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COMMENTARY : The Percolating Mind of Oldenburg : A retrospective shows how ideas from early in a career can cook for decades, before emerging to enshrine the mundane.

August 06, 1995|Christopher Knight | Christopher Knight is a Times art critic. and

In 1967, Claes Oldenburg made a very funny collage in a notebook he kept of sculptural ideas. It showed a monumen tal work he wished to add to the facade of the Chicago Stock Exchange. Oldenburg cut out an ordinary magazine advertisement for a woman's panty girdle and pasted it to a rudimentary drawing of the building. The girdle, in its disarmingly new context, suddenly took on the formal cast of a triumphal arch, which led into a latter-day temple of high finance. The stabilizing keystone of the arch was made from a tummy-control panel, decorated with frilly lace rather than the Roman acanthus leaves one might expect.

The wickedly wry prospect of entering a rough-and-tumble bastion of uptight, traditionally masculine, mercantile Middle America through a gigantic image of the elastically bound legs of a woman would probably send Freud whirling in his grave. That, too, is typical of the most riveting of Oldenburg's multivalent art.

The collage drawing for the monumental girdle portal is included in the must-see retrospective of Oldenburg's compelling career that is currently at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

At MOCA, that work hangs next to another small collage from his notebook, this one made two years later, in which a building in the form of a pair of binoculars is envisioned. The collage uses half a dozen pictures of binoculars of various shapes and sizes, apparently clipped from newspaper ads or a catalogue, pictures that have been pasted on the sheet with the cylindrical viewing tubes facing down. Standing on two "legs" planted firmly in place, the pair of binoculars looks strangely human.

Another picture of a girdle, this one cut out in the shape of binoculars, is also pasted onto the same notebook sheet. The binoculars, rather like the girdle, seem a mutant cross between a classical architectural form and a chunky human figure. And all the while, they never lose their original identity as commonplace manufactured objects.

Oldenburg's collages, drawings and models for large-scale public monuments form an important and engaging subset within the retrospective exhibition. They also show how ideas from early in the artist's career can percolate, literally for decades, before emerging into actual sculptural form.

The 1967 and 1969 notebook collages, for example, step forward as revealing precedents for what became, in 1991, the giant concrete "Binoculars" that mark the facade of the Chiat/Day building at 340 Main St., Venice. Painted a dull black, the four-story sculpture forms a witty and imposing entry portal to the parking garage beneath the building, which was designed by celebrated architect Frank O. Gehry.

The greatest competition for Oldenburg's monumental sculptures has always been his own remarkable drawings for them. His earliest date from 1965, most memorably a crayon image of a fat, fuzzy teddy bear looming over the grassy fields of New York's Central Park. Others followed through the years, including an ambitious plan to replace the Statue of Liberty with a humongous electrical fan, which would blow away the smog from Manhattan Island.

Always, the common objects he chose to monumentalize were specific to the site. A teddy bear was perfect for a rambling urban park whose famous design of leafy grottoes was a tamed image of the rugged American wilderness. And a fan aimed at blowing away the city's air pollution would surely be of practical help to the huddled masses, ever yearning to breathe free.

It wasn't until the 1970s that Oldenburg's stature as an artist became substantial enough to begin winning him commissions, both in Europe and the United States, so that his notebook dreamings could begin to be realized. Replacing Lady Liberty or taking up acres of precious urban green space was never very likely, no matter how big the artist's reputation. But Oldenburg has managed to turn a host of common household objects into colossal outdoor sculptures, for a variety of parks, office buildings and city streets.

Through sheer size and dramatic visibility, Oldenburg's monuments enshrine the mundane stuff that surrounds modern daily life. The list of consecrated objects includes an enormous standing clothespin for Philadelphia; a gigantic columnar baseball bat for Chicago; a big black flashlight for Las Vegas; a long, snaking garden hose for Freiburg, Germany; a huge open book of matches for Barcelona; a silver spoon scooping up a red cherry for Minneapolis; an inverted shirt collar and necktie for Frankfurt, Germany, and a smashed bowl of fruit for Miami.

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