• Claes Oldenburg

    About the artist

    1929: Born in Stockholm
    1953: First public exhibition in a group show at the Club St. Elmo, Chicago.
    1956: Oldenburg moves to New York.

    American sculptor, draughtsman, printmaker, performance artist and writer of Swedish birth. He was brought from Sweden to the USA as an infant and moved with his family to Chicago in 1936 following his father’s appointment to the consulship there. Except for four years of study (1946–50) at Yale University in New Haven, CT, during which time he decided to pursue a career in art, Chicago remained his home until his move to New York in 1956. Within two years of this move, Oldenburg had become part of a group of artists who challenged Abstract Expressionism by modifying its thickly impastoed bravura paint with figurative images and found objects. Oldenburg’s first one-man show in 1959, at the Judson Gallery in New York, included figurative drawings and papier mâché sculptures. For his second show, also at the Judson Gallery, in 1960, shared with Jim Dine, Oldenburg transformed his expressionist, figurative paintings into a found-object environment, The Street; this consisted of urban debris and flat silhouetted figures, signs and objects, the ragged, blackened contours and monochrome black-brown tones of which recalled the colours and textures of the decaying urban slums.

    Within the setting of The Street, Oldenburg staged Snapshots from the City, the first of his Happenings. These early examples of Performance Art were theatrical events that dispensed with plot, character portrayals and logical sequence in order to produce non-narrative, dream-like vignettes conceived as pictures in movement. The appropriation in these Happenings of objects and images from daily life paved the way for Oldenburg’s next group of objects, which replaced urban detritus with painted plaster versions of everyday commodities, such as White Shirt and Blue Tie and Danish Pastry (both 1961; Cologne, Mus. Ludwig). The Store, an environment first presented in a group show at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York in 1961, took the form of brightly painted plaster reliefs and sculptures of commercial and manufactured objects.

    Oldenburg’s embrace of the commodities of materialist culture as subject-matter placed him in the forefront of what became known as Pop Art; his published writings on his work are among the most vivid texts produced within the movement. The ability of materialist values to subsume everything within a commodity context became even more explicit in Oldenburg’s next version of The Store: a shopfront on New York’s East Side from which he sold plaster re-creations of foodstuffs and merchandise for two months, beginning in December 1961. With The Store, Oldenburg transferred his figurative impulses from people to objects, treating wrinkled, bumptious objects such as those displayed in Pastry Case, I (1961–2; New York, MOMA) as surrogates for the human body. As with The Street,The Store was used as the setting for a series of theatrical events from February to May 1962, including Store Days I and II.

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