One of America’s leading Pop artists, Claes Oldenburg’s art evolved from small sculptures of consumer objects featured in performance art to monumental sculptures of common objects such as Corridor Pin, Blue (1999) installed in the Sculpture Garden of the de Young Museum. In addition he has been an active draftsman and printmaker. The son of a Swedish diplomat, Oldenburg was born in Stockholm in 1929 and lived in New York City and Oslo before the family moved to Chicago where his father was the Swedish consul general. After graduating from Yale University in 1950, Oldenburg returned home and took classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He met his future wife Patty Mucha (b. 1935) during the summer of 1953 while attending the Ox-Bow School of Painting in Saugatuck, Michigan, and became a U.S. citizen later that year. After moving to New York City in 1956, Oldenburg soon began making constructions out of found materials. He supported himself with part-time work in the library of the Cooper Union Museum of Decorative Arts. In his first New York City exhibition in 1958, Oldenburg showed drawings at a group show at Red Grooms’s (b. 1937) new City Gallery. The following year he had his first solo gallery show at the Judson Gallery, displaying constructions of paper, wood and wire as well as drawings and his poems, and Mucha began living with him. Jim Dine (b.1935) and Oldenburg had joint exhibitions of their works at two New York galleries in late 1959 and the next year created the “Ray Gun Show,” comprised of two “environments.” Having appeared in one of Allan Kaprow’s (1927-2006) “Happenings,” Oldenburg, Dine, Kaprow and others performed the “Ray Gun Spex,” a series of six Happenings. Oldenburg’s “Snapshots from the City,” presented in a built environment called The Street, featured performances by Mucha and Oldenburg in bizarre costumes. Mucha and Oldenburg were married in April 1960. Oldenburg began creating a series of sculptures made of painted plaster of objects selected from daily life, as well as constructions made of paper, cardboard and burlap, culminating in 1961 with The Store, a three-dimensional representation of a store filled with sculptures of commercial objects in bright colors. Oldenburg created a variety of performances and assembled installations that appeared in numerous exhibitions over the next decade. These include his “soft sculptures” made of fabrics or vinyl, often depicting consumer items in large scale. His drawings include “Proposed Colossal Monuments” showing very large objects in diverse settings. He created his first fine art prints in 1961, etchings made at the Pratt Graphic Art Center. In 1963 he created three color lithographic images (Axsom/Platzker 28.1, 28.2 and 28.3) for Walasse Ting’s (1929-2010) 1964 book 1¢ Life, in which 28 artists illustrated Ting’s racy poetry with 62 lithographs. Oldenburg and Mucha moved to Los Angeles for about a year in September 1963 to prepare an exhibition at the Dwan Gallery. His color lithograph Flying Pizza (Axsom/Platzker 33) was published by the Tanglewood Press in the 1964 Pop Art portfolio New York Ten. In 1968 he created Notes (Axsom/Platzker 55), lithographs of his “colossal projects” drawings, published by Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles. He remained an active printmaker for much of his career. He turned to large-scale sculpture in 1969 with Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks, lipstick extending from a lipstick tube mounted on top of metal tank treads, which aroused student protests when installed at his alma mater Yale. A survey of his drawings and sculptures at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1969 included a large black steel sculpture, Geometric Mouse—Scale A. Since then he has made a specialty of large sculptures. Oldenburg and Mucha were divorced in 1970, after he had begun forming a relationship with the feminist artist Hannah Wilke (1940-1993). Oldenburg met the curator and artist Coosje van Bruggen (1942-2009) in 1970 when visiting the retrospective exhibition of his works at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum where she was a curator. They first collaborated on the very large sculpture Trowel I, installed in 1976 in the garden of the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands. They were married in 1977 and went on to create many Large-Scale Projects, such as Cupid’s Span installed on the San Francisco waterfront in 2002. Oldenburg’s many awards include four honorary degrees and five more he received jointly with van Bruggen and a number of other honors, including the U.S. National Medal of Arts (2000). (TNB 5/2014) Selected bibliography: Axsom, Richard H. and David Platzker. Printed Stuff: Prints, Posters and Ephemera by Claes Oldenburg. A Catalogue Raisonné 1958-1996. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1997. Gianelli, Ida and Marcella Beccaria. Claes Oldenburg Coosje van Bruggen: Sculpture by the Way. Exhibition catalog. Milan: Skira, 2006.
Copyright Claes Oldenburg