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A Ship Out of Water : An Oldenburg Artwork Arrives in Los Angeles--But, for Now, There's No Place to Put It

March 15, 1987|ELIZABETH VENANT | Elizabeth Venant is a Times staff writer.

CHICAGO HAS A giant baseball bat, Philadelphia a clothespin, Des Moines an umbrella and Vail, Colo., a fishing pole hovering over a mountain stream. Now Los Angeles is getting its own outsized artifact by Pop artist Claes Oldenburg: the "Knife Ship," a 41-foot-long aquatic Swiss Army knife with motorized blades and corkscrew and a set of eight oars.

The "Knife Ship," a gift to the Museum of Contemporary Art, sailed into town recently in two trailer trucks. As of next year, it will be housed in the Temporary Contemporary. Meanwhile, it's in storage, awaiting a suitable temporary mooring. California Plaza, the Security Pacific Plaza and City Hall have all proved to be too small for its nearly 83-foot swath.

At New York City's Guggenheim Museum, where the sculpture was on display for two months, a 12-member crew worked for four days to install the knife. Two floor-to-ceiling windows were removed to bring it in, and six meetings were held to determine the best strategy to get it out.

A staffer there laughs, "We're trying to ease Los Angeles into what's coming."

Designed as a landlubbing artwork for Basel, Switzerland, the knife acquired nautical gear when Oldenburg and his wife, Coosje van Bruggen, decided to use it as the centerpiece of a 1985 multimedia event, " Il Corso del Coltello " ("The Course of the Knife"), and sail it down a Venice canal.

That a knife could become a boat doesn't surprise the 58-year-old artist a bit. "It looks like a boat," Oldenburg says. The corkscrew and blades simulate the mast and sails. "It seemed like a natural association for me."

If the Guggenheim run is any clue, the shiny, red American version of the "Knife Ship," identical to the Venice one, should enchant Los Angeles viewers. "It was like being in a wonderful toy shop," says the Guggenheim's deputy director, Diane Waldman.

For his part, Oldenburg sees the "Knife Ship" as an appropriate mate to Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose: "Our boat doesn't navigate very well, and his plane never flew very well. So I thought they might get together."

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