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Whitney to Present Selection of Early Sculptures and Drawings by Oldenburg and van Bruggen

NEW YORK, NY.- This spring, the Whitney Museum of American Art presents a selection of early sculpture and drawings by Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929), as well as films of the artist’s influential Happenings, together with The Music Room, a series of works that Oldenburg made with his wife and artistic collaborator Coosje van Bruggen (1942-2009). The presentation opens on May 7, 2009, and runs through August in the second-floor Mildred & Herbert Lee Galleries; the films are shown projected in loops on the walls of the Kaufman Astoria Studios Film & Video Gallery, also on the Museum’s second floor. Three Whitney curators – Carter Foster, Chrissie Iles, and Dana Miller – are organizing the presentation.

One of the most innovative artists of the postwar period, Claes Oldenburg is best known for sculptures and drawings that disrupt our expectations of how ordinary objects “behave.” In 1976, he began an extraordinary creative partnership with the art historian and curator Coosje van Bruggen that continued for more than thirty years. The Whitney has championed their work for several decades and now possesses one of the world’s largest collections. Drawn primarily from the museum’s extensive holdings of drawings, sculpture, film, and archival material, this presentation is concentrated around several distinct projects, but illuminates the larger themes of metamorphosis and artistic collaboration that are at the heart of their practice.

Claes Oldenburg: Early Sculpture, Drawings, and Happenings Films
From the start, Oldenburg took an innovative approach to the media he used as well as to the processes of art-making and distribution. In 1961, he opened The Store, a nowlegendary event, in which the act of selling objects became a kind of playful critique of the art market; the next year he staged a series of events in downtown Manhattan collectively known as Ray Gun Theater, which influenced the development of performance art during the next several decades. Among the earliest works in the Whitney exhibition are sculptures from The Store, including Braselette (1961) and The Black Girdle (1961). This presentation of material from The Store will be supplemented by loans from the collection of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, including several sculptures, original inventory lists of items for sale, and a study for the poster advertising The Store.

Oldenburg’s early interest in environments shifted to discrete sculptural works. Using ordinary, everyday items as his subjects, he developed “soft” sculptures using pliable materials such as canvas and vinyl, which he stuffed with fillers to create malleable, mutable objects. Several iconic examples will be on view at the Whitney including Giant BLT (Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato Sandwich) (1963), French Fries and Ketchup (1963), and Soft Toilet (1966). These and other early sculptures will be complemented by several dozen of the Whitney’s works on paper by Oldenburg and by Oldenburg with van Bruggen. The bulk of the drawings were acquired in 2002 as a gift to the museum from the American Contemporary Art Foundation, Inc., Leonard A. Lauder, President, and this will be the first time that a large number of them will be shown in concert with the Whitney’s sculptural objects. These works range in date from the early 1960s to the late 1990s and include collages, prints, pages of quick notebook sketches, and carefully rendered drawings. Several of these depict proposals for feasible and non-feasible civic monuments and Large-Scale Projects.

One highlight of the exhibition is Oldenburg’s Ice Bag – Scale C (1971), which has undergone extensive conservation work in preparation for this exhibition. Oldenburg’s Ice Bag project was first conceived as part of the Art and Technology program for the U.S. Pavilion at the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka, where an eighteen-foot version, powered by hydraulics, appeared. This version was, in the end, produced in collaboration with Gemini G.E.L. and Krofft Enterprises. The Whitney’s Ice Bag – Scale C was the third version of the subject and is the only one built with a 12-foot diameter (scale B has a four-foot diameter). It too was produced with Gemini G.E.L. and has a motorized system of fans that inflate, deflate, twist, and turn the kinetic sculpture into various positions.

Happenings formed a central strand of Oldenburg’s early work in the 1960s. What we know of them has been learned primarily through photographic documentation and published scripts. Here, for the first time, eight rare films of Oldenburg’s Happenings will be shown together in the Whitney’s Film & Video Gallery, projected in loops around the walls. Three of the films – Fotodeath (1961), Autobodys (1967), and Hole (1967) - have not been seen since they were first screened in the 1960s, and have been restored especially for the exhibition.

Each film reveals the structure and form of Oldenburg’s approach. Carefully scripted, the Happenings were performed variously in Dallas, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and upstate New York, in old storefronts, a shack, a university hall, or in the open air, using sets incorporating draped muslin, furniture, mirrors, tables, burlap, costumes, large colored sculptural forms, and painted words. Accompanied by soundtracks using vinyl records, drums, the radio, and live sounds, Oldenburg performs with artists and friends including Patty Mucha, Lucas Samaras, Carolee Schneemann, Henry Geldzahler, Claire and Tom Wesselmann, and others, as well as volunteers in different cities.

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen: The Music Room
A full room has been dedicated to a series of sculptures of musical instruments by Oldenburg and van Bruggen in a presentation entitled The Music Room. In 1992 Oldenburg and van Bruggen developed a body of kindred forms derived from harps, saxophones, and clarinets. A soft saxophone from this series will be included in this presentation. Eight years later the pair was invited to conceive a work for Encounters: New Art from Old, an exhibition at the National Gallery in London. The exhibition was composed of works made by contemporary artists in response to the museum’s collection. Van Bruggen chose to explore the interiors of the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. More specifically she was inspired by the paintings A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal and A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal. The pair created Resonances, after J.V. (2000) in response, a window box installation of an interior with sculptural elements that will be installed at the Whitney. Resonances, after J.V. became the springboard for Oldenburg and van Bruggen, who expanded the musical theme to create several instruments. Soft Viola (2002), given to the Whitney in 2002, was prompted by the viola depicted so prominently in one of the Vermeer compositions. Here it is an instrument deprived of its function, hanging from the wall in a state of suspended animation. Like many works conceived by Oldenburg and van Bruggen, the intrinsically sculptural viola, with its voluptuous contours and art historical associations, is replete with erotic overtones.

The theme and form of musical instruments proved ideal for exploring physical and material transformations and the resulting shifts in meaning. Metamorphosis occurs here through scale and the way soft and hard forms can playfully transform our everyday perceptions of the function or performance of musical instruments. Although these have been concerns of the artists throughout their careers, the Music Room’s display brings these ideas to the fore in a particularly focused way. Musical instruments also serve as a particularly apt metaphor for the process of artistic collaboration and their group presentation creates reverberations as the sculptural instruments play off of one another.

As installed at the Whitney, The Music Room includes both hard and soft instruments of differing scales that range in date from 1992 to 2006. Among the objects included in the installation are variations on a viola, saxophone, clarinets, French horns, sheet music, and a metronome. A select group of related drawings will hang nearby, including the Whitney’s Soft Viola Island (2001), in which tiny sailboats circumnavigate the verdant shores of an island in the shape of a recumbent viola.

Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929, Stockholm) grew up in Chicago and attended Yale University (1946-50) before settling in New York City in 1956. Influenced by his environs on the Lower East Side, he created a series of performances and installations such as The Street (1960) and The Store (1961) that established him as a leading figure of contemporary art. Moving to Los Angeles and shifting his vision to The Home (1963), Oldenburg began a series of sewn and fabricated versions of ordinary household objects, including Bedroom Ensemble. On his return to New York, he began a series of drawings of objects in fantastic scale called “Proposed Colossal Monuments.” In 1976, a 45-foot-tall sculpture in the form of a Clothespin was realized in downtown Philadelphia, the first such work in a ‘feasible’ scale. From 1976 on, he worked in partnership with Coosje van Bruggen, whom he married in 1977.

Coosje van Bruggen was born in the Netherlands in 1942 and studied ballet as a youth. She received a master’s degree in art history with a minor in French literature from the University of Groningen prior to serving as a member of the curatorial staff in the Painting and Sculpture Department at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam from 1961 until 1971. Van Bruggen was co-editor of the catalogue of Sonsbeek 71, a multi-sited exhibition of contemporary sculpture throughout the Netherlands. In 1976, Oldenburg and van Bruggen worked together for the first time on the reconstruction and relocation of the 41-foot-tall Trowel I (1971-76)—originally shown at Sonsbeek 71—to the Kröller-Müller Museum grounds in Otterlo. In 1978 van Bruggen moved to New York where she continued to work with Oldenburg on creating site-specific, large-scale urban works, while also serving as an international independent curator and critic. Van Bruggen was a member of the selection committee for Documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany (1982); a contributor to Artforum (1983–88); and Senior Critic in the Department of Sculpture at Yale University School of Art in New Haven (1996–97). In addition to her extensive writings on Oldenburg’s early work and on the collaborative projects, she created the characters for Il Corso del Coltello (Venice, 1985), a performance by Oldenburg, van Bruggen, and the architect Frank Gehry. Van Bruggen is the author of essays on Richard Artschwager and Gerhard Richter and books on John Baldessari, Hanne Darboven, Bruce Nauman, and Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

The artistic team of Oldenburg and van Bruggen executed more than 40 permanently sited sculptures in architectural scale throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan, including Spoonbridge and Cherry (1988), Minneapolis; Mistos (Match Cover) (1992), Barcelona; Shuttlecocks (1994), Kansas City; Saw, Sawing (1996), Tokyo; Ago, Filo e Nodo (Needle, Thread and Knot) (2000), Milan; and the 40-foot-high Dropped Cone (2001) atop the Neumarkt Galerie in Cologne, Germany. Their collaboration also encompassed smaller park and garden sculptures in addition to indoor installations. Until van Bruggen’s death on January 10, 2009, Oldenburg and van Bruggen lived and worked in Manhattan, California, and France.

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