Claes Oldenburg at the Whitney

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday May 6, 2009

If you missed the '60s - or if you miss the '60s - an exhibition opening tomorrow at the Whitney Museum will take you there. The entire second floor is installed with early works by Claes Oldenburg and later projects in collaboration with his wife Coosje van Bruggen, the late art historian and writer.

In his introduction of Mr. Oldenburg at today's preview, Adam Weinberg, the Alice Pratt Brown Director of the museum, quoted remarks made by the artist at a 1961 exhibition at the Martha Jackson Gallery. Oldenberg said, in part, "Art takes from the lines of life, as sweet and stupid as life itself."


Left: Claes Oldenberg answers a few questions at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Right: Leaning Clarinet, 2006, from The Music Room by Claes Ondenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. Photos: Peggy Roalf.

This idea characterizes the artist's way of jolting our expectations of how everyday objects "behave" by creating ordinary things at hugely inflated scale. It also hints at his approach to making art and life an endless exploration of possibilities, especially that of making what seems highly unlikely, or entirely impossible, such as the Proposed Colossal Monuments. His drawings for a group of these monuments, envisioned at the scale of massive public works projects, reveal the thinking behind the concepts, and become like postcards of some as yet undiscovered Wonders of the World.

In his remarks today, Oldenburg said that the most exciting times for him were the first few years of that indelible decade in New York. Films of his Happenings, from 1959 to 1962, are presented on all four walls of the womblike video gallery. Watching them together, and randomly drifting from one to another, makes the viewing itself into a kind of performance art.

"After 1962," he said, "the art scene in New York had exhausted itself." He then left for L.A. where he discovered that life revolved around the home - even for artists. Surrounded by comfortable objects, like sofas and throw pillows, he began creating the soft sculptures he first became widely known for, including Giant BLT (Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato Sandwich), 1963, and Soft Toilet, 1966.

These soft sculptures, certainly larger than the objects that inspired them, led Oldenburg to what he calls the Feasible Monuments. The first of these was Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks (1969-1974), commissioned by graduate students of architecture at Yale University, who used it as a speaker's platform for political protests.

Oldenburg said that Lipstick, along with the advent of exhibition fabricators who could build monumental sculptures from the artist's drawings and scale models, led him to conceive large-scale public art projects, at first on paper. In collaboration with Coosje van Bruggen, who believed that public art was far more significant than work made to be shown in galleries, Oldenburg has created nearly 50 colossal pieces for public spaces around the world.

The exhibition at the Whitney is a wonderful introduction to the soul and spirit of Oldenburg's early work, as well as his later collaborations with his wife, including The Music Room. Done for the couple's home in France, this group of musical instruments, which distort the scale and appearance of real instruments, was inspired by paintings by the 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer that have been interpreted as metaphors for romantic love.

Claes Oldenberg: Early Sculpture Drawings, and Happenings Films; and Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen: The Music Room continue through September 6, 2009. The Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, NY. 212.570.3633. Please visit the website for information and related public events.