Museums + Galleries

The Cherry on Top

How did Spoonbridge and Cherry become one of the most famous sculptures in the world?

Photo by Jurgen Frank
Claes Oldenburg in his New York studio, 2011

It could have been a fork and a grape. Or a butter knife and a blueberry. Or any number of other things that make no apparent sense, even when inflated to a thousand times their normal size.

But it is a giant spoon and a crimson, gravity-defying cherry. And over the past 25 years it has become the object that people around the world most associate with the city of Minneapolis.

How, exactly, the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden’s Spoonbridge and Cherry became such a beloved icon is as mystifying as it is magical. After all, the Twin Cities isn’t exactly known for its fabulous cherry trees, and local factories don’t produce much in the way of silverware. Twin Citians do love their soup, of course, and many a can of Campbell’s has been opened in these parts to warm the innards of frostbitten schoolchildren. But Campbell’s soup cans are Andy Warhol’s thing.

Spoonbridge and Cherry is sculptor Claes Oldenburg’s thing. Now 84, Oldenburg received a commission for the sculpture from the Walker Art Center in 1985, and he designed it in collaboration with his wife, Coosje van Bruggen, who died in 2009. To understand how the cartoonishly huge centerpiece of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden captured the world’s imagination, however, one must understand how he thought about art, what processes he used to flesh out his bizarre ideas, and why his work has had such a super-sized impact on the world of popular art and sculpture.

0913_cherryontop_p01.jpg Photo by Garry Black/Masterfile

The Making of an Icon

  • 51.5 feet:
    Length of the spoon from tip to tip.
  • 7,000 pounds:
    Total weight of the entire sculpture. The spoon weighs 5,800 pounds; the cherry weighs 1,200 pounds.
  • 29.5 feet:
    Total height, from the bottom of the spoon to the top of the cherry stem.
  • 3:
    Number of materials used to make the sculpture (stainless steel, aluminum, and polyurethane enamel).
  • 13.5 feet:
    Width of the spoon at its widest.

The Walker Art Center will help unravel this mystery in September with Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties, the largest exhibition ever of Oldenburg’s early work, a smaller version of which was seen at New York’s MoMa this summer. The Walker is exhibiting the larger version of the show that traveled through Europe last year, an exhibition made larger still by the addition (and return) of several more Oldenburgs from the Walker’s permanent collection. (If you’ve been wondering where that giant stuffed plug on the second level has been of late, now you know.)

“In terms of seeing where all of his work began, this show takes you back to his first moments as an artist in 1958–59, when Oldenburg began using this idea of everyday life for the basis of his work,” says Walker curator Siri Engberg. “It also shows us a moment that contributed to the beginning of pop art, since he was a key contributor to that movement.”

Many people associate Oldenburg with the huge, slick, polished urban sculptures that constituted much of his work in the 1980s. But sculptures such as Spoonbridge and Cherry (as well as Philadelphia’s Clothespin, Chicago’s Batcolumn, and Kansas City’s Shuttlecocks) aren’t nearly as whimsical as they look: They are, in fact, the culmination of a quarter-century’s worth of thought, experimentation, and rebellion against the nihilistic forces of art that came after the devastation of World War II.

Oldenburg’s famous art declaration, “I Am For . . . ,” written in 1961, begins with the line, “I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.” His outdoor mega-sculptures dispensed with museums altogether, of course, using the cityscapes around them as grand, three-dimensional backdrops. A less-quoted (but arguably more telling) line in the same declaration reads: “I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.”

This wasn’t just another artist bloviating about his own genius; it was a deliberately direct repudiation of the post-World War II abstract expressionists, whose senseless smears and drips dominated the New York art scene in the 1940s and 1950s, and whose stars—Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, et al.—were the reigning kings of that period in art history.

Therefore, they had to be dethroned.

“There was a real urgency about the art Oldenburg was making,” says Engberg. “He and his friends were seeking an alternative to abstract expressionism and were pushing back against it, looking for ways they could make art in a new way.”

That “new” way turned out to be a joyously subversive approach that ignored traditional distinctions between painting, sculpture, dance, and performance, and allowed Oldenburg to indulge both his high artistic ideals and low sense of humor.