The big Claes Oldenburg exhibit—Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties—is finally open at the Walker Art Center, and, as Walker exhibits go, it’s definitely one of them. By which I mean it contains a provocative mixture of inscrutable installations, fake foodstuffs, “everyday” objects presented as “art,” low-quality video of people doing strange things, and a non-functional toilet.
As non-functional Walker toilets go, however, Claes Oldenburg’s is easily the best one I’ve ever used. Lots of Walker toilets are very small, or mounted on the wall. Not Oldenburg’s. His is roughly the size and shape of a real toilet, and is made of white vinyl that’s even shinier than real porcelain. It even contains faux blue water in the upper tank, a detail overlooked by so many artists d’ commode, and the lid is closed, which I’m sure many women attending the exhibit will appreciate.
Soft toilet, after use by inconsiderate man.
The toilet is one of Oldenburg’s “soft” sculptures, in which he renders everyday objects—a fan, hand mixer, electric plugs and outlets (lots of them), a vacuum cleaner, a piece of cake, some French fries, etc.—either useless or unappetizing, thereby separating their form from their function. I cannot confirm whether the toilet is entirely non-functional, however, because when I tried to use it, and before I had a chance to flush, a Walker security guard escorted me out of the room.
Claes Oldenburg was of course one of the most important artists of late 20th century, and his iconic sculpture Spoonbridge and Cherry* stands in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden as a huge and enduring testament to his everlasting genius. This exhibit is the largest ever of Oldenburg’s early work, and provides Twin Citians enthralled with giant silverware the opportunity to see the formative roots of Oldenburg’s art.
The best thing about Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties is that it provides an almost disconcertingly strong feeling of an artistic mind feverishly absorbing the world around him and spitting it back out in various forms. It starts with The Street, a section full of large sculpture-ish creations made of nothing but cardboard, black paint, and a little chicken wire. The collective value of the materials in that room is about 35 cents, so one can’t help but wonder: What could he do if he went to the Dollar Store? At any rate, access to materials and resources clearly isn’t an impediment to an artist who knows his way around a dumpster and a hardware store. The whole idea, says Oldenburg, was to use the most ordinary materials available and transform them into something extraordinary.
Ice cream cone or tragic phallus? You decide.
In the following section, The Store, Oldenburg moves from cardboard to plaster of Paris and stuffed fabric, and from street objects to the aforementioned foodstuffs, including the famous giant ice-cream cone lying on its side, which has been tragically described as “phallic” (symbolizing the death of the sexual revolution, perhaps?), and a piece of cake the size of a freezer.
What’s worth noting about these objects is that photographs do not do them justice. Or, rather, photos rob them of their artistic potency. Because when your standing right up close to that cake, it looks much faker than it does in photos—like a pile of carefully arranged pillows that you can’t sit on. The intended effect, though—to coax you into considering the shape and construction of the cake (or sandwich, or hamburger, or French fries), rather than its edibility—is much stronger than you might expect. Up close, these items do not look delicious at all, which perhaps accounts for the lack of teeth marks.** You will not be fooled, either. This is art, not food.
Cigarette butts a la Oldenburg
This “re-contextualizing” of soup cans, vegetable crates, and stuff you’d find in your grandfather’s attic was all the rage back in the 1950s and 60s. And, as you will learn from this exhibit, Oldenburg did nothing to stop it. That said, you will not find a finer ashtray full of cigarette butts than the one on display here, and his ceramic rendering of a baked potato is superb.***
But back to the “feverish artistic mind at work” thing. One of the most interesting aspects of the exhibit is a wall of “clippings”—photos and pages from magazines—that capture possible ideas for future projects, some of which contain notes written in the margins. One particularly interesting clipping—a photo of a plastic lunch bag, with the lunch inside—contains a rare glimpse of Oldenburg’s mind at work. It reads: “The carrots look like wood—and I’m puzzled over the unidentifiable meat through the swiss-cheese hole.”
Granted, it’s just one sentence. But when you look at the photo, you realize: He’s right! The carrots do look like wood, and the meat peeking through the cheese hole in that sandwich is entirely unidentifiable. Could be ham. Or bologna. Or roast beef. It might not even be meat. It could be a very thin slice of tomato. Or a piece of red onion. There’s no way to know. Puzzling isn’t the word for it—it’s a complete mystery.
But the best spelunk into the endlessly fascinating chasm of Oldenburg’s artistic genius comes when you step into his “Mouse Museum,” or “Mouse-aleum,” the exhibit-within-an-exhibit showcasing hundreds of little knick-knacks and doo-dads—a pretzel, plastic bananas, a few dildos and vibrators, a giant toothbrush, a tiny toaster, clothespins, plastic figurines of all kinds, etc.— that Oldenburg collected over the years. It’s called the Mouse Museum because it’s shaped a bit like Mickey Mouse’s head (which isn’t as funny as it sounds), and many of the items, including a little spoon****, serve as starting points to work Oldenburg did years, even decades, later.
The Mouse Museum, a hoarder's paradise.
There’s an amazing amount of stuff in the Mouse Museum. My suggestion to all you hoarders out there is to get over to the Walker to see how Oldenburg overcame his illness to bring a sense of joy and wonder to the act of compulsive, indiscriminate collecting. One shudders to think what would have happened if eBay existed in the 1960s. My guess is that they’d have found Oldenburg’s shriveled corpse under a pile of beanie babies and Star Trek memorabilia. But thankfully, Oldenburg survived, in part because he figured out how to get the world’s best contemporary art museums to serve as his own personal mini-storage facility.
Well played, Claes, well played.
*Of course, Oldenburg created Spoonbridge and Cherry in collaboration with his then-wife Coosje van Bruggen. The Walker Art Center insists that both names be mentioned whenever referring to their spoon-cherry creation. Unfortunately, putting the names Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen in the same sentence is a major mouthful. And then of course everyone wants to know how to pronounce “Coosje” (it’s anyone’s guess), so the whole thing gets out of hand pretty quickly.
**Warning: Do not attempt to lick, taste, or otherwise sample any of the fake food in this exhibit. According to Oldenburg, the unique color and texture of his 1960s sculptures depends on one crucial ingredient: lead paint.
***A bit light on the sour cream and chives, but tasty-looking (if not quite tasteful) nonetheless.
****If you have to ask, you’re not paying attention.
Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties continues at the Walker Art Center through Jan. 12, 2014.