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Largest show to date dedicated to the work made by Claes Oldenburg in the sixties opens
US artist Claes Oldenburg poses during the presentation of the exhibition "Claes Oldenburg. The Sixties" at the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, in the Northern Spanish Basque city of Bilbao, on October 29, 2012. AFP PHOTO/RAFA RIVAS.

BILBAO.- Co-organized by mumok Vienna and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties is the largest show to date dedicated to the path-breaking, emblematic, early work of the 1960s by Claes Oldenburg (Stockholm, Sweden, 1929), one of the most influential artists since the 1950s.

With his ironic and sharp witted representations of everyday objects from the 1960s, Oldenburg made a huge contribution to renovating the North American art scene, and is a major figure in performance art, installation art and Pop Art. However, his multifaceted body of work goes much further. He has also had a profound influence on art in public spaces with his monumental large-scale projects in numerous major cities worldwide, created in partnership with Coosje van Bruggen.

One central point of reference in Oldenburg’s oeuvre is the industrially produced object—the object as commodity, which in ever new metamorphoses of media and form becomes a conveyer of culture and symbol of the imagination, desires, and obsessions of the capitalist world.

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao will showcase a magnificent selection of nearly 300 works on Museum’s second floor galleries. The exhibition will begin with the installation The Street and its graffiti-inspired depictions of modern life in the big city, and continue to the famous consumer articles of The Store and to the spectacular everyday objects of the “modern home.”

The exhibition also dedicates a section to Oldenburg’s early designs for public spaces around the world and to his emblematic Mouse Museum, a walk-in miniature museum in the form of a Geometric Mouse, for which Oldenburg has collected 381 objects since the late 1950s.

Lastly, owing to the Claes Oldenburg‘s close collaboration on the project, the exhibit will also include a series of works that have rarely or never before been seen: drawings, photographs and films by the artist himself, and especially notebook pages that offer unique insights into the witty thought processes of the artist.

The Street and the Flags
When Claes Oldenburg moved to New York in 1956, he lived on the Lower East Side, one of the economically underprivileged parts of Manhattan, where he observed poverty, traffic, how people worked, the monetary economy, isolation, and a lack of communication. In this environment the artist began to create two-dimensional objects using pieces of old cardboard and wood held together with glue or string. The objects represented cars and passers-by, painted in a rough, graffiti-like style.

Oldenburg’s earliest environment, The Street, shown for the first time at the Judson Gallery in 1960, laid the foundation for a new art that the artist referred to “city pop.” Just as in the original exhibit, the objects hang, sit, lean, or stand nearby, as if on the stage of a theater. Walking through objects such as the 1960 “homeless” figure Big Man, or Street Head I (“Big Head”; “Gong”), 1959, visitors imagine the chaotic and effervescent Lower East Side, besieged by capitalism and construction.

In the summer of 1960, Oldenburg left behind the noise, dirt, and dilapidation of the big city for a short stay in Provincetown, in Cape Cod near Boston. There he produced Provincetown Flags, a series of works made from pieces of wood that had washed up on the beach which he transformed into images of the American flag—a fetishized emblem and omnipresent symbol in the national conscience.

Oldenburg’s art has always reflected the cultural context of the place it was created. It is therefore no coincidence that it was precisely Provincetown in 1620 where the pilgrims, or English immigrants who had crossed the Atlantic aboard the Mayflower in search of religious freedom, signed the Mayflower Compact, considered the first act of American autonomy and for some, the precursor of the Constitution of the United States of America.

The Store
After his return to New York in the fall of 1960 Oldenburg began work on a series of new works, entering into the colorful world of commodities. He no longer placed art on an intellectual pedestal, instead bringing it into the fabric of everyday reality.

In the winter of 1961, the artist began to sell these objects in a studio he opened for two months as if it were a regular store on the Lower East Side. Made of brightly painted and roughly finished layers of plaster-soaked muslin over chicken-wire armatures, the sculptures were crammed into the artist’s store window. They represented everyday objects found in the “modern household” and the world of consumerism: food, underwear, tools, household appliances, price labels, such as Men's Jacket with Shirt and Tie (1961) and Wrist Watch on Blue (1961). Some of Oldenburg’s 1962 sculptures, presented on the Second Show of the Store at the Green Gallery in September, are larger-than-life, such as Floor Cake and French Fries with Ketchup, showing the ironic tone and humor characteristic of the artist's work at the time, in a constant exploration of the metaphorical potential of everyday objects.

The Home and the Monument
With the series of Home objects, which Oldenburg began during a stay in Los Angeles California in 1963, he took the next thematic step from The Street, via the semi-public space of The Store, into the domestic private sphere of The Home. In this phase, the artist began to create objects typical of modern life that generally go unnoticed, such as a telephone, toilet, fan, drainpipe and light switch, creating them in different sizes, colors and “versions”—soft, hard, giant and ghost, showing their constant state of transition or change.

An example of this can be seen in the artist’s light switch display: Giant Soft Swedish Light Switch (Ghost Version), 1966; Soft Light Switches – “Ghost Version” II, 1964–71; and Light Switches – Hard Version, Replica (Brown), 1964–69.

The large scale and type of materials used—sometimes vinyl, at other times canvas awakened an entire spectrum of experiences and sensations, sometimes human while others gigantic and even grandiose, were not normally connected with the industrially produced furnishings normally found in the home.

In contrast to the “expressive” vitality of the Store objects, the Home objects assume a “cooler” appearance due to their material, enormous size or limpness. In this back and forth between recognition and strange independent existence, comical moments occur, and also moments of distance and defamiliarization.

During the idea of the “soft sculptures,” Oldenburg had already begun thinking about possibly exhibiting in a public space. In 1965, he began to sketch utopian projects for outdoor spaces in a series of drawings and watercolors. Drawings of public monuments created for New York, London and Los Angeles, can be seen in the exhibition.

“Humor,” says Oldenburg “is the only weapon of survival.” In Oldenburg’s grotesque exaggeration, the solitary monumental teddy bear, clothespin, fan or banana becomes a caricature of everyday social reality.

Oldenburg’s Monuments make reference to the concrete place and its historical or social meanings and implications. They are not just affirmations of everyday life in America and its politics, but also a satire of its banality, of the absurdity of an urban life, and thus symbols of our time. This is the case of the gigantic lipstick sculpture located at Yale University: Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks (1969) considered an authentic form of protest against the Vietnam War and a symbol of coeducation, since women were not admitted to Yale until 1969.

Home Movies
In addition to clippings from newspaper photographs, a set of Super 8 films from the 1960s demonstrates Oldenburg’s constant engagement in the filmic medium, offering fascinating insight into the artist’s career in the 1950s and 1960s and showing how his ideas were developed.

The images are often wobbly, sometimes showing artificial things that seem to have become monstrous or to simulate something they are not. They are taken from Oldenburg’s personal archive from the 1950s depicting the New York that inspired The Street or from his occupation with monuments in the late 1960s documented by film shot in a cemetery. The sculptures and architecture become actors in a single great drama, a “theater,” in which pathos formulas and rhetorical gestures of mourning make their appearance.

Mouse Museum and Ray Gun Wing
The exhibition concludes with the Mouse Museum, a miniature museum whose first “building” was created in 1972 for Documenta 5 in Kassel. Later, together with Coosje van Bruggen, the building of the Mouse Museum was built upon the floor plan of a “Geometric Mouse”: two circles as ears, a square as a head, and a phallic form as the nose. Inside, a glass display case contains 381 objects collected by the artist since the 1950s, including small models, found objects, Ray Guns, purchased toys, knickknacks, joke articles, and kitsch from cheap junk shops and small sculptures he made himself.

At the same time as Mouse Museum, Oldenburg also presented Ray Gun Wing, a structure built in the shape of a ray gun or right angle. The building housed the various ray guns Oldenburg and other artists had collected or created, interspersed with photographs of ray guns fixed to the ground.

In the Mouse Museum and Ray Gun Wing, Oldenburg has archived his central concerns of the 1960s as if in his own museum: the inversion of scale, the mutation of form, the conflation of the found, the industrially produced, and the artistically created. At the same time for him the two “museums” also represented a new beginning for future works in public spaces left behind by the museum and the gallery.

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