Claes Oldenburg: Making the Ordinary Extraordinary

By Springer, Julie | School Arts, January 1999 | Go to article overview

Claes Oldenburg: Making the Ordinary Extraordinary


Springer, Julie, School Arts


Throughout his career Claes Oldenburg has demonstrated the power of the imagination to transform the everyday environment. Drawing inspiration from the ubiquitous and the mundane, he has created artworks of varying scale and media that astonish with their wit, humor, and metaphoric associations.

About the Artist

Born in Sweden in 1929, Claes Oldenburg was brought to America as an infant and raised in Chicago. After graduating from Yale and working as a newspaper reporter, he studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1956 he moved to New York City, where he became acquainted with a group of artists who were involved in staging improvised theatrical performances known as "happenings." These performances anticipated Oldenburg's later sculpture in their references to everyday life and emphasis on visual and spatial relationships.

Oldenburg came of age artistically in the early 1960s with the pop art generation. Because of his use of imagery from American consumer culture Oldenburg has often been associated with the pop art movement. The humor that infuses his art--sometimes whimsical, often brash--also links him to the pop art sensibility which challenged prevailing notions that the content of art was by definition profound, and its maker profoundly earnest.

Oldenburg's approach differs from that of pop artists like Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein; his idiosyncratic approach to his subjects stems in part from his affinities to the earlier movements of dada and surrealism. While Warhol would retain and even flaunt the manufactured identity of an object, Oldenburg transforms it through a process of visual free-association. To this day Oldenburg continues to use familiar objects to delve beneath surface appearances in search of what he has called "parallel realities," or the multiple identities a form can take on through changes of material, scale, or physical setting.

Metamorphosis

Metamorphosis--the transformation from one thing into another--is a key element in Oldenburg's work. He delights in taking something hard-edged and geometric and making it into something pliable and organic--or vice versa.

His first soft sculpture of everyday objects, which included toilets, fans, and other household fixtures, was fashioned out of canvas and stuffed with the silky fiber kapok. The unexpected effects of gravity caused many of these creations to sag, giving them vulnerable and lifelike overtones. Thus, Oldenburg's art confounds expectations not only through transformations of material, but also by animating the inanimate.

Metamorphosis through a change of scale has fascinated the artist since the early sixties. In 1965, he began making drawings for colossal monuments; they were proposals for sculpture representing everyday objects enlarged to gargantuan proportions. Oldenburg employed the term "monument" ironically, since his non-heroic subjects deliberately subvert traditional notions of public sculpture. Some of Oldenburg's large-scale projects began to be realized in 1969, when he moved his studio to an old factory building in New Haven, Connecticut, close to the fabricating plant Lippincott and Company, which specialized in working with artists.

The Geometric Mouse

One of Oldenburg's first monumental sculptures was the Geometric Mouse, ultimately created in five scales, ranging from the X (ear diameter 9') to the D (ear diameter 6"). Scale C (center-spread) is a tabletop version with jointed ears (diameter 9"), eyelids, and nose, that enable the mouse head to be positioned in different ways.

Oldenburg's New Haven studio was home to a sizeable mouse population; thus, the artist quipped, "a rodent subject was unavoidable." But the motif actually emerged in the early sixties as a mouse mask for a performance called Moveyhouse.

After a visit to the Disney studios in Los Angeles in 1968, the artist returned to the motif making a series of sketches, and later, lithographs that show the Geometric Mouse in various incarnations (page 31). …

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