Had the ideas of Claes Oldenburg been realised, Piccadilly Circus would have had as its hub not a 19th-century sculpture of Eros but a cluster of 8m-high orange lipsticks or a skyscraper-sized pair of women’s knees. Both projects were imagined for the site by the Swedish-American artist and sculptor, who has died at the age of 93.
In London in 1966, Oldenburg found himself captivated by what he called the “paradoxical combination of masculine voyeurism and feminine liberation” bound up in Mary Quant and the miniskirt. Neither London Knees nor Lipsticks made it past maquette stage – the postcard collage Lipsticks in Piccadilly Circus, London (1966) is now in the Tate collection – but if the works had been created, they would have raised the same questions about civic art that Oldenburg’s sculptures were to pose everywhere from Minneapolis to Münster.
In the event, a variant of the second piece was to appear not in London but in New Haven, Connecticut, outside a library at Yale University, Oldenburg’s own alma mater. Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks (1969) was made as a satire on America’s involvement in the Vietnam war, and rolled surreptitiously into place by students under cover of night. “I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something more than sit on its ass in a museum,” Oldenburg said. Although acute enough to sense trouble in the work’s merging of feminine reference and phallic shape, university authorities wisely left Lipstick (Ascending) alone. It was eventually moved to another Yale site, where it still stands.
This same sexual elision would be at the heart of Oldenburg’s best-known body of work, the so-called “soft sculptures”. Sculpture has, since Phidias, been hard. To make sculptures that wilted or drooped – that were fabricated from vinyl and kapok rather than marble or bronze – was to invite unflattering comparison with the flaccid male organ.
Sculptures were inherently masculine; Oldenburg’s were not, and their duo-sexuality was more than just skin deep. If the thinking behind the early soft pieces was his own – Floor Burger, Floor Cake and Floor Cone were shown in a Manhattan gallery in September 1962 – the sculptures themselves had been stitched by his then wife, Patty Mucha. This co-operative practice would continue with his second wife, the Dutch art historian Coosje van Bruggen, who Oldenburg met when installing a retrospective of his work at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1970.
Van Bruggen was not a keen seamstress; her contribution to her husband’s sculptures was to be more cerebral than Mucha’s had been. This led to accusations of interference in Oldenburg’s work, which the couple firmly denied. Theirs, they said, was a partnership of equals: all Oldenburg’s sculptures after 1981 would be signed by them both. Van Bruggen later admitted that she had liked neither the artist nor his art when she first met him; it took her husband-to-be six years to win her round. When Oldenburg and Van Bruggen installed a newly reworked sculpture called Trowel I at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, in the Netherlands, in 1976, he shyly confessed that he had made the piece for her. “It is not for me and I don’t like it,” Van Bruggen snapped. They were married a year later.
Although the subject matter of his work inevitably meant that Oldenburg was classed as a pop artist, his hamburgers and ice-cream cones are far from the easy things they seem. Their sly anti-heroism makes them among the most steelily intellectual of postwar American artworks, shaped by a mind that was sharp, cultured and patrician. Oldenburg was born in Stockholm to a diplomat father, Gösta, and his opera singer wife, Sigrid (nee Lindforss); the couple were based at the time in New York, and the heavily pregnant Sigrid took a ship home so that her son would be born in Sweden.
Mother and infant returned to America six months later, and the family moved to Chicago in 1936 when Gösta was made Swedish consul general there. Claes was educated at the Latin School of Chicago and studied literature and art history at Yale, before going to the Art Institute of Chicago from 1952 to 1954. His younger brother, Richard Oldenburg, would also become an art world high-flyer, for more than 20 years the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
It was a move back to New York in 1956 that set Claes Oldenburg on the road to stardom. The city was then in the grip of the abstract expressionists, against whose macho norms younger artists reacted. Oldenburg began his New York career by making what he called “brushy paintings”, but soon gave these up for happenings – impromtu performances staged by his own Ray Gun Theater company.
Out of these grew a series of installation pieces, whose parts were not merely abstract but pointedly literal and prosaic. In December 1961, Oldenburg launched The Store – a month-long “environment”, housed in a rented shop in the Lower East Side and stocked with sculptures of consumer goods including items of clothing and food. His first floppy hamburger followed the next year.
Softness was not his only stock in trade. As well as being hard, monuments, before Oldenburg, had largely been monumental. If he reversed the first of these sculptural tendencies, he magnified the second. Now entirely ignoble things – clothes pegs, toothbrushes, electric plugs, rubber stamps – might be memorialised, in steel and jaunty polyurethane enamel and on a vastly blown-up scale.
For a time, his sculptures were both outsized and soft: Giant Soft Fan, for example, which dominated the US pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal. Later works, such as the much-loved giant aluminium and stainless steel Spoonbridge and Cherry (1985-88) in the Walker Art Center’s sculpture garden in Minneapolis, were built to last.
As a child, Oldenburg had invented an imaginary kingdom called Neubern, over which he ruled. “I drew everything that was there, all the houses and all the cars and all the people. We even had a navy and an air force!” he later recalled, adding, “I spent a lot of time drawing.” At least part of the appeal of works such as Spoonbridge and Cherry is their Alice-like ability to shrink the viewer to childhood. While deeply intellectual, Oldenburg’s work has a tenderness that makes it popular in a way that pop art as a whole is not.
Van Bruggen died in 2009. Oldenburg continued to live and work in the five-story ex-propellor factory in west SoHo that he had bought in 1971. If a broken hip in 2016 left him less mobile than before, his mind was undiminished. A show, Shelf Life, at the Pace Gallery, New York, in 2017 reprised, on a small scale, the art that he and his wife had collaborated on for 32 years; although Van Bruggen had died eight years previously, the work was billed as by them both.
Long a collector of ephemera – “I guess I was always an archivist,” Oldenburg said – he now began to archive himself. In 2011, the artist Tacita Dean filmed him in his studio, tenderly sorting and dusting the objects that filled his shelves. The resulting film, Manhattan Mouse Museum, took its name from an installation piece that Oldenburg had first made in 1965.
Oldenburg was married to Patty Mucha (nee Muchinski) from 1960 until their divorce in 1970, and to Coosje van Bruggen from 1977 until her death. His brother Richard died in 2018. He is survived by his stepdaughter, Maartje, and stepson, Paulus.
July 19, 2022 at 02:09AM Charles Darwent