Mouse Museum/Ray Gun Wing
Claes Oldenburg is food-obsessed—it’s obvious—I thought as I strolled through his monumental new show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I even felt a bit hungry when I came across the realistic-to-a-point “Pastry Case I” (1961-62), though looking at the freakish but oddly fascinating “Giant BLT” (1963) squashed all thoughts of an ordinary meal. A clothing-fixation also seemed unmistakable, his sculpture “Braselette” (1961) just one of the many garments on display. I was right and wrong. Oldenburg was attracted to this subject matter, but primarily in the context of the consumer culture of the early-1960’s, a period when the New York art world, like the city itself, was in flux.
During a recent MOMA preview—where, incidentally, the artist bore no resemblance to a lifelong fast food aficionado—Oldenburg said that the prevalent art form of the time, Abstract Expressionism, “had gotten so far away from reality…that the relationship to its surroundings was missing.” He abandoned his earlier goal of becoming a painter while he and contemporaries began to challenge the prevailing thinking. The paintings, he admitted, now reside in his basement. Instead, Oldenburg concentrated on creating figurative sculptures of food, clothing, and other detritus of daily life. His unique three-dimensional works became a leading part of the American Pop Art movement, which was influenced by and included such other rising stars as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol.
This shift did not occur overnight. The artist’s early work borrowed from abstraction as well from European Dada, especially its found-object constructions. Oldenburg, who then lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, scavenged the area to locate materials and The Street (1960) focused on his gritty urban environment. The collection “consists of objects made from cardboard, papier-mâché, newspaper, and burlap that evoke the characters and vistas of a neighborhood where junk and trash lined the streets…Oldenburg cut, tore, and crumpled his materials to create a panorama of the contemporary city, complete with cars, barking dogs, street signs, and passersby.” His flat Street figures greet visitors to the MOMA show. Primarily brownish-black, they are spare and striking, suspended from the white ceiling and walls, and resting on the floor. Some are recognizable; others are not. The viewer is drawn into a conceptual reality that is dark and somber, with a hint of anger, yet viewed through Oldenburg’s playful eyes.
Oldenburg’s next collection, The Store (1961), again interpreted the commonplace—sandwiches, shirts, lingerie, and the like—but in a brighter palette. As before, the artist used readily accessible materials. He shaped chicken wire, covered it with plaster-soaked canvas, and slapped on multiple layers of vivid enamel paint, resulting in rough, but identifiable objects. (It was cheaper to shop at the hardware store than in an art supply shop, he conceded at the preview.) Oldenburg initially displayed these diverse works, along with previous creations, in a smallish East Second Street storefront where everything was for sale. The storefront—like the setting for The Street—was also the site of Oldenburg’s Happenings, early performance art pieces that were intended as “pictures in movement.” MOMA’s installation of The Store includes Store sculptures such as “Braselette” and “Pastry Case I” and examples of the artist’s Soft sculptures, notably “Floor Cone” (1962), an eleven-foot long ice cream cone that, similar to the human body, is malleable, subject to gravity, and can be rearranged. In talking about these works in the past, Oldenburg said simply, “I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself…that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.”
The artist’s captivation with the mundane is particularly evident in the remaining sections of the exhibition, Mouse Museum and Ray Gun Wing, which were completed in the 1970s. Housed in a foreboding structure shaped after Oldenburg’s recurring geometric mouse motif, Mouse Museum is a carefully curated and arranged compilation of objects that appeal to him, selected from a collection of over a thousand at his home. Venturing into the dimly lit interior is much like entering the bat display at the Bronx Zoo. Inside, in glass display cases, are ordinary things—knickknacks, small toys, and clothespin sculptures, none valuable—that are intended to disavow “the distinction between everyday items and museum treasures.” Ray Gun Wing is more specialized: it consists of 258 ray guns displayed in a similar architectural construction. When asked to describe what he means by ray guns, Oldenburg quipped, “I don’t know—they can be anything you want them to be.” In fact, Ray Gun Wing includes primarily toy guns and found objects with the right-angled form of a pistol. I don’t put just anything in the collection, he pronounced, I’m very selective. Laughing, he then suggested that the angular shape could also be seen as that of a penis.
Oldenburg’s work has been described at various times as audacious, brash, humorous, and whimsical. Like the man, it is that, and more. This comprehensive presentation provides singular insight into the development of a master who is equally famous for his colossal sculptures in public spaces. I wonder what the witty 84-year old will bring into existence next, although I’m sure that it won’t be banal.
Ann Temkin and Paulina Pobocha from MOMA along with Achim Hochdorfer from the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien in Austria curated the exhibition, which concludes on August 5, 2013. All photographs were provided by MOMA’s Communications Department. The paraphrasing and quotations are attributed to the museum and/or Claes Oldenburg. Additional information can be found at www.moma.org.
Written by Christine Ritenis
New York Arts Correspondent