Artist Profile: Claes Oldenburg

Art that doesn’t sit on its ass

One of my very favourite artists is the Swedish-American sculptor, Claes Oldenburg. Simply put, his work is show-stopping, bold and playful.

Oldenbrug was born in Stockholm in 1929 and then moved to America at a young age. He is widely recognised as a pioneer of the pop art movement of the 1950s and 60s, often working in collaboration with his wife, Coosje van Bruggen. He is known for his huge, often colourful, sculptures that turn ordinary objects into surreal works of art. Oldenburg’s artwork plays with the texture and scale of objects, subverting expectations and commenting on topics that he considers important. His sculptures can be found all over America, often in public places, like parks, museums and even on university campuses.

One of his most political pieces of art is ‘Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks’ (1969). Set against the backdrop of student protest against the Vietnam War, this was his first large-scale public sculpture. It is a giant rocket-like tube of lipstick rising from an army tank, which stands at Yale University. It seems to combine America’s obsession with beauty and violence. I see this sculpture as a reflection of the Western World and America’s neglect of important issues and refusal to change policies on important areas, like guns and warfare, whilst being seduced by materialism. Oddly enough, the first incarnation of this sculpture was an inflatable. It was later replaced with a permanent, steel version and can still be found in the grounds of Yale to this day.

Another topic that Oldenburg feels strongly about is consumerism. Many of his works satirise everyday domestic objects and fast food. He uses squishy materials for these sculptures, turning food into ridiculous, oversized, floppy objects. These installations turn the head, and there is something very fun and accessible about art that catches you unawares. When Oldenburg places his sculptures outside, he transforms ordinary places into extravagant, dreamlike landscapes.

All of Oldenburg’s sculptures have a surreal quality to them that is enhanced by the unusual materials that they are made from and the landscapes in which they sit.  Pieces like ‘Spoonbridge and Cherry’ (1988) and ‘Paint Torch’ (2010), which are two of my personal favourites, are reminiscent of a Salvador Dalí painting come to life. For example, Dalí’s painting, ‘The Persistence of Memory’ (1931), features oversized, melting clocks in a dream-like desert. Like Dalí, Oldenburg enlarges ordinary objects and places them in a strange setting. ‘Spoonbridge and Cherry’ sees a simple piece of cutlery magnified and placed across a lake, with a cherry on top. The handle of the spoon is supposed to be a bridge, which is a fantastically bizarre, Dalí-esque image. ‘Paint Torch’ is one of Oldenberg’s more recent works. The enormous paintbrush and giant orange ‘blob’ of paint beneath it light up at night, quite literally bringing them to life. In fact, we almost expect it to leap into the air, like the mops in Disney’s ‘Fantasia’, and start painting the streets orange!

His work is whimsical, striking and above all, injects an element of fun into whatever he chooses to create. Oldenburg once said, “I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something more than sit on its ass in a museum” and his work certainly does. The innovative and eye-catching nature of his work ensures that it never just ‘sits’. It enchants everybody that is lucky enough to stumble upon it whilst going about their business. It carries its own unique message and makes an incongruous impact that is impossible to ignore.


Miranda Parkinson

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