Original color lithograph
With his saggy hamburgers, colossal clothespins and giant three-way plugs, Claes Oldenburg has been the reigning king of Pop sculpture since the early 1960s, back when New York was still truly gritty. In 1961 he rented a storefront, called it The Store, and stocked it with stuffed, crudely-painted forms resembling diner food, cheap clothing, and other mass-manufactured items that stupefied an audience accustomed to the austere, non-representational forms in Abstract Expressionist sculpture. These so-called “soft-sculptures” are now hailed as the first sculptural expressions in Pop art. While his work has continued to grow in scale and ambition, his focus has remained steadfast: everyday items are presented on a magnified scale that reverses the traditional relationship between viewer and object. Oldenburg shrinks the spectator into a bite-sized morsel that might be devoured along with a giant piece of cake, or crushed by an enormous ice pack. His work shows us just how small we are, and serves as a vehicle for his smart, witty, critical, and often wickedly funny insights on American culture over the past half-century.
Whereas Pop artists had imitated the flat language of billboards, magazines, television, etc., working in two-dimensional mediums, Oldenburg’s three-dimensional papier maches, plaster models, and soft fabric forms brought Pop art into the realm of sculpture, a key innovation at the time.
Oldenburg’s objects, no matter how apparently insignificant in themselves, become expressive entities, almost like characters in a stage play. This is partly due to their dramatically outsized scale and partly due to the soft forms he chooses, like fabric or latex. This distances Oldenburg from the cool detachment of Warhol or Lichtenstein, and makes his sculptures, almost like portraits, highlight the absurdity of American culture with a gentler cynicism than his Pop art peers.
The notion of enlarging a diminutive, everyday object and placing it in a landscape – an idea integral to Oldenburg’s monumental public art – comes to us from the Surrealistssuch as Magritte, Dalí, and Ernst). In this respect, Oldenburg is the most Surreal of the Pop artists and his sculptures are like Surrealist dreams made real. Oldenburg’s unconventionally squishy, rearrangable sculpture challenged the hard, vertical orientation that persisted through Abstract Expressionism. His was a true breakthrough in the history of sculpture.
No matter how ordinary his subjects may seem to be, for Oldenburg, a clothespin is never just a clothespin. The process of fine tuning and adjustment, typical of his approach to large-scale commissions, reflects an unwavering interest in the impact of form that aligns him with earlier masters in the tradition of sculpture, from Michelangelo to Brancusi.
Saying “Everything I do is completely original – I made it up when I was a kid,” Oldenburg’s pioneering work made monumental sculptures of badminton shuttlecocks and ice cream cones. By using “small subjects,” as he said, “on a grand scale,” the “real landscape” took on “imaginary dimensions.”
Oldenburg introduced sculpture to Pop art, beginning with a series inspired by Duchamp’s “readymades” and the bluntly prosaic subjects chosen by Pop artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein. Floor Cone, Floor Burger, and Floor Cake (shown here) were among the monumental structures based on comfort food fashioned by the artist in the early 1960s. A Surrealist element arises from the dramatic shift in scale. Floor Cake, a giant squishy triangle five feet high and nine-feet long, reverses the familiar relationship between this object and the spectator (it looks like it might eat us). More so than other Pop artists, Oldenburg drew inspiration from the process that comprised the items on which his art was based. Floor Cake, for instance, was assembled in layers, as one might make a cake, its soft medium and opaque, slightly splotchy paint mimics frosting, and finally, even though this element is invisible, empty ice cream cartons and foam rubber were used for the interior filling, giving metaphorical guts to the piece.
By the mid-1960s, Oldenburg was leading a full-fledged rebellion against the non-figurative sculptural tradition of Abstract Expressionism. Soft Toilet belongs to a series of straightforwardly representational forms generated by the artist during this period – sandwiches, egg beaters, toasters, and other mundane household items – roughly to scale and comprised of parts that fit together, much like the actual household objects themselves, with one glaring inconsistency. Soft materials, like fabric, or in this case latex, prevent these forms from holding their shape. Soft Toilet slumps forward, as if it may spill its contents into the room. By placing a toilet on a pedestal, Soft Toilet is an obvious homage to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (an upturned urinal presented as art in 1917). Like its infamous predecessor, it is a mundane feature of the modern home intended for private use as opposed to aesthetic contemplation. Surrealism – a persistent element in Oldenburg’s compositions – persists in the faux-melting effect. While unapologetically representational, this form is powerful in presence, not merely an imitation of the thing it represents, but an independent, expressive form capable of expression, like the human body.