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Art : When Bigger Is Better : Claes Oldenburg has spent the past 35 years blowing up and redefining everyday objects, all in the name of getting art off its pedestal.

July 02, 1995|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar

"I was assigned to cover stories that were considered unimportant but which I found fascinating. I once covered the death of a man who'd spent his life collecting nuts and bolts--every drawer and receptacle in his apartment was full of nuts and bolts, and I can remember standing there and having an illumination of an unimaginably lonely life. I covered lots of stories like that, but nothing I wrote ever got printed," he says with a laugh. "I can now see that the valuable thing about that job was that it was my first real contact with a city. My childhood had been very protected, so I was always trying to get to the world outside, and I finally felt that I had."

By 1952 Oldenburg concluded that his career as a reporter was a bust, so he started taking night classes at Chicago's Art Institute, figuring that "I could fall back on my drawing and try to become an artist."

(It was during this time that he met his first wife, Pat Muschinski, whom he would marry in 1960 and divorce in 1969.)

"I don't know what gave me the drive to leave the world I was born into and become an artist," he says. "I guess some people just have a lot of imagination, which is a great gift, as is the ability to render it in some way. Those must've been the forces driving me then.

"My real education began at the Art Institute. I was 23 but still hadn't been exposed to much contemporary art, and as a student there I saw lots of new things. I experimented with different mediums but eventually came to the conclusion that for me, being an artist meant more than mastering various techniques; it meant defining what art is . To do that I first had to become familiar with previously existing definitions, but then I had to create one of my own."

Oldenburg didn't arrive at that point, he says, until after he'd moved to New York, where he has lived since 1956.

"It was there I realized that art had to mean more than just producing objects for galleries and museums and that I wanted to locate art in the experience of life," he says.

Steeping himself in the writings of Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Samuel Beckett, Oldenburg supported himself during his early years in New York with a job shelving books at the Cooper Union Library. At the time, he was thinking about Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, the latter of which was the reigning sensation of the art world at the time.

"The Surrealists were important for me because they investigated human consciousness and fetishism. As for Abstract Expressionism, if you live in New York you're surrounded by graffiti and paint action," says Oldenburg, whose early work displayed some elements of Abstract Expressionism. "There are walls in New York that look like Abstract Expressionist compositions, but they've been created by chance, and the Abstract Expressionism in my work is more a result of that."

Oldenburg began toying with the idea of soft sculpture in 1957, when he completed a free-hanging piece made from a woman's stocking stuffed with newspaper. (The piece was untitled when he made it but is now referred to as "Sausage.") At that point, however, the streets of New York were more compelling to him than anything in his studio, and in 1959 he went into the street and began drawing what he saw.

The following year he took the street indoors with "The Street," an installation at the Judson Gallery that served as the backdrop for a performance, "Snapshots From the City." Then in 1961, he rented a store on Manhattan's Lower East Side to house "The Store," an installation stocked with sculptures roughly in the form of consumer goods--16 of which wound up in MOCA's permanent holdings when it acquired works from the collection of Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo.

"The palette in 'The Store' was a simple one of store-bought paints with names like 'school bus yellow,' " says Oldenburg, who marks "The Store" as the point at which he began making a living with his art. "The colors were never mixed, because in their pure form they had an archetypal quality that appealed to me. Of course, I'm not the first to use paint in this manner--Picasso painted for a period with enamels from a hardware store."

Oldenburg's work appears to have little to do with Picasso, so it is surprising when the name comes up. Oldenburg, however, is quick to point out that "Picasso has been a huge influence on every artist who's come after him--we've all had to work our way through him."

Oldenburg had to work his way through Picasso in order to resolve "The Store," but he also had to come to grips with Marcel Duchamp, originator of the vastly influential idea of the "ready-made." (A ready-made is a common object that is transformed into art simply by the artist declaring it so.) Investing the everyday with the properties of art is obviously central to Oldenburg's practice; however, he sees his approach as markedly different from Duchamp's:

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