Claes Oldenburg: The Street and The Store
Claes Oldenburg: Mouse Museum/Ray Gun Wing
April 14–August 5, 2013
Museum of Modern Art, NYC
It’s likable. Dive in.
Claes Oldenburg. Pastry Case, I, 1961—62. Burlap and muslin soaked in plaster, painted with enamel, metal bowls, and ceramic plates in glass-and-metal case. 20 3/4 x 30 1/8 x 14 3/4″ (52.7 x 76.5 x 37.3 cm). The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection. © 1961—62 Claes Oldenburg. Photo: The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department, Kate Keller. // Source: moma.org.
I’ve found that there are two common ways of responding to Pop art inspired by familiar objects. The first is skeptical: viewers resent low culture intruding in high museums, and/or presume an underlying oppositional agenda when none is proffered. The second response is more open and instinctual; viewers delight in identifying with common objects and enjoy the humor in the familiar made strange.
For me, Claes Oldenburg’s works in The Store are imminently likable. The objects are ultra quotidian: hats, men’s dress shirts with ties, canvas lace-ups, ice cream sundaes. They are rendered in drippy, cragged plaster covered in vibrant gloss enamels. The forms are rough and exaggerated; the effect is both grotesque and comical.
Some of the genius in these sculptures comes from Oldenburg’s selection of common yet iconographic sources. Traces of the early 1960s appear, but do not pervade. For example, the 7-Up logo and other trademarks are obsolete. And I surmise that the preponderance of sundaes may correlate to a midcentury ice cream parlor vogue. But most others objects—such as burgers, shoes, and pants—have not changed much in the past five decades, and they remain current and relatable. Indeed, the shiny enamel is beautifully preserved (or probably, simply durable), and still conveys commerce’s exuberant newness.
Oldenburg’s project expanded the boundaries of art, helping to merge high art and low commerce. The exhibition also makes other equivalences clear too. This is exemplified by a vitrine containing a model plane, a salad, and a man’s hat. It suggests that food and possessions are alike as objects of consumption. They call us with our desire for them and reaffirm us as reflections of our identities.
From a historical perspective, the show allowed ample opportunities to think about zeitgeists and simultaneous developments. Oldenburg’s display cases full of pies (or tartines, created for a show in Paris) recall the luscious frosting-like paintings of Wayne Thiebaud. An oversized wall calendar made of stuffed, sewn fabric numbers brought to mind Jasper Johns’ number paintings. Neither comparisons diminish said works.
Claes Oldenburg. Floor Burger, 1962. Canvas filled with foam rubber and cardboard boxes, painted with acrylic paint. 52″ x 7′ x 7′ (132.1 x 213.4 x 213.4 cm). Collection Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. Purchase, 1967. © 1962 Claes Oldenburg. Photo: Sean Weaver. // Source: moma.org.
Oldenburg’s monumental soft sculptures provide a nice climax for the show. Floor Cone, Floor Burger, and Floor Cakewere designed for a spacious gallery that was meant for the display of luxury cars. This use of scale brilliantly addresses the massive spaces that have become so common today, while remaining totally appropriate to the works (in contrast to many contemporary works’ use of monumental scale to convey power and wealth). These individual portions of dishes at preposterously large scale, in sewn and stuffed painted canvas, exude comfort and welcome. They suggest an invitation to play, if not literally, than imaginatively. Taking a nap on one might be an entirely reasonable way to relate to it. I appreciated that these floor-specific works were actually exhibited on the floor, not on white plinths that keep viewers at bay. The Street, in an adjoining gallery, is installed this way, with ample space, which formalizes the seemingly-abstract cardboard shapes and seems remote from the original inspiration—colorful 1961 Lower East Side. The works fall flat in a disappointing compromise between a lively street-level feel and the MoMA’s staggeringly-trafficked museum needs.
Also on view are Mouse Museum and Ray Gun Wing, two exhibition halls housing found, readymade and created objects, developed for Documenta in the 1970s. The wall text explains that Oldenburg demonstrates an equivalence between creating and collecting. The installation seemed to reward prolonged viewing. The more you look at dissimilar objects, such as the children’s toys, sex toys, gloves, and food sculptures in Mouse Museum, the more similarities you’ll see. The longer you look at similar objects, such as the gun-shaped things in Ray Gun Wing, the more acute the differences become. A brief look was like an insight into Oldenburg’s thought process. But the nature of the long queues for these structures at MoMA made it seem indecent to linger for long.
Oldenburg’s plaster-and-enamel sculptures of everyday commodities has been an important reference point for me for several years. They signal a way to think about merging art and life, embracing the everyday non-art materials and subjects around us, and the viability of artist-initiated exhibitions (Oldenburg exhibited The Store as an immersive installation in his studio). MoMA’s and Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien’s decision to exhibit precisely these seminal works is a testament to the mandate of these collecting, preserving and presenting institutions, for which I am grateful.