Claus Oldenburg

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. 

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