Pop Art on a Budget

John Haber
in New York City

Claes Oldenburg

Tired of blockbusters that skew museum priorities? Tired of art news that veers from big names and big money to cutbacks and threats of museum closings? With Claes Oldenburg, a little restraint goes a long way.

No doubt his soft sculpture looked anticlimactic from the start anyway. Now, between two museums, their origins come into focus. One can see the early 1960s again, when Pop Art looked less slick and the happenings were happening. Which, one gets to ask, were most influential for things to come? Together, the shows supply a career retrospective, give or take much of Oldenburg's career. It takes a second look to remember what all this informality misses. Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen's Soft Viola Island (Whitney Museum of American Art, 2001)

What if a museum just went about its business—of sticking up for the art and artists it knows best? When it comes to Oldenburg, the Whitney knows its limits. In keeping with chastened museum budgets, it takes three rooms for the Pop artist's early years, all with work from the permanent collection. Then comes a leap ahead to the 1990s, for a single collaboration with his late wife, Coosje van Bruggen, who died this year. The 2009 exhibition draws on fifteen years of loans from the artist himself. His holdings also fill out the film gallery, for the fabled happenings of the early 1960s.

Nearly four years later, I had his Mouse Museum to myself on a Wednesday morning, except perhaps for Annette. I had read Annette Funicello's obituary only an hour or two before, and she might have seen something of herself at the Museum of Modern Art. Oldenburg conceived a "museum of popular art, n.y.c." in a new studio in 1965, the year of Beach Blanket Bingo, although it took seven more years and Documenta, the arts festival in Germany, to morph into mouse ears. Not that the black corrugated aluminum holds memories of the Mickey Mouse Club, which had ended its run before my time, in 1958. Oldenburg chose nearly four hundred relics from his loft on Fourteenth Street, on his usual themes then of toys and food. It is startling to think how much more he and MoMA have left out.

A soft spot for pop

Everything attests to the Whitney's modesty, not least in the spirit of the work, far from the darker and more glittery soft sculpture of Yayoi Kusama. The opening room holds Oldenburg's signature ketchup and fries, a BLT with olive and toothpick, a blender, and a toilet. Pop Art often descended like lightening—for Roy Lichtenstein the figurative pow and zap of a comic strip, for Andy Warhol the "sinister Pop" of Orange Disaster and an electric chair. Oldenburg descends to everyday guilty pleasures, and he descends less than gracefully. The stuffed-canvas ketchup sprawls out over the fries like a couch potato. One can feel a cold, hard toilet seat melting out from under one.

The next room scales up the action to just slightly more comic proportions. A restored, motorized ice bag pulses slowly up and down, like a thinking cap for giant soreheads. It alone displays the artist's talent for scale. Sketches lining the walls show these works coming to be, plus some comic architecture that never did. No, a fireplug never did morph into a Chicago skyscraper. As for Oldenburg's most famous public sculpture, from the giant Typewriter Eraser and Crusoe Umbrella to the even more stately Clothespin, the Whitney stops just in time to miss them all.

The back room has memories of a still earlier project, The Store, where the artist sold sculpture made of canvas, burlap, and muslin dipped in plaster. Compared to the neatness and bustle of related display cases in MoMA's collection, the room and its posters look spare to the point of self-effacing. One has to remind oneself how gritty and messy it must have seemed, as if Oldenburg had dipped real clothing in blood. One has to remind oneself, too, that this store lay not all that far off the Bowery. Only a block or two away, a fancy clothing store has replaced CBGB, and the daughter of Brice Marden has closed her trendy Lower East Side gallery. Warhol's Factory might have had a soft spot for the neighborhood's newfound glamour.

The wild, half-improvised happenings definitely would not. With the artist's help, the Whitney has rounded up seven of them, and they run simultaneously on four walls. Although one film runs two hours, most are modest in yet another sense—a few minutes at most. One can take them all in on a single visit. It seems only right that they disperse one's attention, just as the performers drift in every direction and none. Artists and other friends climb out of bed, down from the rafters, up a long road, and down a university corridor, as if in search of a really good party and the summer of love.

Finally comes The Music Room, an extended tribute to the art of love—and I do not mean Robert Indiana. Its inspiration came from van Bruggen, the writer and curator whom he married in 1977. She had a fondness for Jan Vermeer, especially Vermeer's women. Oldenburg sets a 3D composite into a museum wall, naturally emptied of women so that it can stick to warped objects and spaces. Over the course of a decade or so, the idea spawned a soft viola, the gently curving tower of Leaning Clarinet, and a ludicrously entangled French horn. It also spawned still more sketches for still more plans. He must have dreamed of departing with his wife for the Soft Viola Island.

Even before the Great Recession, the Whitney had been planning a quiet spring 2009. Two theme shows made a particularly low-budget start. "Synthetic" and "Sites" both took work from the permanent collection, and both felt like missed opportunities. Instead of a bringing fresh eye to familiar art, they left the rooms strangely empty, as work that did not fit the theme had to go. One could only imagine them as the core of two truly remarkable shows—a history from enamel house paint, newly formulated acrylics, and industrial materials to raw earth and appropriation. Each in turn shaped Abstract Expressionism, color-field painting, Minimalism, land art, and the mess of art today.

Soft ambitions

For all its limits, the Whitney's version of Oldenburg has ambitions. Starting with the happenings, it wants to capture a critical moment in the art scene. With its beginning and end dates, it outlines a career. One could almost call it a retrospective, with admiration for a museum that can pull one off from mostly its own holdings. Still, it is more like Oldenburg's tribute to a marriage. While van Bruggen makes only a late appearance, he likes sharing the banner with her outside the Whitney.

Claes Oldenburg's Giant Fagends (Whitney Museum of American Art, 1967)That show leaves out something crucial. It moves far too seamlessly from the Bowery to the Baroque, from French fries to a tropical paradise. It has an air of perpetual good cheer, a not unreasonable reflection of a sane and good-natured artist. Yet it assimilates way too easily the mad rituals of the happenings, the ugly indulgence of giant Fag Ends, and the caked and battered clothing from The Store. It also conforms a little too easily to the weakness of the artist's late work, its complacency. I hate to say it, but perpetual whimsy seems to have set in just as his collaboration with van Bruggen began, in 1976.

That year he completed his giant Clothespin in Philadelphia. It pays tribute to his love for ordinary things. It also pays tribute to his formal understanding of public art. At his best, he transforms one's perceptions of both at once. The splayed base of the Clothespin echoes the spread feet of a striding warrior. He is parodying heroism, but he is also elevating less heroic moments in life.

The same strategy infects all his early public commissions, and it makes them much of his best work. Typewriter Eraser has the tilt and bristles of a mammoth bird in flight. The umbrella has the rusted wheel of a colossal charioteer. A Batcolumn and Lipstick (Ascending), neither among the Whitney's sketches, play with noble columns as richly as Barnett Newman's Broken Obelisk. When that ambition peeks out, as with the clarinet, it animates his late work as well. The sketch of a bent screw never did become a railroad crossing, but it should change how one sees the freight bridges into New York City.

All his early work has a public side, too, from The Store to the collective happenings. In them, he plays at once collaborator and shaman. He takes easily to the part in the happenings, with his glasses, his intent stare, and the black suit of a magician. Perhaps only a shaman could assemble such loose proceedings. Dorothea Rockburne and Lucas Samaras pass through without making art, Carolee Schneemann without feminism and performance, and Henry Geldzahler, the arts administrator, without buying it all up for the Met.

Oldenburg may remain a telling aside in Pop Art. He shares lipstick with James Rosenquist, but without the painter's nostalgia and spectral detachment. He never depicted pop culture at second hand, like Lichtenstein or Warhol. He had too much equanimity for their darkness or glee, not to mention too much love of the thing itself. His sculpture is way too tactile—and way too immersed in ketchup stains and toilet training. Maybe the greatest idealists always catch one with one's pants down.

Look, Mickey

The Museum of Modern Art, too, shows Oldenburg piecing together a career, starting in January of 1960, when he shared the basement of Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square with Jim Dine. With The Street, the thirty-year-old Chicago native (born in Sweden) cobbled together a panorama of his New York, in cardboard, newspapers, and rags. A year later he opened The Store at 107 East 2nd Street, long before the waves of Lower East Side and East Village art. Who could have imagined the need for an Affordable Art Fair back when everything was for sale, starting at $21.79, and everything was out of a larger world of impulse buys, like lingerie and Seven-Up? Some of the sculpture even represents price tags, as low as 39¢. Look at the bright colors and the rags soaked in plaster, and try to remember the roughness of early Lichtenstein as well—like his breakthrough painting from that very year, as it happens, Look Mickey.

Some sculptors make public art, like Alexander Calder, whose planes Oldenburg pirated in 1971 for (yes) mouse ears. MoMA has a version in white in its sculpture garden for at least the duration of the show. And some made Pop Art, like Warhol, whose influence just will not go away. Oldenburg sought more crucially a genuinely popular art, and one can ask how that differs and whether he succeeds. The early work looks decidedly out of place en masse on the sixth floor's white walls, but also funky and alive. It stops just short of his own breakthrough to public art, although it includes his first oversized and inflatable sculptures, a cheeseburger and an ice cream cone. The museum atrium has the slicker display cases of Mouse Museum and its 1977 addition, a Ray Gun Wing.

Maybe a true retrospective will always be out of reach, just at the Whitney in 2009. Oldenburg's greatest work depends too much on its place and scale. It also depends on those close encounters with great art of the past, in its columns and statues, as both parody and tribute. MoMA does include several flags and a Soft Calendar for an actual month in 1962. You can see Jasper Johns in their patterns and numbers, I guess, but that is up to you. But then that cheeseburger does come "with everything."

You can also see an emerging punster. A rifle looks suspiciously like a schnozzola and the very first "Empire" ("Papa") Ray Gun suspiciously like a male's balls. The impulse truly takes off in Ray Gun Wing, named not for its shape but its discovery—of gun shapes in everything from hardware to a straw. Mostly, though, one sees a young artist caught up in his enthusiasm, not least for the coarse, unappetizing fabric of his favorite things. Pretty much the entire Store consists of clothing and food. The scale, comfort, and sentiment of the artist after the 1970s seems blissfully far away.

Oldenburg's cardboard preserves the look of the materials and the handmade, and the sewn vinyl of inflatable sculpture reflects the skills of his first wife, Patty Mucha. He is not, though, above appropriating toys outright, and he is not above promoting himself. He genuinely cared about the popular in Pop Art, even if not many would have ventured to a "store" somewhere east of the Bowery and north of Orchard Street for art. For the curator, Ann Temkin, images of a cemetery reflect summers in Provincetown and fears for the "commercialization of history." No doubt, but his first work includes its own flyers and posters, hand lettered about as badly as he could. These days, Martha Rosler has to try a lot harder with her own yard sale in MoMA's atrium, and she also has to sacrifice the fun.

One wants to call the work a celebration or a satire, appetizing or disgusting, deeply personal or studiously neutral, but one will just have to settle for funny. Desserts have neither the chill of Wayne Thiebaud nor the lushness. Much of the food lies greasy and limp. The very collapse of collapsible sculpture is a refusal to make great art. I still wanted a later Oldenburg's ambitions—and I wanted, too, a time when one could buy all this at bargain prices, with or without Annette. I shall just have to settle for the mouse ears and the memories that I could never have.

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Claes Oldenburg ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art through September 6, 2009, "Synthetic" through April 19, 2013, and "Sites" through May 3. Oldenburg returned to The Museum of Modern Art through August 5, 2013.


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