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Exhibition featuring Claes Oldenburg's groundbreaking early work opens at the Walker Art Center
Claes Oldenburg, Floor Cake, 1962. Synthetic polymer paint and latex on canvas filled with foam rubber and cardboard boxes, 1.48 x 2.9 x 1.48 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Gift of Philip Johnson, 1981. Photo: mumok© Claes Oldenburg.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN.- Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties, on view at the Walker Art Center September 22, 2013 through January 12, 2014, is the largest exhibition to date focusing on the groundbreaking and emblematic early work of one of Pop’s most widely admired artists. Organized by MUMOK (Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien) and first presented in Vienna, the exhibition has traveled to the Museum Ludwig in Cologne; the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain; and the Museum of Modern Art in New York (where it was shown in a condensed version). Spanning close to 14,000 square feet and bringing together nearly 300 pieces from collections around the world, Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties showcases a broad range of the artist’s sculptures—including prized works from the Walker’s collection such as Upside Down City (1962), Shoestring Potatoes Spilling from a Bag (1966), Geometric Mouse—Scale A (1969/1971), and Three-Way Plug—Scale A, Soft, Brown (1975). It also highlights his key role in interdisciplinary performance art of the 1960s and links his formative years to later projects including Spoonbridge and Cherry, the centerpiece of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, made in 1988 with Coosje van Bruggen.

The exhibition underscores how the 1960s were a time of fertile invention for Oldenburg, within which he continued to refine his artistic vocabulary. The Walker presentation showcases several major bodies of work from this period, including The Street, an installation inspired by the landscape of the city; The Store, where he introduced his now-celebrated sculptures of food and everyday goods; and The Home, devoted to sculptures of large-scale domestic objects created in “soft,” “hard,” and other versions. These key moments laid the grounding for his work of the decades to come, where he increasingly worked on large scale public projects with his wife and collaborator Coosje van Bruggen, who died in 2009. The genesis of many of these objects can be seen in the Mouse Museum and Ray Gun Wing, walk-in installations that feature hundreds of objects collected by the artist, demonstrating the incredible variety—and mystery—of consumer culture and studies for works based on it.

Throughout the galleries, the artist’s notebook pages, snapshots, home movies, and slide projections—shown in this context for the first time—give insight into the mind, heart, and creative process of an artist known for his humorous and profound depictions of the everyday.

Born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1929, Oldenburg was brought to New York immediately thereafter, where his father was serving in the Swedish Consulate. After three years in New York and three in Oslo, the family moved in 1936 to Chicago, where his father had been appointed consul and where the family remained until his father’s retirement in 1959. Oldenburg spent most of his youth in Chicago. After attending Yale University and a brief period at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he came to New York in 1956, eventually establishing his first studio on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In 1960, he made his earliest mature work at the Judson Gallery, an immersive environment he called The Street comprised of gritty, raw sculptural objects made from cardboard, papier-mâché, newspaper, and burlap. These humble, readily available materials formed a parallel to the underbelly of urban life he sought to depict from these environs: derelict tenement buildings, trash, graffiti, and other detritus of the city. Oldenburg became part of a burgeoning scene that developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s on the heels of the Abstract Expressionist establishment in the New York art world that embraced an interdisciplinary approach to making art. He participated in Happenings—events which combined such disciplines as performance, objects, and film—and staged his own performances, which included many of the objects from The Street. Alongside these sculptures, which have been rarely seen in the US—the exhibition includes important films made during this formative period, as well as drawings, photographs, and other documentation.

In December 1961, Oldenburg rented a storefront on East Second Street in New York as a site for his next major project, entitled The Store. Like The Street, The Store became an environment for sculpture, but in this case its subject was the colorful world of commodities. The artist filled the space with more than 100 objects depicting everyday consumer items—food, clothing, logos, and price tags— rendered in plaster-soaked canvas which he draped over chicken wire armatures then painted with colorful hardware store enamel. The Store was at once an installation, a performance, and a business, erasing any boundary between gallery and junk shop: the artist was the store’s proprietor, and all objects were available for sale. The resulting works have become iconic not only within Oldenburg’s oeuvre but as emblems of Pop Art’s beginnings. Sculptures such as Pastry Case, I (1961-62), Small Yellow Pie (1961), Big White Shirt with Blue Tie (1961), and Cash Register (1961) are joined in this section by key sculptures Oldenburg made in the year following The Store, including early soft sculptures such as Floor Cone and the Walker’s Upside Down City (both 1962). As in The Street installation, actions also took place in the narrow Store: carnivalesque performances developed out of this environment as costumed actors integrated into the colorful scenery, creating what Oldenburg called “a theater of real events.”

After The Store, Oldenburg shifted to an examination of the domestic sphere in a body of work loosely grouped as The Home. Begun in 1963, this theme would occupy him for the remainder of the decade. Playing with scale and materials, he began making his now celebrated soft sculptures of ordinary items made from stuffed canvas and glossy vinyl, a synthetic material gaining popularity in the 1960s with housewares and consumer goods. Many of these works hang inverted, or flop to the side to demonstrate their lack of functionality, as seen in the vinyl Giant Soft Fan (1966-67). The monochrome Light Switches – “Ghost Version” II (1964-1971) made in raw canvas, hang on the wall like a relic from a pre-industrial era, while the vinyl Soft Toilet (1966) collapses into itself, rendering even the mere thought of using it comical. Models of the soft sculptures were made first as hard versions, such as Bathtub-Hard Model (1966), and Electric Outlet-Hard Model (1964). In contrast to the expressive vitality of the works from The Store, The Home objects assumed a “cooler” appearance, nodding to Minimalism, which was taking shape in the mid-1960s. But whereas Minimalism sought to dispense with figuration, Oldenburg brought these qualities to life by transforming the familiar and inviting free-association between the art object and the observed world.

The exhibition also presents a rare opportunity to view Oldenburg’s Mouse Museum and Ray Gun Wing, two architectural structures completed in the 1970s as environments to house groupings of objects that the artist “curated” from his collection of studies, souvenirs, kitsch objects, and other curiosities amassed and displayed in his studio. The Mouse Museum is based on the form of the Geometric Mouse, a central motif within the artist’s oeuvre that distills the image of a mouselike head to basic shapes of circles and squares, merging high art and popular culture, while also serving as an alter ego for the artist. Once inside, viewers experience lit cases filled with 385 objects the artist has collected since the late 1950s which have often served as inspiration for his works in other media. The Ray Gun Wing is a right-angled structure that similarly houses found objects, but in this case they are items such as bent nails, scraps of wood and metal, and toy guns that display the right angled form of the artist’s early Ray Gun images.

It was in the 1970s that Oldenburg began to realize his “Proposed Colossal Monuments” for public spaces, represented in the exhibition through drawings and models. The Minneapolis presentation will culminate with a special section of works on paper, maquettes, and other documentation relating to one of these works— Spoonbridge and Cherry (1988), commissioned by the Walker as the centerpiece of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and created with Coosje van Bruggen, who had become his partner in 1976.

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