Claes Oldenburg, whose large-scale public sculptures elevated the mundane and pulled art closer to everyday life, died on July 18 at age 93.
Over a six-decade career, the American Pop Art icon expanded the definition of public sculpture; his oversized renderings of everyday objects—including a 45-foot-tall steel clothespin, a 19-foot-tall typewriter eraser and a 52-foot-long spoon—are equal parts imposing and idiosyncratic.
“It’s really hard to overstate how radical Oldenburg’s work was at the time,” Anne Reeve, a curator at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, tells Smithsonian magazine. “The impulses that he first tapped are now everywhere in the field of art. It’s impossible to imagine contemporary artists working in a mode that doesn’t take [from] the legacy that he established and extended.”
Born in 1929, Oldenburg grew up in Stockholm, Sweden, and Chicago. He studied literature and art at Yale University and expected to become a writer. After graduation, he worked as a reporter in Chicago while studying at the Art Institute of Chicago at night.
Oldenburg moved to New York City in 1956 and held his first major exhibition, “The Street”—featuring pieces made from cardboard and newspaper—in 1960. For his next major exhibition, “The Store” (1961–64), he created sculptures of commercial goods: cigarettes, hamburgers, sandwiches.
A second version of “The Store” featured similar everyday items (with names like Floor Cake and Floor Burger) crafted from fabric. These were some of the artist’s early “soft” sculptures, which were made of canvas or vinyl and filled with foam. For the most part, his then-wife, Patty Mucha, sewed these pieces, working from her husband’s sketches.
These early works—concerned with “the castoff and the crude, on the flotsam and jetsam of modern life,” per the New York Times’ Randy Kennedy—quickly found an audience. Oldenburg also started participating in “Happenings,” a precursor of performance art that gained traction in the art world in the 1950s.
With time, Oldenburg began pushing his experiments with scale (often in collaboration with his second wife, Coosje van Bruggen), creating the sculptures for which he is best known.
As the Times’ Martha Schwendener writes, Oldenburg “saw his monumental versions of humble objects as more than just celebrations of the mundane.”
In the artist’s own words, “A catalog could be made of all such objects, which would read like a list of the deities or things on which our contemporary mythological thinking has been projected. We do invest religious emotion in our objects. Look at how beautifully objects are depicted in ads in Sunday newspapers.”
One of Oldenburg’s first large-scale pieces, which appeared at Yale in 1969, doubled as a symbol for anti-war activists: a tube of lipstick standing on a military vehicle. When it was installed, the sculpture drew immense controversy.
“It always starts that way,” the artist told NPR’s Joel Rose in 2011. “The newspapers give a bad review. And you would hear a lot of people complaining on the radio. And then that wore off. What happened in many cases is the piece would become a symbol. ... Its approval rating would go up. And the people got fond of it. That’s the status of most of them now.”
Today, across the globe, giant apples, toothbrushes and binoculars are instantly recognizable as Oldenburg’s creations. Often located in public spaces, they serve as familiar landmarks for a general audience.
“He was really invested in artworks living with people, and people being able to recognize something both as a sculpture and as an element from their everyday lives,” says Reeve. “I think it was important to him, for example, that art not only exist on the coasts, that it’d be in places where people who might not have regular access to museums, or who might just not be museumgoers, could still engage with it.”
Reeve, who grew up in the Midwest, remembers driving past Spoonbridge and Cherry in Minneapolis almost every day. The whimsical image (a spoon, holding a cherry, straddles a pond) became ingrained in her mind.
Oldenburg, says Reeve, believed that “art was something that lives with us—not behind glass, or apart from us.”