Art History: Claes Oldenburg

Shuttlecocks - Claes Oldenburg - The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City,
Starting with some context it is important to place Oldenburg and his work as an artist working at the same time as other important pop artists such as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg. Most of his reputation was established in the mid-1960s when pop art was at its height. As his work developed along with his reputation into the 1970s and 1980s his reputation and popularity allowed him to develop his work on a monumental scale by creating large sculptures, sometimes as large as a story or two tall.

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The concepts and symbolism in his work are aligned directly with Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns who were known to take everyday objects that were part of commercial culture and reproduce them in handmade materials. All of these artists were building on many of the concepts that Marcel Duchamp established early in the 1900s with his movement called DADA. Probably the clearest example of how Oldenburg built on the ideas of Marcel Duchamp are in his “reboot” of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain.”

In 1917, Marcel Duchamp took an ordinary urinal from men’s bathroom and placed it on a pedestal in an art gallery. He titled the piece “The Fountain.” He also signed it with a false name R, Mutt, which was a reference to a plumbing company and probably also to a popular comic book also entitled “Mutt and Jeff.” Many of the viewers who visited the gallery were either outraged or confused by what Duchamp’s sculpture was supposed to mean. 

Another interesting factor is that the female viewers who had never seen a bathroom urinal did not know what it was. In terms of art historical “buzzwords” Duchamp was “recontextualizing” a ready-made object and by placing it in an art gallery and declaring it a work of art he was changing the meaning of it. In some ways you shop probably meant this to be a joke in which he was pointing out how ridiculous the art world might be. Some art history professors will also comment that Duchamp was also attempting to show the beauty of a mass manufactured object. This sculpture is famous, notorious, and the first of its kind. It established a new way of thinking about mass manufactured objects and their relationship to the art world.

By the time Claus Oldenburg was making his sculptures, about 50 years later, most artists involved in the pop art movement were aware and used many of the strategies that Marcel Duchamp and his followers used to create art. This includes a sarcastic sense of humor and the recontextualizing of “ready-made” and mass manufactured commercially made objects. When Oldenburg made his “soft toilets,” he was referring to the tradition that Duchamp established.

Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol were both doing similar kinds of things by taking everyday objects and recasting them in other materials. For example, Warhol took wooden boxes and silkscreened the commercial packaging for Brillo soap pads on the sides of objects in place them in a gallery. 

Jasper Johns took Ballantine beer cans and recast them in bronze. Likewise, Claus Oldenburg took contemporary toilet designs and turn them into sculptures made of soft materials. The thing that all of these works of art have in common is that they are remaking commercially made objects by using fine art techniques such as cast bronze, sewing, and printmaking. By remaking these objects in materials that are traditionally fine art the artist’s intention is to render the objects unusable, transform them into something that might be considered “art,” and call attention to commercial art and industrial design. Someone say that they are commenting sarcastically on the art world and consumers in in the 20th century.

After Oldenburg established his reputation he then began to take everyday objects such as clothespins, erasers, and other highly recognizable everyday objects and re-create them on a very large scale as sculptures. Obviously he wouldn’t of been able to do this at the beginning of his career because he would not have enough money at that point. Many artists, such as Oldenburg will take a theme, such as the reproducing or reappropriating of an everyday object and reuse this theme over and over again to create additional works of art. 

Although many of the pop artists claimed that they were critiquing consumer culture in fact they were probably participating in it by making works of art out of these objects and reproducing them and then in turn selling them for large sums of money. The intention of the artists is hard to establish because if an artist claimed that they were trying to make a living as an artist but also critique consumerism this is a kind of paradox that would annoy someone who bought the art.

Here are some quotes from Claus Oldenburg in which he explains some of his art.

"I am for an art that is political-erotic-mystical, that does something else than sit on its ass in a museum." -- Claes Oldenburg, 1961. 

"The main reason for the colossal objects is the obvious one, to expand and intensify the presence of  the vessel -- the object,"  

"Perhaps I am more a still-life painter -- using the city as a tablecloth." 

"Because my work is naturally non-meaningful, the meaning found in it will remain doubtful and inconsistent -- which is the way it should be. All that I care about is that, like any startling piece of nature, it should be capable of stimulating meaning." 

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