Art Inspiration: Claes Oldenburg

With his saggy hamburgers, colossal clothespins and giant three-way plugs, Claes Oldenburg has been the reigning king of Pop sculpture since the early 1960s, back when New York was still truly gritty. In 1961 he rented a storefront, called it The Store, and stocked it with stuffed, crudely-painted forms resembling diner food, cheap clothing, and other mass-manufactured items that stupefied an audience accustomed to the austere, non-representational forms in Abstract Expressionist sculpture. These so-called “soft-sculptures” are now hailed as the first sculptural expressions in Pop art. While his work has continued to grow in scale and ambition, his focus has remained steadfast: everyday items are presented on a magnified scale that reverses the traditional relationship between viewer and object. Oldenburg shrinks the spectator into a bite-sized morsel that might be devoured along with a giant piece of cake, or crushed by an enormous ice pack. His work shows us just how small we are, and serves as a vehicle for his smart, witty, critical, and often wickedly funny insights on American culture over the past half-century.

Key Ideas

Whereas Pop artists had imitated the flat language of billboards, magazines, television, etc., working in two-dimensional mediums, Oldenburg’s three-dimensional papier maches, plaster models, and soft fabric forms brought Pop art into the realm of sculpture, a key innovation at the time.
Oldenburg’s objects, no matter how apparently insignificant in themselves, become expressive entities, almost like characters in a stage play. This is partly due to their dramatically outsized scale and partly due to the soft forms he chooses, like fabric or latex. This distances Oldenburg from the cool detachment of Warhol or Lichtenstein, and makes his sculptures, almost like portraits, highlight the absurdity of American culture with a gentler cynicism than his Pop art peers.
The notion of enlarging a diminutive, everyday object and placing it in a landscape – an idea integral to Oldenburg’s monumental public art – comes to us from the Surrealists such as Magritte, Dalí, and Ernst). In this respect, Oldenburg is the most Surreal of the Pop artists and his sculptures are like Surrealist dreams made real.
Oldenburg’s unconventionally squishy, rearrangable sculpture challenged the hard, vertical orientation that persisted through Abstract Expressionism. His was a true breakthrough in the history of sculpture.
No matter how ordinary his subjects may seem to be, for Oldenburg, a clothespin is never just a clothespin. The process of fine tuning and adjustment, typical of his approach to large-scale commissions, reflects an unwavering interest in the impact of form that aligns him with earlier masters in the tradition of sculpture, from Michelangelo to Brancusi.



Pastry Case, I (1961-62)


Floor Cake (1962)


Soft Toilet (1966)


Lipstick Ascending on Caterpillar Tracks (1969)


Clothespin (1976)


Paint Torch (2011)








Oldenburg’s influences splinter off in numerous directions, touching an array of artists and movements that seem unrelated, in accordance with the subtlety and multi-valent meaning of his work. Oldenburg is as cynical as he is celebratory (who else would draw up a plan to replace the Washington Monument with a pair of castrating scissors?). Comfort food, his life-long obsession, is perhaps the ultimate symbol for inconsolable loneliness. First-generation feminists noticed this, and Niki de Saint-Phalle and Lynda Benglis were among the first sculptors drawn to his pliant, expressive forms which they emulated to some extent in their early work. In addition, as Donald Judd acknowledged in his seminal article “Specific Objects” (1965), in mimicking the process of food preparation (Floor Cake, for example, is stuffed with ice cream cartons, troweled with icing-like paint, and assembled in layers), Oldenburg anticipated the credo of Minimalism: “it is what it is.”

One needn’t understand the multi-layered references to art or art history to enjoy Oldenburg’s work. Its bright color, oversized scale, and unabashed appeal to the viewer influenced a generation of subsequent contemporary sculptors focused on manipulating the scale, placement, and texture of everyday objects, among them Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. The missing link between Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, Oldenburg broke new ground in his embrace of consumer appetites, giving audiences what they wanted, to literally: “let them eat cake.”


read more at The Art Story



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