Claes Oldenburg, a founding father of Pop art, dies

As a child of Swedish immigrants in Chicago, Claes Oldenburg dreamed of an imaginary world in detailed drawings. As the founding father of pop art, he focused on real objects of the most ordinary sort—vacuum cleaners, lipstick cases, sun hats, typewriter erasers—imagining them as massive sculptures.

“I am for an art that forms from the lines of life itself, that squirms and stretches and piles and spits and drips and that is heavy and coarse and dull and sweet and stupid as life itself,” he wrote in 1961 a Stream of Consciousness Manifesto. “I’m for an artist who disappears and comes up with a white cap to paint signs or hallways.”

Oldenburg, a major figure in 20th-century art history, died Monday at his home and studio in New York at the age of 93, said Adriana Elgarresta, a spokeswoman for the Pace Gallery in New York, who represented him. He was recovering from a fall, she said.

“I was honored to have this great friendship with one of the most radical artists of the 20th centuryth Century,” said Arne Glimcher, founder of Galerie Pace. “In addition to his inseparable role in the development of pop art, he changed the nature of sculpture from hard to soft, and his influence is still visible today.”

Oldenburg was known throughout his life as a sculptor, draftsman and provocateur. In his early days, he spoke of creating monuments that “have an unbridled, intense satanic vulgarity that is unsurpassable, and yet are art.” Some of his efforts have been decried as overblown art jokes, but he is credited with turning on its head traditional notions of what a monument could be.

Pondering Oldenburg’s towering binoculars at the entrance of a building in Venice, former Times art critic Christopher Knight concluded: “Binoculars are a man-made tool designed to push the boundaries of ordinary human vision – which is a pretty good description of Oldenburgs.” is monumental sculpture at its finest.”

Oldenburg emerged in New York in the late 1950s, when Abstract Expressionism had erupted and the art world was waiting for the next big thing. For him it was time to make art that wasn’t just in a gallery or a museum.

Many of his works have found their way into top-class museums, including the Center Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Tate Gallery in London. But he also left a legacy of public works, mostly in collaboration with his wife, Dutch art historian Coosje van Bruggen, who died in 2009. Las Vegas has its giant “flashlight”; Philadelphia, his “clothespin”; Minneapolis, its “Spoonbridge and Cherry”; Chicago, its “Batcolumn” baseball bat; Barcelona, ​​​​his “Mistos” matchbook.

Oldenburg also has a strong presence in Los Angeles, thanks in part to his friendship with architect Frank Gehry. Plans for a giant collar and bow tie in front of Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall went awry, but binoculars feature the Gehry building in Venice. “Toppling Ladder with Spilling Paint” adorns Loyola Law School’s downtown campus amidst a cluster of Gehry-designed buildings.

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Oldenburg’s Giant Pool Balls was added to the collection in 1969 and his kinetic Giant Ice Bag was a star of Art and Technology, a seminal 1971 exhibition. Produced by Walt Disney’s WED Enterprises and Gemini GEL, a publisher of limited edition fine arts, the 5.5m tall, salmon pink sculpture captivated crowds with regular “dances” around Museum Square.

In 1984, 16 early Oldenburg sculptures arrived at the Museum of Contemporary Art as part of a spectacular purchase of 80 works by the Italian collectors Giuseppe and Giovanna Panza. MOCA is also home to Knife/Ship II, an 80-foot (24 m) sculpture shaped like a Swiss Army knife with motorized blades and corkscrew.

Oldenburg was born in Stockholm on January 28, 1929, the son of the diplomat Gösta Oldenburg and his wife Sigrid Elisabeth Lindforss. The family moved to the United States in 1936 when Gösta was appointed Swedish Consul General in Chicago.

Claes said his imaginary world offered a break from the language barrier he encountered in his youth. His younger brother Richard also invented a private universe. Both boys regularly retreated to safe spaces of their own making, where they could dream freely and didn’t need to speak a foreign language to be understood. But they eventually thrived in their new home and became public figures of considerable importance – Claes as an artist and Richard as director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York from 1972 to 1995.

Claes Oldenburg became a US citizen in 1953 after earning his bachelor’s degree from Yale University and enrolling in evening classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1956 he moved to New York and settled on the Lower East Side, where creative energy simmered in a sombre environment.

Accompanied by artists like Red Grooms, Allan Kaprow, and Jim Dine, Oldenburg took part in performances called Happenings and scoured the neighborhood for unconventional art materials.

Claes Oldenburg's monument in Venice Beach.

Claes Oldenburg’s monument in Venice Beach.

(Los Angeles Times)

His first major exhibitions in 1959-62 were joint ventures. The Street, a dingy installation inspired by life on the Lower East Side, became the backdrop for happenings. “The Store,” a sham in a rented storefront, was stocked with lumpy, painted plaster versions of everyday goods — tennis shoes, underwear, stockings, cigarettes, and groceries.

Oldenburg married the artist Patty Mucha in 1960. A frequent performer at New York Happenings, Mucha sewed many of her husband’s soft sculptures during their 10-year marriage. In contrast to the rough-textured plasterwork painted in slap-dash style, the vinyl and cloth pieces are relatively smooth. They often resemble deflated balloons in the form of household appliances or processed foods.

“Shoestring Potatoes Spilling Out of a Bag,” a filled canvas work that stands nearly 10 feet tall, resides among the Oldenburgs at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Giant Soft Ketchup Bottle with Ketchup, an equally sublime soft piece, is housed in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.

After Oldenburg’s marriage to Van Bruggen in 1977, some critics questioned how the partnership would affect his art. But as the years went by, he seemed to have no reservations.

“Your presence in my life has been good for my art,” Oldenburg told The Times in 1995, when a 35-year review of his work opened at MOCA.

“She has helped take the work in a direction that is less self-centered and more lyrical, and I think the work has expanded due to the fact that she and I are opposites: I’m American, she’s European; I am male and she is female and we belong to different generations. But we are both concerned with the senses, and our art projects that.”

Oldenburg leaves behind a son, a daughter and several grandchildren.

Muchnic is a former Times arts journalist. Claes Oldenburg, a founding father of Pop art, dies

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