Swedish sculptor Claes Oldenburg, widely known for his larger-than-life renditions of everyday objects ranging from cherries to umbrellas, died at his home in Manhattan on July 18 at the age of ninety-three of complications from a fall. Oldenburg gained notice in the 1950s and 1960s in New York with a series of energetic Happenings and environments before turning his attention to the massive sculptural works for which he would become famous. Many of these took the form of public installations, a number of which grace institutions and public sites around the world. Through his pathbreaking use of unexpected materials, textures, and scale to render otherwise ordinary items by turns playful and unsettling, Oldenburg created iconic sculptural works that influenced generations of artists and delighted viewers from San Francisco to Seoul. Barbara Rose, writing in the pages of Artforum in 1967, proclaimed him the “single Pop artist to have added significantly to form.”
Claes Oldenburg was born in Stockholm in 1929 to a diplomat father and a mother who had been a concert singer. In 1936, he moved with his family to Chicago when his father accepted a job there, and attended the Chicago Latin School. After studying art and literature at Yale, he returned to Chicago, where he spent a brief stint as a supporter, and then moved to San Francisco, where he supported himself illustrating pesticide ads. He arrived in New York in 1956, at the tail end of Abstract Expressionism. After painting for a few years, and inspired by the Happenings staged by acquaintances such as Allan Kaprow and Jim Dine, he became interested in works that demanded viewers’ participation in some way, as well as dreams and the unconscious. “Transcending the existing models of the readymade and the objet trouvé—and jettisoning art’s symbolic conventions—he turned to that mode of psychic symbolization that shapes the strangeness of the world into a strangeness we can recognize, because it is of our own making,” wrote art historian Julia Robinson in Artforum’s January 2012 issue. His 1961 work The Store, situated on the city’s Lower East Side, comprised a rented storefront stocked with replica plaster goods, from panties to pie, a mock cash register, and business cards advertising the fly-by-night concern. With the help of his then-wife, Patty Mucha, Oldenburg would iterate the work several times over the next few years, incorporating oversize soft fabric sculptures of such salable items as ice cream cones and cake slices.
The concept of the colossally scaled object took hold for Oldenburg and would remain the focal point of a career that spanned more than six decades. During this time he realized a number of public commissions, beginning with 1969’s Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks, a tremendous coral lipstick mounted on imitation tank treads commenting on the war in Vietnam and commissioned by a group of Yale architecture students, who assisted him in parking it on the campus. Trowel I, 1976, a massive blue garden implement installed outside the Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller in Otterlo, Netherlands, was the first work on which Oldenburg collaborated with his second wife, the Dutch artist Coosje van Bruggen: Their personal and professional partnership endured until her death in 2009. Among the many notable Oldenburg sculptures on view across the globe are those of a monstrous cherry perched on the shallow dish of a spoon, which greets visitors outside the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; an enormous clothespin, which stands regally in Philadelphia’s Centre Square; an immense three-way plug, which occupies the grounds of the Allen Art Museum at Ohio’s Oberlin College; and a heroic set of binoculars, which form the entrance to a Frank Gehry–designed building in Los Angeles.
Oldenburg exhibited widely: Only ten years passed between his first one-person show, at Judson Memorial Hally in New York in 1959, and a solo exhibition of his work at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1969. He enjoyed a 1995 retrospective organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and a 2002 retrospective of his drawings and those of Van Bruggen held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. That same year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York exhibited a number of the pair’s sculptures in its roof garden. Oldenburg was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2000.