'I don't even notice any more when people categorize me as a Pop artist," says Claes Oldenburg, who believes that his work encompasses a lot more than that.
The Swedish American artist--subject of "Claes Oldenburg: An Anthology," a survey of 35 years of work that opens today at the Museum of Contemporary Art--did indeed find his creative voice as part of the Pop generation, but he went on to develop such a wildly diverse body of work that his intentions have frequently been misunderstood. This show of 200 works--which was organized by Guggenheim Museum curator Germano Celant and was on view earlier this year at the National Gallery of Art in Washington--attempts to clarify the deeper currents in Oldenburg's exploration of the metaphoric potential of common objects.
Taking as his muse forms from everyday life--toilets, musical instruments, food, appliances--Oldenburg transforms the small and insignificant into the huge and monumental. Monuments are traditionally in service of the ruling order, but Oldenburg's whimsical works subvert authority in their elevation of the mundane. The visual equivalent of a conspiratorial elbow in the ribs, it is very viewer-friendly work.
"My art is made for human beings, and it's important that people enjoy the experience of seeing it," says the 66-year-old artist, who has worked in performance and film and made installations, drawings, collages, lithographs and sewn and fabricated sculpture. He has also completed 26 large-scale public sculptures in collaboration with his wife of 18 years, Dutch art historian Coosje van Bruggen.
The through line in this diverse body of work is Oldenburg's desire to get art off the pedestal, out of the museum and into the flow of real life.
"The objects that attract me as subject matter for my art are often a bit out of date--the first vacuum cleaner I made, for instance, was based on an early-model Hoover," Oldenburg says during an afternoon interview in a MOCA conference room. "This isn't to say the work is inflected with nostalgia; rather, it reflects the fact that the object only serves as a starting point. I suppose I'm also attracted to obsolete industrial designs because in the past objects tended to have more sculptural character than they have now. Things are pretty cold and sleek these days, and you have to go back to the '40s to recapture a typewriter."
An acute affinity with objects has been evident in the artist's work from the start, but it's hard to pinpoint the roots of that affinity in his upbringing. The elder of two sons born to a Swedish consular official, Oldenburg lived in Sweden until he was 7, when the family settled in Chicago.
"My earliest memories of my childhood in Chicago are images from an album of collages my mother made out of clippings from American magazines," he recalls. "I think she was trying to create a satirical image of the ideal home, and the collages included lots of objects and appliances--several of which subsequently turned up in my work.
"My parents were fairly cultured, but they didn't follow contemporary art, and the paintings in our house were mostly 19th-Century Swedish landscapes they'd inherited from relatives. My father spent a great deal of time reading and was good at language, and my mother loved music, but I wouldn't describe them as intellectuals.
"I felt like an outsider as a child, but it wasn't because I was Swedish--there were lots of Swedish people in Chicago. It had more to do with the fact that my interests were different from the interests of most boys I knew. For instance, my younger brother and I invented elaborately detailed imaginary worlds. His was called Humbolt and mine was Neubern, and I did lots of drawings describing this country--what kinds of trains, cars and airplanes they had, how the people dressed and so forth."
(His brother, Richard, was director of New York's Museum of Modern Art for 22 years and recently was appointed chairman of Sotheby's America.)
"Perhaps because I had to deal with a language barrier as a child, I was always able to make myself clear through drawing," Oldenburg says. "It never occurred to me to pursue a career as an artist, though, because growing up in the Midwest you simply couldn't imagine life as an artist. In those days if you wanted to do something creative you pursued writing, so my first direction was literary. In high school Thomas Wolfe was important to me, and when I went to Yale in 1946, I enrolled with a double major in literature and art."
After graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1950, Oldenburg took a job as an apprentice reporter at the City News Bureau of Chicago.