An icon of the Pop Art movement, Swedish-born American Pop artist Claes Oldenburg (1929 - 2022) created some of the most striking and memorable public installations in history.
Be it a giant lipstick placed on caterpillar tracks, a massive clothespin towering over a city street, a larger-than-life shuttlecock or even a large-scale ice cream cone squashed against a city centre rooftop, Oldenburg's work is characterised by a playful and thought-provoking manner, inviting viewers to examine their surroundings in a new way.
Oldenburg's early works became known for being large-format sculptures, many of which were made from soft, pliable materials (often fabric and / or vinyl stuffed with polyester batting) and as such becoming commonly referred to as his 'soft sculptures'. His objects typically took on the forms of everyday items such as clothing, food, and furniture.
And by using non-traditional materials and experimenting with scale, Oldenburg's early works challenged the viewer to re-think their preconceived notions about art and the common objects that make up the world in which we live in.
Surrealism and Dadaism heavily influenced Oldenburg's early work. He often created witty, tongue-in-cheek sculptures that commented on the absurdities of modern life.
One of his most famous early works is 'Soft Light Switches' (1966), a set of three oversize light switches made from cloth-covered latex. The switches appear fully functional, but their soft, malleable texture makes it clear that they are not meant to be used in the traditional sense.
Whilst some of Oldenburg's soft sculptures took clear inspiration from Marcel Duchamp's 'readymades' in terms of concept, unlike Duchamp's hard-edged readymades Oldenburg's sculptures were made from soft materials, giving them a squishy and soft, almost cartoon-like appearance.
'Floor Cone' (1962), 'Floor Cake' (1962), and 'Floor Burger' (1962) are three of Oldenburg's most famous earlier works. Each sculpture invites viewers to interact with them in several ways, blurring the lines between art and daily life.
Another important artwork of Oldenburg is 'Soft Toilet' (1972) a giant 12 foot tall sculpture of a toilet that slumps forward on its pedestal. The work is made of painted plaster and has been interpreted as both a comment on consumer culture's absurdities and a general mocking of traditional notions of art.
Oldenburg's soft sculptures have had a lasting impact on the world of contemporary art. His use of unconventional materials and positive approach to sculpture continue to inspire artists working in various mediums. And for Oldenburg, there were no limits as to what could be considered 'art'; even the most mundane objects could (and should) be transformed into something extraordinary.
Large-Scale Outdoor Projects
In 1969, Oldenburg began to focus more on larger-scale public sculptures. His later work often took the form of enormous objects like 'Lipstick Ascending on Caterpillar Tracks' (1969) which was created during the height of the Vietnam War to project an anti-war statement.
In the work, the lipstick represents the seductive power of violence, while the caterpillar tracks suggest the seemingly endless cycles of destruction unleashed by war. And in recent years, many have commented how the artwork has taken on new meaning in the wake of global terrorism, reminding us that the path to peace can often be long and winding.
'Clothespin' (1976) is a 54-foot-tall sculpture in Philadelphia that was inspired by a set of imaginary monuments and skyscrapers.
Clothespin quickly became a symbol of the busy city and was later joined by a companion piece. Today, Clothespin is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Philadelphia and has been featured in numerous films and TV shows.
Another renowned work of Oldenburg is 'Spoonbridge and Cherry' (1988), a public sculpture in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was created in collaboration with Claes' wife, Coosje van Bruggen, and consists of a giant metal spoon topped with a massive cherry. The work is meant to be both a humorous and elegant statement about the ordinary object it depicts.
Lastly, one of his most significant large sculptures is the 'Paint Torch' (2011), which the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts commissioned as part of the academy's campus-wide public art program.
The sculpture is a replica of a paintbrush, evoking an image of a flaming torch. It is made from fiberglass and aluminum and stands at a diagonal tilt. The artwork is intended to convey a literal and metaphorical representation of the transformative power of art, creating a sense of freedom and possibility.
In summary, throughout his career Oldenburg's use of scale and material help to create a sense of whimsy, while the careful overall design ensures that the piece remains visually pleasing. While some critics have dismissed Oldenburg's work as frivolous, his extensive installations have been enjoyed by millions worldwide and stand as key artworks of the Pop Art movement.