Claes Oldenburg

Claes OldenburgIf 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!”


18 Replies to “Claes Oldenburg”

  1. If you look at Oldenburg’s Clothespin sculpture from different angles you will note how the wire spring evokes the number “76” which ties into Philadelphia’s connection to the signing of the US Declaration of Independence.

  2. I was glued to the set last night. I believe that Simon Schama put his greatest attention on the Rothko episode. Am I mistaken or was this the end of the series? It felt like the finale, the way Schama treated the depth of his subject.
    You stated your opinion about Rothko fitting into a wave of modernist painters who took themselves way too seriously. I was wondering why that was considered a fault. Beethoven, Galileo, Cézanne, DaVinci and their complany of countless great masters fit comfortably into that category. I think artists should be able to indulge wholly in their passion, regardless of the kind of personality or reputation it fosters. But taking yourself too seriously aside, last night’s show pointed out sensitive truths about Rothko. The border between philosophy, art, entertainment and science can be close, as each contains qualities of the others, whichever is the dominant becomes the defining factor. Unlike Andy Warhol, Claus Oldenburg, and most contemporary artists, Rothko does not let his philosophy overpower his work. It is there, and very strong, however he doesn’t tip the scale away from the principles of artistic expression. He’s a colorist. Rothko’s relationship with color was unprecedented. He wanted color to speak for itself. You might at first be tempted to think of Rothko’s squares and rectangles as being geometric… but they really aren’t shapes as much as color. Color cannot exist without space, until you relax into it, and his squares disappear. That’s where Rothko differs from other modern painters. It’s not an intellectual exercise. He is wholly in the service of color as an artistic expression. The poor man, however, so deeply committed to his vision made the mistake of assuming that everyone experiences color the same. If you weep before his works, you understood them – so he thought. Most artists share this fantasy, that the viewers will connect on the same level as that of the creator’s. But his paintings happily, are not so literal. They are not emotional authorities, but guides, and I think deeply perceptive and masterful ones at that. I have no problem with Schama placing Rothko among the “Greats”. Sorry Charley, but I disagree entirely with your linking Rothko to Axl Rose.

  3. I agree with Travis, watching Simon’s very personal argument for Rothko reminded me of why I prefer the work of the abstract expressionists over the POP artists. Call it gravitas, depth, weight, whatever, its the same feeling I get from Turner, Freidrich, etc; or Keifer to name a current contemporary painter.

    It was a very good show last night.

  4. Yes, last night was the finale for the series. Thanks for your comments. It’s always interesting to see how modernism is a bellweather for opinions and attitudes about art in general, which is one of the important things about modernist painting in the context of art history.

    While I agree with you that Rothko’s color is what I respond to, he has been quoted as saying he did not consider himself him a colorist (or an abstractionist for that matter); and yes, many great artists have taken them selves seriously, and many too seriously; but in my eyes at least, they have stronger legs to stand on than Rothko and his contemporaries.

    It’s difficult for me to describe my opinion of Rothko without going into more detail than I time for about my opinion of modernism in general. My enthusiam for modernism dims consideralbly after WWII. Before that, the pioneers of modernism were fascinating as they deconstructed the accepted tennants of art and defied the conventions of the last 2,000 years of painting, drawing and sculpture. But after WWII, these formerly radical beliefs became the norm, the unquestioned dogma of the new modernism. The prewar modernists took the traditions of Western art to pieces; the postwar modernists, apparently lacking the imagination or strength of will to do anything else, contented themselves for 50 years with hammering the remaining pieces flat.

    Worse, the postwar modernist scene is when the cart of art history moved firmly in front of the horse, and art theory became the driving force from which painting was created. Without the dreary, oh-so-serious articles by critics like Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, the color-on-canvas artifacts of Rothko, de Kooning, Kline, Stills, et al are just that, colors on canvas. The may be teriffic and fascinating colors on canvas, but it’s the theory, the idea, the philosophy that drives them and gives them meaning.

    You don’t need a lesson art history or a theoretical analysis from a nose-in-the-air inellectual critic to receive the power of a Rembrandt or a da Vinci; it just hits you, educated or not (elite member of the upper class or not). This is why the few postwar modernists I really like tend to be artists like Oldenburg or Pollock whose work has great visual interest without, or even in spite of, all of the surrounding theoretical fluff.

    Though I will often go on rants about the unforvgivable campaign the postwar modernists waged to deliberately denigrate and devalue representational art (which effectively killed it as a viable path for serious painters for half a century), I try to respect those who respond to artists like Rothko strongly (and I certainly appreciate your thoughtful comments), but I have to say I think the last episode of Schama’s The Power of Art, should have been re-titled as The Power of Art Theory.

  5. Let’s say I respect Schama’s passionate appreciation of Rothko and I learned things I did not know about the artist and his work. Seeing the progression from representational to abstract and finally to the black paintings at the end was interesting.

    But this morning I have to say that my own reaction to Rothko’s work remains unchanged: Looks good placed over a Charles Eames sofa in a Phillip Johnson house, but then what? Could I gaze upon this for the rest of my days? I think not.

    Modernism and abstraction have been great experiments from which representational artists like myself have learned a great deal (eg. composition and color relationships) and there may still be more material to mine there but I and most people I know need a point of reference.

    What I have enjoyed about the Schama series is that he’s NOT an art historian, he’s just a historian who happens to enjoy art enough to study it and he hasn’t been trying to explain schools of art or trends. He’s refreshingly devoid of the usual mind-numbing artspeak that comes from the mouths of art critics and art historians. I have enjoyed that outspokeness such as the moment in the Picasso episode when he asserted that after Guernica Picasso never did anything groundbreaking again even though he painted for another 40 years or so.

  6. “doing a special on Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and Brahams and tossing in Axl Rose.”

    Isn’t this exactly what you’re doing in this blog, just that you write more about Axls, Twisted Sisters, Bon Jovis etc with an occasional Mozart thrown in?

  7. Sure, but I’m writing 360+ short posts a year; very different in scale and supposed intention than a television series limited to eight hour-long parts.

    There’s nothing wrong with throwing Axl in with Mozart, or Rothko in with Rembrandt, it’s just surprising and seems out of place in the much more limited and specific context.

    Had Schama chosen, say, Marcel Duchamp, to represent “the power of art” in a modernist context, I would have been much less surprised (and much more interested).

  8. “Had Schama chosen, say, Marcel Duchamp, to represent “the power of art” in a modernist context, I would have been much less surprised (and much more interested).”

    eek, *faints*

    Duchamp’s inability to paint like picasso caused him to pursue his clever version of modernism. In that sense his work is analogous to painting in the same way margarine is analogous to butter.

    I am sure he would rather have been remembered as a great painter than for that urinal or other minutia. At the end he gave it up to just play chess.

    But, I do understand where you are coming from. Surrealism/Duchamp/Pop – decontextualizing the ordinary and banal into something more interesting. Duchamp’s influence on american conceptualism: Hesse, Smithson was good. The italian arte povera movement was also pretty good.

  9. I’m not an expert on Marcel Duchamp. I am however very experienced with urinals. I’ve seen, and indeed needed, so many of them throughout my life, all different kinds, sizes and shapes. There’s no reason why any of them couldn’t fit into an artistic context. And so, I take it a little personally when my porcelain saviors are used for deceptive ends.
    What Duchamp seems to have been doing was to debase the appearance of art, possibly for showmanship. Jose’s post describes it very well in butter and margerine. Still, art does need to be jogged from time to time. So many of the 19th century painters had become so literal with their subjects and handling of the material, that much of the ‘art’ became predictable, plastic and contrived. But why would any rebel artist choose to produce works that purposely bypass art itself? If they were so concerned that their predecessors failed the arts, why would the new generation do the same by abandoning it? I still maintain that’s not the position of an artist, but of a philosopher. Charley, I wouldn’t have minded had Schama crowned his series with Duchamp, since he was a very interesting man. But his choice of Rothko wrapped up the documentary’s point as no other artist could. I wish I’d written down the words Schama used for the conclusion. I can only summon some approximation in my memory. But I was impressed with the idea that truly, Rothko was unique in his time. Duchamp’s work is visual, even Pollack’s successful flight from object remains visual and textured. But Rothko paints without anchor. Perhaps he looked into the sky one day, on a cloudless day, lying on his back. Nothing but blue. Blue layered into blue… then he might have noticed a little red, then brown, yellow and purple. Maybe Rothko was painting what each of us already knows on a lazy picnic day. He just took it fathoms farther… with paint.
    Charley, there are a lot of points that I agree with you, such as > Bravo. But you conclude the paragraph with Rothko portrayed as a slave to theory. Yes, he begins with theory, but is his work really a product only of that? To what degree is Rothko’s legacy colored by the snobbish opinions of certain critics from his time? Let me just add another thought. You said that the title could have been a better fit with “The Power of Art Theory”. One of the reasons I gravitated so much to this segment in particular is that Rothko seemed to share the effect of color as something that belongs to all of us. I didn’t see it as being theoretical, but rather open and simple. No doubt he had to work hard to develop his ideas, his end product was not to confuse, but to communicate. Simplicity is no small order. If he were in self denial about the presence of some art theory and his colorist tendencies… perhaps it was out of fear that people might misinterpret and overanalyze the human message he felt deeply within himself. His supportive critics may have done him more harm than good.

  10. First of all, thanks for the lively discussion. I kind of wish I had given this post a more general topic.

    It’s certainly true that Duchamp isn’t the painter that Picasso was; but if you want a painter, I wouldn’t send you to Picasso anyway, he was another idea man (though you don’t need any theoretical background to “get’ Guernica).

    If, on the other hand, you want someone to deconstruct the traditions of Western Art, I couldn’t recommend anyone better than Duchamp.

    I think one of the reasons he is downplayed and only begrudgingly respected by the entrenched modernist establishment that has been rewriting art history for the past 70 years, is that he is a major embarrassment. He covered most of the ground they laid claim to, did it better, and did it 30-50 years ahead of them.

    In addition to his forays into cubism (admittedly following Braque and Picasso), he pioneered, in one form or another, the foundations of most of what postwar modernism would lay claim to: found art, op art, pop art, minimalism, abstraction, conceptual art, happenings (performance art), drip painting, accidental art, and, of course, the deconstruction of artistic forms and traditions that he was credited for as the major force in Dada and one of the mentors of Surrealism.

    He broke the canvas up not only in space, but in time (as his nude descended her staircase over multiple moments in a single image). If Duchamp is margarine, I can’t believe it’s not butter.

    You also don’t need a theory to know, when faced with R. Mutt’s urinal or the mustachioed reproduction of the Mona Lisa, that Duchamp is either questioning the very definition of art, or pulling your leg. (Actually, of course, it’s both; which is one of the other things the oh-so-serious postwar modernists didn’t like about Duchamp or Dada, they did it with humor. Unforgivable!)

    Yes, Rothko geve us his emotional response to color as color, even color as emotion, but would the course of art history have been all that different if he had not? I submit that it wouldn’t have. Wheras, without Duchamp, the subsequent 80 years or so would have been markedly different (better or worse, who knows? but different).

    Modernism tore down the edifice of Western art and exposed its haunted skeleton, and Duchamp was the one who stripped it bare, like… well, like The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.

  11. Interesting.

    On reflection, given the title of his series,I’m now minded to think it was an extremely partial and one-sided perspective on the power – and the world – of art. I wonder why he didn’t try to explore some of the art of other cultures?

    I’m finding myself more and more drawn to the great artists within Japanese art as I begin to understand the sort of impact they’ve had on other artists I admire and artistic ‘traditions’ generally.

  12. Your peg is so good i decided to make my own version at home i got a peg and a magnifiy glass, it was brilliant.

  13. Re : 15

    Would you Adam and Eve it that God got it wrong when he said “Don’t Eat The Fruit” its obvious if you say “Don’t” they will he should have said “Don’t Eat the Snake”

    …things might have turned out different

  14. Yeah I know he could have chopped down the “Tree of Knowledge” cooked up a little barbeque snake and apples hmmm tasty.

    that would have done it

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