’s hard to look at something like that, poised against he beautiful tower of City Hall with its Alexander Milne Calder sculptures, and the oh-so-serious and businesslike skyscrapers of Center Square Plaza, and not want to chuckle, give a mental thumbs-up and think. “OK, Claes!”