Appreciation: For Claes Oldenburg, art was the soul of Pop

For more than a quarter of a century, a sculpture by Claes Oldenburg stood as a landmark on a side street in West Hollywood. A giant stainless steel knife blade, 6 feet high and 12 feet long, was cut down from the roof of a Native American building on North Hilldale Avenue, sticking out to the street.

The gleaming silver blade that slices through the middle of the facade ripples gray stucco leaves on either side. The composition looked like the prow of a ship moving steadily through water.

Or, like a cake being sliced, as the artist told The Times reporter Suzanne Muchnic when the fancy sculpture was unveiled in 1989, its architectural flourish like a glaze adorning the building. Oldenburg, the witty and prolific pop sculptor who died in New York on Monday at the age of 93, had an uncanny ability to layer provocative references through a precise selection of ordinary objects as his sculptural subjects.

Hamburger, Pepsi-Cola sign, sports shoe, scissors, Whitsun cross, three-way plug, underpants – these everyday objects and more, most made of plaster and painted with brightly colored brush paint, are among the almost three dozen of his sculptures and drawings and multiples in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. They form one of the largest groups of his significant contribution to art in the second half of the 20th century.

An elderly man in a dark suit at an art exhibition.

Claes Oldenburg at an exhibition in 2012.

(Rafa Rivas/AFP via Getty Images)

Popular culture is regularly misunderstood as the subject of pop art, but Oldenburg knew that art culture was its real focus. A core of his outstanding achievement was his ability to uncover the operations of art circulating in contemporary society’s ghostly media labyrinth. Its sharply identified popular forms are merely the contemporary language for their delivery.

For example, in 1976 he created a masterpiece at the American Bicentennial Celebration in Philadelphia – a commission of fairly high standing since government monuments for great art were long gone. The giant, 45-foot-tall “clothespin” is just like the one in your laundry basket — with a few noticeable contextual differences. The upright pair of wooden pegs, here crafted from industrial Cor-Ten steel, evokes (and surpasses) the famous 37-foot-tall bronze figure of William Penn that sits atop nearby City Hall and was created by sculptor Alexander Milne Calder in 1890. The two pins are held together in an embrace by the coil spring, also reminiscent of the shape of the snogging couple from 1916 in “The Kiss,” a treasure in the Philadelphia Museum of Art down the street that is believed to have been carved from limestone by Constantin Brancusi, the largest modern sculptor.

The graceful line of the Oldenburg hairspring brings everything up to date, artfully and patriotically suggesting the number “76”. A century of sculpture is absorbed.

Over in West Hollywood, the knife had been commissioned for the facade of the sculpture annex of the Margo Leavin Gallery on the next block, where the Stockholm-born, Chicago-raised, New York-based Oldenburg had exhibited many times over the years. (The sculpture was removed after the gallery closed in 2013.) His reference to cake cutting implied a party dimension appropriate for the opening ceremony of an art exhibition.

He has been making cake sculptures since at least 1962, when his first wife, artist Patty Mucha, helped sew yards of foam rubber and cardboard-filled canvas in the shape of a giant chocolate disc to create a pillow-soft sculpture that stands on the floor. (More than 9 feet long, it’s big enough for a futon.) And knives have been an integral part of his work since 1966, when he proposed a monumental one that appeared to slice open a London building at the busy shopping junction of Oxford and Regent Streets and prepare the contents of the stores to flow onto the sidewalk. (The project never materialized.)

In his immediate vicinity, Oldenburg collaborated several times with Los Angeles architect Frank O. Gehry, including the design and manufacture of a giant Swiss Army knife with enormous blades and a corkscrew shaped like a cartoonist’s squiggle symbolizing madness, spirals into the sky. Together with art historian Coosje van Bruggen, Oldenburg’s second wife, it was constructed as part of an elaborate performance as a boat to navigate the absurd but charming canals of Venice, Italy. With the famous all-purpose versatility of a Swiss army knife that is always at hand, it manifested the diverse allusions to Oldenburg art.

In one square stands a sculpture resembling a boat made out of a Swiss army knife.

Claes Oldenburg’s monumental sculpture “Knife/Ship II” from 1986 stands on the square of the MOCA.

(Brian Forrest / Museum of Contemporary Art)

Over on Hilldale Avenue, the ripple of a knife cutting down the stucco facade also heralded the dramatic opening of a modern art gallery. Hollywood-driven popular culture dominates contemporary society, while art culture stands aside and occupies a somewhat secluded space in daily life. Oldenburg turned the inside out.

“I’m pro-art that a child licks off after peeling off the wrapper,” he once explained. Oldenburg’s turn to ordinary objects to get to the bottom of the matter fitted perfectly with Gehry’s architecture of everyday materials such as chain link fence and plywood employed as the eye-opening material of actual art.

The two worked together in an advertising agency office in Venice, where Oldenburg contributed a hilarious pair of giant binoculars that act as triumphal arches and sanctify the entrance to the underground car park as if it were the modern world version of ancient Hades; and, with Van Bruggen, the downtown Loyola Law School campus, where the artist’s self-descriptive “Toppling Ladder With Spilling Paint” — a sculpture particularly cloaked in oversized links of chain — slyly warns law students not to accidentally slam one make terrible messes of things.

This random activity is reserved for art and artists. They become the messy and experimental. Oldenburg repeatedly produced pop sculptures with art lurking inside. Art is the specter that lurks in LA’s global pop culture machine, and Oldenburg has let it loose. Appreciation: For Claes Oldenburg, art was the soul of Pop

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