Sculptor Claes Oldenburg captured a carefree and consumerist America

'Floor Cone' 1962, and other works by Claes Oldenburg at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on April 8, 2013. PHOTO: NYTIMES

(NYTIMES) - Of all the major American pop artists, Claes Oldenburg was the only one who was born in Europe. He was still in grade school when his father, a Swedish diplomat, moved the family to this country.

They settled in Chicago, a city that has a much-lauded architectural history and calls itself, not unjustly, the birthplace of the skyscraper.

This no doubt mattered to Oldenburg, whose work possesses the outsider's disbelief at American size and scale. His sculptures look back to a moment of Dwight D. Eisenhower-era self-satisfaction, a time when Americans constructed the tallest buildings and drove cars with fins and ate big, cheese-draped, cholesterol-rich hamburgers rather than little Swedish meatballs - a carefree age before concerns about carbon footprints or a national obesity epidemic led to reassessments of the pursuit of pleasure.

Oldenburg, who died on July 18 at his home in the New York City borough of Manhattan, at age 93, revolutionised people's idea of what a public monument could be.

In lieu of bronze sculptures of men on horseback, or long-forgotten patriots standing on a pedestal, hand over heart, orating through the ages, Oldenburg filled civic spaces with nostalgia-soaked objects inflated to absurdist proportions.

It is interesting that so many of his subjects are culled from the realm of the home and traditional female pursuits. His sculpture of a lipstick case or a garden spade, his Clothespin (a 13.7m-tall steel version of a wooden clothespin in Philadelphia's Center City) or, nearby it, his Split Button sculpture (a beloved meeting place at the University of Pennsylvania) - all are based on the type of objects that could be found at the bottom of mothers' purses.

Ditto for Typewriter Eraser, Scale X (1999), in the sculpture garden of the National Gallery of Art in Washington - has a man even ever handled such an object?

The sculpture consists of a 6m-tall, stainless-steel version of a vintage eraser with a little brush attached, the sort that were favoured by a generation of female secretaries who typed on IBM Selectrics before the advent of computer erase keys.

Tilted on its head, its blue bristles arranged to look windswept, Typewriter Eraser remains a powerful tribute to the act of erasure, a reminder that art is not just what you put into it, but also what you take out.

In 1956, after graduating from Yale University, Oldenburg moved to New York, arriving in time to partake of a bohemian milieu on the brink of extinction.

His career began in a spirit of radical fervour. Like Jim Dine, one of the last surviving of the original pop artists, Oldenburg was an organiser of "Happenings", those theatrical events that were staged by non-actors in non-theatres. Painters dressed in costumes counted on audience participation to help them achieve their stated goal of dismantling the boundary between art and life.

Oldenburg's now-historic installation, The Store, had a bluntly generic title that referred to the increasingly commercialised realm of galleries. It opened in December 1961 in a rented storefront at 107 East Second Street, and visitors could purchase food, clothing, jewellery and other items - or, rather, painted plaster reliefs that have a raw and endearingly crumpled look.

Oldenburg was hardly the first artist to make sculptures of everyday objects.

Shortly before The Store opened, Jasper Johns had shifted the still-life tradition into the third dimension when he exhibited a painted bronze sculpture of two Ballantine ale cans, standing side by side and leading viewers to question whether they were actual cans or handmade objects.

'Floor burger' and other works by Claes Oldenburg at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on April 8, 2013. PHOTO: NYTIMES

In the place of such philosophical conundrums, Oldenburg pursued a classically Pop agenda in that his sculptures are inseparable from their identity as consumer objects. He possessed a singular ability to bring sculptural life, a sense of animation, to unlikely subjects.

Many of his strongest works are unimaginable without the participation of his first wife, Patty Mucha, an artist who performed in his Happenings and sewed his so-called soft sculptures.

An exhibition at the Green Gallery, in 1962, featured a giant slice of sponge cake, an ice cream cone and a hamburger - all of which were about the size of a living room sofa and sat, fittingly, on the floor. They and the soft sculptures that followed - a soft typewriter, a soft light switch - represent his finest work, I think, in part because their sagging, lumpy presence feels invested with the pathos of the human body.

'Spoonbridge and Cherry' a sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and his second wife, Coosje van Bruggen. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Unlike his fellow pop-ster, Andy Warhol, Oldenburg was never a public figure and his art was more recognisable than he was.

As a personality, he could come across as dour. Art critic Barbara Rose, who wrote the catalogue for his 1969 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, described him in her diaries as "looking like a bookkeeper going over his accounts - sober and economical".

Oldenburg will no doubt be remembered as a top-drawer artist and one who, like his ambassador father, was a force for world democracy. But funnier.

'Braselette' 1961, by Claes Oldenburg at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on April 8, 2013. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Sometimes, his work was well-priced. In the 1990s, the gift shop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was selling his N.Y.C. Pretzel (1994), a 15cm-tall cardboard version of those salt-flecked pretzels hawked on New York street corners.

I think I paid all of US$50 for it, and knowing it was part of an open edition (instead of a limited one) made me like it more. It's still on my mantelpiece.

I also bought another, smaller Oldenburg - a sliver of cake on a white dessert plate. The cake part consists of a 5cm-long bar of painted plaster, but the plate is a real plate, purchased by the artist at an actual store.

I say this so you will understand my horror when, one morning, I opened my dishwasher and realised that someone in my house had put the Oldenburg plate up to wash. I took it out and the plate was still hot.

I turned it over and gasped. The artist's signature - "C.O." written in black - had been washed away. But other than that, the piece remained as sweet as ever, and I consider it a tribute to Oldenburg that he is the only artist I know whose work can survive the dishwasher.

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