b. 1929 / Swedish-American
Claes Oldenburg was brought from Sweden to the USA as an infant and moved with his family to Chicago in 1936 following his father’s appointment to the consulship there. Except for four years of study (1946–50) at Yale University in New Haven, CT, during which time he decided to pursue a career in art, Chicago remained his home until his move to New York in 1956. Within two years of this move, Oldenburg had become part of a group of artists who challenged Abstract Expressionism by modifying its thickly impastoed bravura paint with figurative images and found objects. Oldenburg’s first one-man show in 1959, at the Judson Gallery in New York, included figurative drawings and papier mâché sculptures. For his second show, also at the Judson Gallery, in 1960, shared with Jim Dine, Oldenburg transformed his expressionist, figurative paintings into a found-object environment, The Street; this consisted of urban debris and flat silhouetted figures, signs and objects, the ragged, blackened contours and monochrome black-brown tones of which recalled the colors and textures of the decaying urban slums.
Within the setting of The Street, Oldenburg staged Snapshots from the City, the first of his Happenings. These early examples of Performance Art were theatrical events that dispensed with plot, character portrayals and logical sequence in order to produce non-narrative, dream-like vignettes conceived as pictures in movement. The appropriation in these Happenings of objects and images from daily life paved the way for Oldenburg’s next group of objects, which replaced urban detritus with painted plaster versions of everyday commodities, such as White Shirt and Blue Tie and Danish Pastry (both 1961; Cologne, Mus. Ludwig). The Store, an environment first presented in a group show at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York in 1961, took the form of brightly painted plaster reliefs and sculptures of commercial and manufactured objects.
Oldenburg’s embrace of the commodities of materialist culture as subject-matter placed him in the forefront of what became known as Pop Art; his published writings on his work are among the most vivid texts produced within the movement. The ability of materialist values to subsume everything within a commodity context became even more explicit in Oldenburg’s next version of The Store: a shopfront on New York’s East Side from which he sold plaster re-creations of foodstuffs and merchandise for two months, beginning in December 1961. With The Store, Oldenburg transferred his figurative impulses from people to objects, treating wrinkled, bumptious objects such as those displayed in Pastry Case, I (1961–2; New York, MOMA) as surrogates for the human body. As with The Street, The Store was used as the setting for a series of theatrical events from February to May 1962, including Store Days I and II.
The soft canvas props that Oldenburg sewed for these Happenings led to the large-scale soft sculptures unveiled in his third incarnation of The Store at the Green Gallery in New York in September 1962. Sagging and rearrangeable, sculptures such as Floor Cone (1962; New York, MOMA) were like the human body in that they were prey to gravity; this conception of sculpture as malleable presaged the development known as Soft art. By grossly enlarging the scale of this and other familiar objects, such as Floor-burger (Giant Hamburger) (1962; Toronto, A.G. Ont.), and by reversing their characteristics of hard and soft, rigid or yielding, Oldenburg created an art of parody and humor. This same displacement of characteristics persisted in his next group of works from 1964, centered on the theme of The Home. Bedroom Ensemble(5.2×6.4 m, 1963; Ottawa, N.G.; for illustration seeInstallation), the largest and most complex of the series, precipitated Oldenburg’s involvement with commercial fabrication. It also signalled his exploitation of geometrical volumes with hard surfaces and clean contours. Sometimes the same subject was executed in ‘hard’, ‘soft’ and ‘ghost’ versions, the latter being both soft and colorless, as a way of emphasizing its formal qualities.
In 1965 Oldenburg turned his attention to drawings and projects for imaginary outdoor monuments. Initially these monuments took the form of small collages such as Lipsticks in Piccadilly Circus, London (1966; London, Tate) or of poetic drawings in which he placed a familiar object in a landscape, making it appear colossal in relation to its setting, or by the adoption of an exaggeratedly low viewpoint, as in Proposed Chapel in the Form of a Swedish Extension Plug (crayon and watercolor, 1967; Champaign, U. IL, Krannert A. Mus.). As Oldenburg became more involved in the projects, he moved from a simple placement of gargantuan objects on to a landscape to a more studied relationship between object and site. His first colossal monument to be realized in three dimensions was Lipstick Ascending, on Caterpillar Tracks(painted Cor-Ten steel, h. 7.3 m; New Haven, CT, Yale U. A.G.), which was installed in front of the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University in 1969. Although it was subsequently removed, the experience propelled Oldenburg to a more exclusive focus on the production of large-scale commissioned monuments conceived for permanent installation on public sites. One of the first of these, Giant Three-way Plug, Scale A, 1/3 (Cor-Ten steel and bronze, h. 2.97 m, 1970), sited next to the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin, OH, showed the object in fragmentary form and at an angle so as to suggest that it was half-buried under the ground; it was a development of an idea for which he had already produced various versions, including a soft version in leather and wood and a hard version in cherrywood, Giant Three-way Plug, Scale B, 3/3 (h. 1.49 m, 1970; Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.).
Oldenburg’s commitment to a democratic art available to all led him in the late 1960s to experiments with printmaking and with the production of sculptural multiples; some of these, such as Profile Airflow (moulded polyurethane relief over lithograph, 1969; New York, MOMA), were highly innovative in their application of industrial processes to fine art techniques. From the early 1970s he concentrated almost exclusively on public commissions, in part to escape what he considered the commercial manipulation of his work by the art market but also because it seemed to him the most appropriate way of giving form to his ideas about the ‘poetry of scale’. Among his most important later monumental works, on which he collaborated from 1976 with the writer Coosje van Bruggen (b 1942), whom he married in 1977, were Giant Trowel (painted steel, h. 12 m, 1976; Otterlo, Kröller-Müller), Crusoe Umbrella (painted steel, h. 10 m, 1979; Des Moines, IA, Civ. Cent.), Screwarch (painted aluminium, h. 3.8 m, 1983; Rotterdam, Mus. Boymans–van Beuningen) and Stake Hitch (painted aluminium and plastic materials consisting of a 7.6 m stake and a rope and knot c. 12.2 m long, 1984; Dallas, TX, Mus. A.). His propensity in such works for presenting familiar objects in the form of huge truncated fragments lends them a more conceptual and increasingly abstract quality.
(Biography courtesy of Barbara Haskell, Grove Art Online: Oxford University Press, 2009)