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 Store
Claes Oldenburg: Mouse Museum/Ray Gun Wing

Museum of Modern Art, New York
Through 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.

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