Claes Oldenburg, a whimsical father of pop art, dies at 93

Claes Oldenburg, a Swedish-born artist whose lighthearted caricatures of everyday things — such as monumental renderings of lipstick and binoculars as well as “soft sculptures” of hamburgers and ice cream cones — made him a leading force in pop art, died July 18 at his home in Manhattan. He was 93.

His death was confirmed by Pace Gallery and Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, which represent him. The cause was complications from a fall, said Adriana Elgarresta, director of public relations at Pace.

No pop artist — not even his contemporaries Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein — created a body of public work to rival his. “Art had to mean more than just producing objects for galleries and museums,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. “I wanted to locate art in the experience of life.”

In 2017, reflecting on Mr. Oldenburg’s career, New York Times arts writer Randy Kennedy observed that it is easy “to forget just how radical his work was when it first appeared, expanding the definition of sculpture by making it somehow more accessible human and more cerebral at the same time.”

Mr. Oldenburg’s outdoor installations included a giant cherry balanced on a spoon in the sculpture garden at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; a monumental steel clothespin in Philadelphia’s Center Square; a 20-ton baseball bat in front of Chicago’s Social Security Administration building; and a 38-foot-tall flashlight at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

In Washington, his work is represented by a gargantuan steel and fiberglass typewriter eraser in the sculpture garden of the National Gallery of Art. Although the subject of the sculpture is a mystery to many younger visitors, its giant pink wheel and wavy bristles give it a compelling form.

At least one quirky Oldenburg proposal for the capital was never realized: a plan to replace the Washington Monument with a giant pair of scissors.

In “Claes Oldenburg: Object into Monument,” the catalog of a 1973 exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. Oldenburg described the ideas behind the scissors. As he envisioned the piece, the red handles would be buried in deep troughs, their exposed blades opening and closing in the course of a day.

“Like the scissors, the USA is screwed together,” he wrote, “two violent parts destined in their arc to meet as one.”

Mr. Oldenburg probably never expected the scissors to be built. David Pagel, a professor of art theory and history, wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 2004 that “more often than not” Mr. Oldenburg’s “preposterous proposals were primarily great excuses to make great drawings.” (In the case of the scissors, one of those drawings is in the collection of the National Gallery.)

Mr. Oldenburg’s second wife, Dutch-born sculptor Coosje van Bruggen, was his collaborator from 1976 until her death in 2009. Although critics sometimes questioned the extent of van Bruggen’s role, the couple maintained that theirs was a true artistic partnership. The ideas for sculptures were jointly agreed, they said. Then Mr. Oldenburg produced drawings while she handled fabrication and siting.

Mr. Oldenburg’s work pleased collectors as well as critics. His 1974 “Clothespin Ten Foot” sold for more than $3.6 million at auction in 2015. In 2019, he sold his archive of 450 notebooks (along with thousands of drawings, photographs and other documents) to the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.

When Mr. Oldenburg arrived in New York in 1956, the era of abstract expressionist painting was coming to an end. Young artists were pioneering conceptual, performance and installation art. After spending a couple of years painting, Mr. Oldenburg threw himself into the new movements. “I wanted to work that would say something, be messy, be a little mysterious,” he told the New York Times.

His first solo exhibition, in 1959 at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, consisted largely of abstract sculptures made of paper, wood and string — things he said he had found on the street. His early work, “based on the castoff and the crude, on the flotsam and jetsam of modern life — was a hit from the beginning with his contemporaries,” Kennedy reported in the Times.

In 1960, while working as a dishwasher in Provincetown, Mass., Mr. Oldenburg found himself fascinated by the shapes of food and tableware. In early 1961, he unveiled an installation called “The Store” comprising plaster models of actual grocery-store items.

At that point, his colors became “very, very strong,” Mr. Oldenburg said in a recorded talk in 2012. And his pieces became curvaceous. “My disposition really is to the tactile,” he said. “I see things in the round, and I want to make them in the round. I want to be able to stroke them and touch them.”

For a second version of “The Store,” at the end of 1961, Mr. Oldenburg rented a real storefront on East Second Street in Manhattan. There he displayed a 10-foot-long ice cream cone, a 5-by-7-foot hamburger and a nine-foot slice of cake. The pieces were made of fabric, and their chief seamstress was Patricia Muschinski, known as Patty Mucha, an artist who was married to Mr. Oldenburg from 1960 to 1970. Those were among the first of hundreds of soft sculptures he produced over the years.

According to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which owns a poster for “The Store,” the piece was “a milestone of Pop art” that “heralded Oldenburg’s interest in the slippery line between art and commodity and the role of the artist in self -promotion.”

By the mid-1960s, Mr. Oldenburg was an art world star. In 1969, he was the subject of the first major pop art show at the Museum of Modern Art. The show included more than 100 of his sculptures (including a re-creation of “The Store”) and dozens of drawings.

But already he was thinking beyond the confines of museums and galleries.

In 1969, he created “Lipstick (Ascending) on ​​Caterpillar Tracks,” a giant lipstick with an inflatable tip mounted on a plywood base that resembled military tank treads. Commissioned by a group of Yale architecture students, it was parked prominently on the university’s campus.

The sculpture was both a physical manifestation of the antiwar slogan “make love, not war” and a platform from which speeches could be made. But in 1974 (after Mr. Oldenburg rebuilt the piece in metal), the university moved it to a less prominent location.

After “Lipstick,” Mr. Oldenburg created one “Colossal Monument” after another. They included a large Robinson Crusoe umbrella in Des Moines; a Brobdingnagian electric plug in Oberlin, Ohio; and an immense rubber stamp in Cleveland. How the piece was connected to the site was sometimes clear only to Mr. Oldenburg and van Bruggen.

Oldenburg and van Bruggen occasionally collaborated with architect Frank Gehry, who incorporated their giant binoculars into the West Coast headquarters he designed for the ad agency Chiat/Day in Los Angeles, which opened in 1991. (Standing up, the binoculars form a kind of archway through which cars enter the building’s garage.)

Claes Thure Oldenburg was born in Stockholm on Jan. 28, 1929. His mother had been a concert singer, and his father was a Swedish consular officer whose job required the family to relocate often.

The Oldenburgs moved to Chicago in 1936. Claes’s strongest memories of that period, he has said, were of his mother filling notebooks with photos from American magazines, including advertising images similar to ones that later turned up in his work.

Mr. Oldenburg studied literature and art at Yale. After graduating in 1950, he worked as a reporter in Chicago while taking art classes at night. He also spent time in San Francisco, where he made a living drawing boll weevils for pesticide ads, before moving to New York. For decades, he divided his time between Lower Manhattan and Beaumont-sur-Deme, France.

President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Arts in 2000.

Survivors include two stepchildren, Maartje Oldenburg and Paulus Kapteyn; and four grandchildren. His younger brother, Richard, who died in 2018, spent 22 years as director of the Museum of Modern Art and later was chairman of Sotheby’s America.

For all Mr. Oldenburg’s success, only a small fraction of his proposed monuments were built.

Unrealized ideas include planting a giant rearview mirror — symbolic of a backward-looking culture — in London’s Trafalgar Square (1976) and replacing the Statue of Liberty with a giant electric fan to blow immigrants out to sea (1977).

He also proposed a drainpipe for Toronto, a windshield wiper for Grant Park in Chicago, an ironing board for Manhattan’s Lower East Side and a banana for Times Square, as well as the scissors for Washington.

At times, he didn’t expect to be taken seriously. In a taped interview that accompanied a 2012 exhibition in Vienna, Mr. Oldenburg said, “The only thing that really saves the human experience is humor. I think without humor it wouldn’t be much fun.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said Claes Oldenburg’s survivors include three grandchildren, based on inaccurate information from the Paula Cooper Gallery. He is survived by four grandchildren. The article has been corrected.

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