The first section of the Walker’s exhibition is The Street, a re-creation of Oldenburg’s infamous 1960 installation at New York’s Judson Gallery, which celebrated what Engberg calls “the detritus of urban life.” Ripped cardboard, burlap sacks, chunks of wood, crumpled newspaper, bottles, trash— these were Oldenburg’s paintbrushes at the time. Through them he fashioned a disturbing stream-of-consciousness dreamscape that challenged the very idea of how a sculpture should behave, and he literally used garbage to create art—though not everyone appreciated the distinction between the two.
For all the technical polish of his later sculptures, Oldenburg’s early work was “very messy and hardscrabble,” says Engberg. He started small, using chicken wire, papier-mâché, and paint anyone could buy at a hardware store, then moved on to larger forms. The next two sections of the exhibition, The Store and The Home, see Oldenburg fashioning clothing, toys, and other objects out of another favorite material, vinyl, creating supersized versions of such everyday foodstuffs as a hamburger, ice cream cone, or piece of cake. He also began creating “soft” and “hard” versions of other household items—a vacuum cleaner, toilet, fan, etc.—rendering them useless by tacking them to a wall, hanging them from the ceiling, or making them impossibly huge. (That fan is 10 feet tall.)
“What’s interesting about works like Upside Down City or Shoestring Potatoes is that they are actually paint on canvas or paint on muslin; they’re paintings, stuffed and hung,” says Engberg. “At the same time, they’re sculptures. So they are multi-purpose in an interesting way.”
As you walk through Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties, the objects get larger and larger, until you hit The Mouse Museum, a giant room shaped roughly like Mickey Mouse’s head—that is, if Mickey also had a tongue like Mick Jagger. You walk through an opening in the tongue, and inside are hundreds of small objects—models, toothbrushes, toys, and various tchotchkes that Oldenburg collected over the years. Significantly, one of them is a novelty spoon with a pool of chocolate under it that Oldenburg collected sometime in the 1960s: the conceptual seed of Spoonbridge and Cherry.
The thought process by which that tiny mouse-sized spoon inside became the gigantic truck-sized one outside is something only Oldenburg knows for sure. And even he may not remember all of it.
Notebook page playing with ideas about scale and the spoon’s associations with ducks and ships.
An early model specifying the geometry of the spoon in relation to the water beneath it and the garden surrounding it.
A pastel collage that plays with scale against a sailboat and skater. What if the sculpture were . . . THIS BIG!?!
Oldenburg himself overseeing attachment of the 1,200-pound cherry to the bowl of the spoon.
Images courtesy of the Walker Art Center, from its permanent collection
The truth about Spoonbridge and Cherry is that it was the culmination of years of free-associating and idea-swapping between Oldenburg and his collaborative partner, Coosje van Bruggen, a free-spirited woman whose playful imagination wasn’t tethered to conformity or intimidated by her husband’s grandiose artistic reputation.
Free association means anything can be connected to anything, of course. The problem is that if the connections aren’t explained, the end product can be baffling, like walking into the last five minutes of a Fellini film. To think like Oldenburg and van Bruggen, for instance, one has to unleash the mind and let it wander like a teenager at Valleyfair. A free association about water in the Twin Cities might go something like this: lakes, loons, canoes, Native Americans, Vikings, Viking ships, Scandinavians, ice, icicles, ice cubes, ice cream, Bridgeman’s, bridge, walk, Walker, old person, Oldenburg, burger, Bruggen, Bruegger’s, bagel, etc. Add a few thousand more connections and you can begin to appreciate the stream of associations—many of them random and nonsensical—that the artists may have considered.
One key to understanding Spoon-bridge and Cherry the way the artists understood it is to pretend that the spoon is not, in fact, a spoon. As it turns out, the bowl of the spoon alone is a monumental metaphor for an astonishing number of things. For Oldenburg and van Bruggen, says Engberg, “The bowl and color of the spoon had multiple associations—the prow of a Viking ship, a duck rising out of the water, various flora and fauna, ice skating—that made it perfect for them.” Not as a spoon, per se, but as an object with suggestive enough powers to make it the “right” artistic choice—for them, at least. A less suggestible artist might have given us Paul Bunyan on a Stick.
Spoons were on Oldenburg’s mind at the time, though, so that’s what we got. When former Walker Art Center director Martin Friedman commissioned the work, his only stipulation was that it should be a fountain sculpture. Oldenburg and van Bruggen made several visits to the Twin Cities to research local history and culture. One of those visits took them to the General Mills corporate campus, where the directional signs at the time were Betty Crocker spoons. Coincidentally, Oldenburg had done a conceptual print called Spoon Pier, which played with the idea of reshaping Chicago’s Navy Pier into a giant spoon.
You see where this is going.
If it were up to Oldenburg, however, we might have been stuck with Spoonbridge Fountain, Giant Spewn, or Sprayspoon on Grass. Fruit, apparently, was not his thing.
The famous Volkswagen-sized cherry was van Bruggen’s idea, and it seems to have come out of the idea of putting “a cherry on top” as a final finishing touch. It was her gentle, wifely way of saying, “That’s nice, honey, but it seems to be missing something.” Like color.
She was the really fun one, Engberg says: “Her artistic attitude was, ‘Why not?’” Though they worked closely as a team, much of the whimsy and humor associated with their 1980s “monuments” can be attributed to her free-ranging imagination. It’s said, for example, that she liked the giant spoon idea because it reminded her of the absurd dining etiquette insisted upon by Louis XIV at Versailles. (Then again, who can look at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and not think of Versailles?) It was also van Bruggen’s idea to build the pond under the bridge in the shape of a linden tree seed, since linden trees—otherwise known as basswood—surround the garden. Oldenburg wanted the pond to be a circle, but van Bruggen’s aversion to symmetry prevailed.
Regardless of what you may think (or don’t) about Spoonbridge and Cherry, Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties offers a rare look into the mind and methods of one of the late 20th century’s most influential artists—an artist who has been around so long, and is so famous, that it’s easy to forget about the humble beginnings from which he came. Oldenburg started his career with the idea that the wounds of World War II had to be healed—that a world gone to pieces had to somehow be put back together again. Transforming garbage into art was only the first step; he’s spent the rest of his life turning everything else into art.
And for that, Twin Citians owe Claes Oldenburg a debt of gratitude. If Spoonbridge and Cherry didn’t exist, after all, what would we put on our postcards?
Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties runs from Sept. 22, 2013, to Jan. 12, 2014. Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 612-375-7600, walkerart.org