The Pop Art Sculptor who Amplified Everyday Objects

By Shemaiah Gold

Giant sweets, fruit, cake, ice cream, burgers and more – Claes Oldenburg was the master at creating food items into super-size sculptures, what he called ‘colossal monuments’ and erecting them in the most unexpected of locations. His art was sweet and fun and embodied the true character of pop art culture. Not only would Claes Oldenburg amplify food, he would monumentalise the most unlikely items. What made his work so powerful was his ability to take simple items that would traditionally be thrown away, such as a clothes peg or a stamp, and make them the subject.

What exactly is pop art? And what did Claes Oldenburg contribute to such a bold art movement. Imagine the works of Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Roy Litchenstein, literally pops of bright colour revealing the most exciting imagery. During the 1950s, this truly vibrant art movement emerged in the UK and US, producing radical and shocking pieces very much contrasting with the preceding abstract expressionism style. Seventy years later it remains one of the most popular art movements of the 20th century. The style of the artists was characterised by their inspiration from sources in popular culture such as films, comics, celebrities and commercials. In the words of Claes Oldenburg himself, in what would become one of the most famous art manifestos, “I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum, I am for all art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.” (Excerpt from his 1961 ‘Ode to Possibilities’).

Born in Sweden, Claes Oldenburg was still in his early years of schooling when his father, a Swedish diplomat, moved the family to the US. They settled in Chicago, the city that has a much-lauded architectural history and where many call the birthplace of the skyscraper. In the early years of his career, Oldenburg was a key developer of ‘soft sculpture’ using pliable vinyl, kapok, foam rubber and fabric. Some of his most famous sculptures include ‘Clothespin’, a 45’ high, ten-ton black steel clothespin installed near Philadelphia’s City Hall in 1976; also ‘Batcolumn’, a 100’ lattice-work steel baseball bat installed the following year in front of a federal office building in Chicago. This created much controversy at the time, due to its unexpected placement. The best and most interesting art pieces always pose the question ‘why?’ Claes Oldenburg had a way of making the familiar fun and witty. One of his finest legendary moments was opening a shop front on the lower east side of Manhattan and turning it into ‘The Store’ – an immersive market of plaster food, an audacious way to explore the relationship between art and commodity and the role of the artist in self-promotion. During his stay in London, through the swinging sixties, he made ‘Lipsticks in Piccadilly Circus’ and said, “For me, London inspired phallic imagery which went up and down with the tide – like mini-skirts and knees… like the up-and-down motion of a lipstick.” The postcard collage is now in the Tate collection but, had the idea been initiated, the 19th-century sculpture of Eros in Piccadilly Circus, may have been exchanged for a cluster of 8m-high orange lipsticks or a skyscraper sized pair of women’s knees!

Many of Claes Oldenburg’s works adorn public spaces in the United States, the United Kingdom and around the world. He was quoted in The New York Times stating “my intention was to make an everyday object that eludes definition” he achieved this by indeed turning everyday objects into architecture perhaps getting much of his later inspiration from his childhood, growing up in the city of skyscrapers, Chicago. It is, of course, very unfortunate that the visionary Claes Oldenburg has passed away, but it is comforting to know that his mind-blowing, immersive, witty and crazy ideas will live on and inspire a new generation of artists.