Feature

Exhibit of the week: Claes Oldenburg

The beginning of pop art is apparent in Claes Oldenburg's goofy facsimiles of everyday products.

Claes Oldenburg: The Street and The StoreClaes Oldenburg: Mouse Museum/Ray Gun WingMuseum of Modern Art, New YorkThrough Aug. 5

The young Claes Oldenburg “curated America’s id,” said R.C. Baker in The Village Voice. The Swedish-born artist, now 84, arrived in New York at a time when the heroic gestures of abstract expressionism had run their course, and he responded by devising a way to train the eyes of the art world on “the garish cornucopia” of the city’s consumer culture. “Roaming through MoMA’s chockablock installation of highlights from Oldenburg’s early career,” you can feel his “febrile mind” at work. “This was the beginning of pop art,” said John Zeaman in the Bergen County, N.J., Record. In 1961, a year before Andy Warhol exhibited his soup cans, Oldenburg opened a storefront on the Lower East Side and packed it with goofy facsimiles of everyday products—an ice cream sandwich, a pair of sneakers, pastries. At The Store, “everything was lumpy, misshapen, and sloppily painted, as if made by a child.”

A show that Oldenburg had mounted a year earlier offers insight into what he was up to, said Jarrett Moran in Artlog.com. The Street, which is currently sharing MoMA’s sixth floor with The Store, spreads out a squalid urban scene—cars and tenements, barking dogs, human figures—with each figure fashioned of scavenged materials like cardboard, burlap, and newspapers. Where Warhol’s high-sheen pop art would be “all symbols and spectacles and pop stars,” Oldenburg was “more interested in messy, everyday experience and the objects that populate it.” He wasn’t concerned with surfaces; his art, from the beginning, was “an attempt to engage with the city around him,” and it served as “a forerunner of today’s installation and performance art.”

“Oldenburg’s images are witty but rarely cute,” said Holland Cotter in The New York Times. His comestibles tended to get bigger, turning into soft, sewn sculptures like a hamburger “big enough to seat a party of four.” But the burger suggests rot as much as it does nourishment. The artist asked us to see all manner of everyday objects in a new way, as in the two mini-museums that currently occupy MoMa’s second-floor atrium. In Ray Gun Wing, the joke is that every found object he included in the display, “from store-bought toys to scraps of metal or plaster that happen to form right angles,” can be seen as a gun if you use your imagination. Would we call that a child-like imagination? Whatever the answer, the work succeeds in making the everyday look larger—both “grander” and “grosser”—than life.

Recommended

DHS says it 'is not and will not send' Haitian migrants to Guantanamo Bay
Haitian migrants at southern border
Haitian migrants

DHS says it 'is not and will not send' Haitian migrants to Guantanamo Bay

Kabul's holdover mayor says he finds Taliban 'more tolerant'
Taliban fighters.
afghanistan

Kabul's holdover mayor says he finds Taliban 'more tolerant'

Macron and Biden patch things up
Biden and Macron.
friends again

Macron and Biden patch things up

Boris Johnson says French should 'prenez un grip'
Boris Johnson.
not lost in translation

Boris Johnson says French should 'prenez un grip'

Most Popular

7 cartoons about America's vaccine fights
Editorial Cartoon.
Feature

7 cartoons about America's vaccine fights

Did Theranos Lose Afghanistan?
Elizabeth Holmes and James Mattis.
Samuel Goldman

Did Theranos Lose Afghanistan?

Feds charge 2 GOP operatives with funneling Russian's money to Trump campaign
Ron Paul and Jesse Benton
Loose ends

Feds charge 2 GOP operatives with funneling Russian's money to Trump campaign