By focusing entirely on the highly productive decade of the 1960s, before Claes Oldenburg began making the prolific large-scale public monuments for which he is best known, curator Achim Hochdörfer’s exhibition ‘Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties’ achieves a remarkable reinvigoration of the artist’s work. It describes the analytical enquiry that was at the root of Oldenburg’s production, allowing it to emerge from the shadow of these monuments, as well as liberating it from the Pop corner of art history, where giant cake slices or replica pastries have been quietly gathering dust for almost 50 years. Countering playfulness with precision, the exhibition combines a spacious installation with irregularly angled freestanding screen walls and low platforms (designed by architect Wilfried Kühn), and a selection of works which is thorough but not exhaustive. The show is an object lesson in clear-eyed, scholarly curation, which opts for a density of thought over a density of works.
Spread over the institution’s four floors, the show is divided into chronological chapters: ‘The Street’, ‘The Store’, ‘The Home’, ‘The Monument’ and ‘The Geometric Mouse’. The first of these features works from 1959 to 1960 inspired by the Manhattan street life Oldenburg witnessed upon moving to the Lower East Side in 1956. ‘The Street’ establishes a tone of the primitive and tawdry, significantly at odds with the vibrant, commodity-based work by Oldenburg that usually springs to mind. Figures, heads, cars or signs assembled from scraps of torn cardboard or old newspaper, held together with string and daubed with black paint, dangle ghost-like over low white platforms, picturing an abject, hand-to-mouth existence. Lumpy objects constructed from newspaper pasted over wire frames suggest bleak, existential enigma: such as the extraordinary moon-like Street Head (“Big Head”, “Gong”) (1959), or the first of Oldenburg’s ‘Ray Guns’, the primitive gun-like phallic abstraction that became a densely emblematic symbol for the artist. The haunting, spot-lit installation of these works is far removed form the noisy chaos of their original exhibition at the Judson Gallery in 1960, visible in Stan VanDerBeek’s film Snapshots from the City of the same year, which documents a violent stroboscopic performance in which Oldenburg appears wrapped in rags and bandages to a soundtrack of blaring sirens and street noise.
Transitioning into the well-known period of ‘The Store’ (1960–63), again the display favours analytical breadth over historical exactitude. Rather than attempting to replicate the artist’s legendary shop-front studio, film and slide projections show footage of performances that took place in The Store’s backroom (many of which feature Patty Mucha, Oldenburg’s wife during this time and collaborator on his sewn works). The main focus, though, is a large sloping platform on and above which are arrayed a spectrum of brightly coloured objects spanning the literal (as in Two Cheeseburgers with Everything [Dual Hamburgers], 1962), to the gargantuan (Giant Ice Cream Cone, 1962), to the wilfully bizarre (Battleship, Centerpiece for a Party, 1962). Taken as a whole – which is how the work must be taken, so this exhibition instructs us – these works form a dynamic enquiry into colour as a function of perception; scale, material and form; the vague territory linking abstraction to representation; or the transition from painting to object, or from art object to reality (or indeed vice versa); not to mention commodity, consumerism and transcendence. They teem with associations, both to their recent past (Pollock, De Kooning, Rauschenberg) and, more unexpectedly, to the present day: Franz West, anyone? Fischli/Weiss? Urs Fischer?
Upstairs in the ‘Home’ section, the components of a bathroom ensemble are spread out throughout the space so that the literal objects become ideas that stretch out in all directions to perform all manner of transformations: small to big; hard to soft; upright to upside down. The body, no longer observer or consumer, seems to have been engulfed by the objects, which have become bodies themselves. The bathtub, now made of soft canvas, slouches weak-willed against the wall. A giant brown vinyl socket hangs bullish and erotically charged. In this light, the monument becomes a logical extension of Oldenburg’s enquiry, so that a tower-sized lipstick seems inevitable rather than slapstick or parodic. Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks (1969) is the only monument shown literally here (in drawings, a model and documentary footage of its unauthorized installation); otherwise the monuments are presented in drawings as dystopian urban fantasies: giant bowling balls rolling down Fifth Avenue; a colossal half-peeled banana lying in Times Square.
An interlude on the third floor presents a selection of archival material, again rigorously edited down, despite its seductive appeal. A smattering of black and white snapshots pictures a dilapidated 1950s New York; coloured slides show examples of out-scaled commercial Americana; home movies depict 1960s happenings with glimpses of famous guests. Handled with restraint and separated spatially from the works, this inspirational source material and documentation does not exert undue influence on our interpretation of the works themselves.
The show’s finale is the Mouse Museum, a phenomenal work originally made for Documenta in 1972, now in the permanent collection of the MUMOK. The museum is a corrugated aluminium room in the form of a Geometric Mouse (a squared off, somewhat malevolent version of Mickey Mouse) housing a fascinating collection of found objects, memorabilia, replicas and miniatures that the artist had been collecting under the name the museum of popular art n.y.c. They seem both to prefigure and document, model-like, his own works.
Stripped of preconceptions and nudged out of the Pop canon, ‘Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties’ encourages us to reconsider the artist as a radical exponent of a sculptural investigation that takes in the figure, the quotidian object, performance, public art, collections, archives, myth and enigma. In fact, the exhibition appears so comprehensive and conclusive (Oldenburg himself called the Mouse Museum his ‘mausoleum’) that you are left, paradoxically, with little interest in what Oldenburg has been up to in the intervening 40 years.