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