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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

"There's a big difference between a found object, an altered object and a created object. In my work objects are always transformed, which is a major difference from how Duchamp approached them. But the idea of leaving life alone and allowing it to be itself, to use things as they are and open yourself to the influence of chance, is a potent one, and Duchamp played a crucial role in translating that idea into art."

Duchamp spent a good deal of time in New York before his death in 1968 and was but one of the luminaries of the New York avant-garde of the '50s and '60s that also included the younger generation of John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. It was a young, mutually supportive scene then, and the cast of colleagues who appeared in Oldenburg's performances of the early '60s is impressive--among them are artists Lucas Samaras, Tom Wesselman, Carolee Schneemann, Oyvind Fahlstrom and Richard Artschwager, dealer Annina Nosei, critic Barbara Rose and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer.

"There's a certain amount of truth to the romantic notions we have about New York's creative community of the '60s," Oldenburg recalls. "It was a time when many things that had been pent up in the '50s were released and forces from all over the world converged in Manhattan then--it really hasn't been comprehensively documented yet. By 1962, however, that period had ended for me. I'd had enough of the chaotic lifestyle of New York and had run out of inspiration."

Oldenburg's solution to the creative fatigue he was suffering was to go west.

"I came to L.A. in 1963 because it was the most opposite thing to New York I could think of," he says. "At that point L.A. was quite removed from the East Coast.

"This isn't to suggest I looked down my nose at the artists here--they looked down their noses at me because I couldn't surf and didn't have a motorcycle," he jokes, in obvious reference to the artists associated with L.A.'s legendary Ferus Gallery.

Oldenburg felt revitalized by the change of scene, but it wasn't long before he was restless again.

"Over a period of six months here I did a lot of things. I did a performance which I felt summed up my experience here," he says, referring to "Autobodys," performed in the parking lot of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics on Dec. 9-10, 1963. "And I made 'Bedroom Ensemble,' which signaled the beginning of a new direction on my work."

The artist describes "Bedroom"--an installation based on a memory he had of Las Tunas Isles, a Malibu motel in which each room was decorated with different patterns of faux animal skin--as "a tomb about the freezing of life into patterns." ("The Bedroom" included in the MOCA show is one of three in existence.)

Returning to New York, Oldenburg continued experimenting with scale and the idea of soft sculpture, and in 1964 he began drawing up proposals for far-fetched public monuments.

"Those proposals were an ironic critique of the conventions that dominate public monuments," he says. "One of the things this show illustrates is how those ironic proposals for imaginary monuments evolved into real large-scale sculptures that reflect people's real concerns."

The first of his public works to be realized was "Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks," which was installed at Yale in 1969, only to be removed 10 months later after some trustees objected to it. (It was reinstalled in 1974.)

A dramatic shift in Oldenburg's art took root that same year when a retrospective of his work organized by the Museum of Modern Art traveled to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. There he met Van Bruggen, who was a curator at the Stedelijk at the time.

"Coosje was married then, and we didn't meet again until 1976," says Oldenburg, who has officially signed all the work he has done since 1981 with both his own name and his wife's. "We married in 1977, and her presence in my life has been good for my art. She's helped take the work in a direction that's less self-centered and more lyrical, and I think the work has expanded due to the fact that she and I are opposites: I'm American, she's European; I'm male and she's female, and we're of different generations. We're both concerned with the senses, however, and our art projects that."

"We work together beautifully," says Van Bruggen, who has written two books on Oldenburg, as well as books on Bruce Nauman and John Baldessari. "Sometimes he comes up with an idea and I help him develop it; other times it's the reverse. It's a very flexible partnership in terms of who does what."

Oldenburg speaks of "our art" and considers his work of the past 14 years an equal collaboration between him and Van Bruggen. Nonetheless, the vocabulary central to their artistic practice was hammered out by Oldenburg alone in the two decades of art-making that preceded their marriage.

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