Claes Oldenburg is, in several important respects, the most appealing artist to have appeared on the New York scene in the last decade. Beside the increasingly constricted concerns of the abstractionists, his zany sculptures and offbeat designs for monuments offer a robust engagement with the world we actually encounter beyond the perimeter of the art gallery, the museum, and the millionaire’s fancy pad. There is a comic energy in the work that suggests that art, contrary to what we had been led to believe, has not lost its capacity to intervene in the affairs of life—to criticize, make jokes, sentimentalize, exalt, and deplore. In Oldenburg’s art, the emotions of the homme moyen sensual rarely, if ever, defer to the interests of the detached visual technician intent upon distilling from the plethora of workaday sensation some parsimonious aesthetic essence. There is an openness to experience, to the social environment, and to the mind’s free-wheeling tendency to proliferate fantasy in the face of these that, in the context of so much bloodless formalism, would be liberating even if the results were not so amusing.
But amusing Oldenburg certainly is, and it is essential to his art that it be amusing. (Whether it remains amusing is another question.) Modern art has been, more often than not, a solemn enterprise, and among the self-appointed guardians of modernist purity in the 1960s, this tradition of solemnity has been carried to almost unimaginable extremes of aridity, humorlessness, and farcical self-importance. Oldenburg’s art amuses precisely because it mocks this solemnity with such devastating and insouciant authority.
Not only has Oldenburg upset conventional expectations (including those of “advanced” taste) about the way objects and the environment are to be treated in a work of art, but he effectively alters the tone in which the artist speaks to the public. He plays the clown. At the Museum of Modern Art’s large retrospective exhibition of Oldenburg’s work this fall, the faces in the crowds of spectators were happy faces—smiling, relaxed, often actually laughing. At the very altar of high artistic seriousness, Oldenburg invited the crowd to abandon its pieties and have a good time, and the crowd responded with enthusiasm.
All of this—the openness, the clowning, the energy, and the cheerful embrace of the mundane—is, as I say, very appealing. Yet the exhibition itself was a lightweight affair. Oldenburg’s comic talents were abundantly in evidence wherever one turned, and the jokes had not noticeably staled. But as soon as one got past the early work and really examined the “major” pieces of the last seven years, the jokes tended to reduce themselves to a single joke—indeed, to something uncomfortably resembling a formula. The small made large, the hard made soft, the trivial transformed into the monumental: the virtuoso changes wrung on these basic strategies could not conceal a certain poverty of conception. Between the amusing giant hamburger (seven feet in diameter) and giant piece of cake (nine feet long), both made of foam-rubber-filled canvas in 1962, and the soft bathroom fixtures of 1966, made of vinyl, wood, etc., there are changes of material and scale, but conceptually the work rehearses the same comic scenario over and over again. The effect of this repetition was to make the exhibition as a whole seem a good deal smaller than the actual space it occupied. Despite the extravagant and infectious display of high spirits, Oldenburg’s art showed itself to have a fatally limited range.
It is true, of course, that most large exhibitions devoted to the work of a single artist over a short period of time tend to diminish rather than enlarge our sense of the artist’s possibilities. Only the most fecund genius can withstand the kind of exhaustive inventories that museums now lavish on talents of every size, and in this respect Oldenburg—whose exhibition contained over 200 items from scarcely more than a decade—was only paying the price of his current celebrity. What this exhaustive exhibition did make unmistakably clear, however, was the extent to which the nature of Oldenburg’s ambition had significantly changed over the past decade. From an art founded originally on alienation—on a profound moral disgust with the established values of bourgeois culture and with a deeply critical attitude toward the way advanced art functioned as a coefficient of those values—Oldenburg has moved in a very short time to an art that accomodates itself with remarkable ease to a form of bourgeois entertainment.
As a measure of the change that has overtaken Oldenburg’s work, consider this passage (written in 1961) from Store Days:
If I could only forget the notion of art entirely. I really don’t think you can win. Duchamp is ultimately labeled art too. The bourgeois scheme is that they wish to be disturbed from time to time, they like that, but then they envelop you, and that little bit is over, and they are ready for the next. There even exists within the b. values a code of possibilities for disturbance, certain “crimes” which it requires some courage to do but which will eventually be rewarded within the b. scheme. B. values are human weakness, a civilization built on human weakness, non-resistance. They are disgusting. There are many difficult things to do within the b. values, but I would like to find some way to take a totally outside position. Bohemia is bourgeois. The beat is bourgeois—their values are pure sentimentality—the country, the good heart, the fallen man, the honest man, the gold-hearted whore, etc. They would never think f. ex. of making the city a value of good.
Possibly art is doomed to be bourgeois. Two possible escapes from the bourgeois are 1. aristocracy and 2. intellect, where art never thrives too well. There again I am talking as if I want to create art outside b. values. Perhaps this can’t be done, but why should I even want to create “art”—that’s the notion I’ve got to get rid of.
Oldenburg was never, of course, rid of the “art” notion either then, when he was working on his “Store”—an actual store he opened on the Lower East Side in which to exhibit and sell his painted plaster sculptures of cheap pastries and other mundane food items—or later, when he was more than pleased to show his work in the most stylish galleries and museums. No “totally outside position” was possible, after all. But the passage itself is indicative of the kind of aspiration that governed his work at the beginning of his career—an aesthetic aspiration for an art whose purity and innocence and sharp cutting edge would be safeguarded by a taste too vulgar and too perishable, too low-class and common, to permit any quick or easy absorption into the bourgeois “scheme.”
The aspiration itself proved wholly illusory—scarcely a year after it was voiced, Oldenburg found himself amply “rewarded within the b. scheme” as part of the new craze for pop art—but it defined an interesting position. Prior to “The Store,” which actually launched Oldenburg as an uptown eminence, he had taken the art brut of Dubuffet and the ferociously anti-literary style of Céline’s Mort à Crédit as his models. This in itself betrayed a certain naïveté, for the styles of Dubuffet and Céline can scarcely be regarded as even near equivalents. Whereas Dubuffet is a very canny Parisian intellectual who long ago mastered the art of playing the primitive for a mandarin bourgeois public, knowing exactly how far he could go at every turn, Céline was a genuine reprobate whose gut hatred of bourgeois values placed him permanently beyond the reach of respectability. If there is such a thing in modern culture as a “totally outside position,” then Céline occupied it, and it is a sign of Oldenburg’s intelligence to have glimpsed this fact.
But his identification with Céline was, at best, an act of self-deception. Oldenburg’s sensibility is actually very cheerful, optimistic, and accommodating; he has never been possessed of the kind of spleen and violence that animated Céline’s whole outlook on life. In the so-called “Street” works (1959-60), when all the themes were drawn from unlovely images of life on the Lower East Side, there is a touching throwaway quality, at times even attaining a homely sidewalk lyricism, but the work remained securely locked within a vein of taste that Dubuffet had long established as completely permissible.
Still, one does not feel in the “Street” works or even in the items from “The Store” that the artist has set out deliberately to amuse or beguile. He is still acting under some illusion of resistance and rebellion. But from the moment Oldenburg made his uptown debut—at the Green Gallery, in 1962, where the first giant sewn-canvas works were shown—it was difficult to credit the rebel stance as anything but a useful charade. The public was “ready for the next,” and Oldenburg was delivering it in abundance. The possibility that art might be “doomed to be bourgeois” was, to all appearances anyway, faced with remarkable equanimity.
For the next few years Oldenburg was in the mainstream of the pop movement, producing entertaining parodies of the very objects so beloved by the once despised bourgeois public. He had entered art history, and—what nowadays amounts to the same thing—began to enjoy considerable prosperity and fame. The strategy of Dubuffet proved to be far more congenial to his talents than that of Céline.
In 1965, Oldenburg embarked upon still another enterprise—his comic designs for colossal architectural monuments. Many of these have already become legendary: a monument in the shape of a baked potato for the Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, a giant teddy bear for Central Park, a Good Humor bar for Park Avenue, a drain-pipe for Toronto, a windshield wiper for Grant Park in Chicago, a fan to replace the Statue of Liberty. In their put-on iconography, these designs are only a logical, if more grandiose, extension of pop’s facetious attitude toward any kind of exalted public symbolism. They are not so much a criticism of what public visual discourse has degenerated into in our culture as a comic elaboration of what, given the infantile-mercantile sensibility that dominates public space in our cities, such discourse might ideally be.
Oldenburg’s own attitude in these designs is extremely equivocal; the satirist is clearly prepared to go “straight” at the first nod from the city fathers, but meanwhile he goes through his comic turns with gusto. What is remarkable about these designs, however, is not their facetiousness—a commonplace among pop artists of every sort—but the style in which they are rendered: a delicate, romantic, old master pastiche, with washes, shadings, and perspective as deft and correct as anything you could expect to find in the old academies.
In another passage in Store Days Oldenburg had written: “I want these pieces to have an unbridled intense satanic vulgarity unsurpassable, and yet be art,” but in these later drawings, which were mounted in the drawing galleries of the Museum of Modern Art with the kind of solemnity usually accorded a revered master, he adopts a style unsurpassable in sweet respectability. They are indeed the drawings of an academician manqué, and they recall us to an essential feature not only of Oldenburg’s art but of the pop movement itself—its fundamental conventionality, its yearning to assume the duties of the old and now discredited academic tradition, with its busy civic commissions and public decorations.
Needless to say, none of the books under review regards Oldenburg as anything but the genius of our day. The large volume devoted to his Drawings and Prints is a very handsome production, and as Oldenburg is always seen at his best in his drawings, this book is, I suppose, an essential document for the study of his work. Proposals for Monuments and Buildings 1965-69 is also devoted to his drawings, but only those concerned with this special enterprise, whereas the Drawings and Prints volume covers the entire course of the artist’s career. The latter suffers from an excessively pious text by Mr. Baro, who has a mind so fine that no comic idea of Oldenburg’s will ever violate it.
The Proposals volume has the advantage of containing an interview with Oldenburg himself, who remains—so far—the best commentator on his own work. At least he makes it sound as if a human being has produced it, which is not always the case with up-tight admirers like Mr. Baro. For this reason, too, the best of these books is Store Days, which, although only concerned with a brief phase of Oldenburg’s work (1961-62), conveys very accurately the character of his early endeavors, with many of the artist’s texts as well as pictures. When one considers the course Oldenburg’s art has followed since those days, the book makes rather sad reading, but that too is part of its importance.
December 4, 1969