BY Dan Fox in Interviews | 23 OCT 15
Featured in
Issue 175

House Work

An interview with Claes Oldenburg

BY Dan Fox in Interviews | 23 OCT 15

Claes Oldenburg in his studio, New York, October 2015; photograph: Leonora Hamill

Claes Oldenburg is amongst the most important American artists of the past half-century. Since the 1950s, his work has drawn on the commercial and urban landscape around him. Closely associated with the vanguard of US pop art, his ‘soft sculptures’ of the 1960s, depicting everyday objects, revolutionized approaches to materials and three-dimensional form. In the 1970s, he turned to large-scale public sculptures and, in 1976, was joined in collaboration by his wife, the artist and art historian Coosje van Bruggen. Together, they worked on numerous large-scale urban projects, until her death in 2009. This month, Oldenburg presents ‘Things Around the House’ at Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, an exhibition of works from his home and studio spanning 50 years. Dan Fox met with him in New York.

DAN FOX Can you tell me about ‘Things Around the House’, your new exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery?

CLAES OLDENBURG There comes a moment in your life when you are looking around the house and you become aware of objects that are standing there – fragments or studies, perhaps – that remind you of works you have made. These things have created a landscape of their own within the domestic space. At a certain time of day, people leave and you’re there alone with your objects. These things have a lot of content, a lot to say; I’ve always had the feeling that objects could have lives of their own, although sometimes they don’t talk back! In any case, it is part of being alone to be able to have conversations with the ordinary things around you that are not normally taken for being alive. Making an exhibition out of these objects arose from deciding to give myself up to these feelings. My daughter, Maartje, thought this was a good idea and she’s been working on it with me. It’s kind of a fantasy and we decided to call it ‘Things Around the House’, since the word ‘things’ has a double meaning: it can refer to a living thing or a non-living thing – if that exists.

DF How long have you been living in your house?

CO I have had various different studios. I found this one in 1971, at a time when the city wasn’t very affluent, and many artists bought lofts at low prices.

DF Looking back at the objects you’ve made over such a long period of time, are there any surprising themes or continuities that you’ve noticed subsequently that you weren’t aware of when you were making them?

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Houseball, Naoshima – Presentation Model, 1992, burlap, rope and expanded polystyrene, coated with resin and painted with latex, 47 × 36 × 41 cm. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York; © Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen 

CO If you look at a thing, it always comes to life in some way. I like form of every kind, especially anything surprising that a thing can be, and I’m there to watch and build it into my work. It’s also about landscape, the way things arrange themselves and make unexpected combinations. Landscapes raise the matter of scale, and scale is something that interests me deeply. Of course, with my late wife and partner, Coosje van Bruggen, I did a lot of large-scale projects that began as small works. To me, the difference is not so important. A tiny sculpture can be just as powerful as a large one. It’s all really about imagination and fantasy, and that’s very much a part of my outlook in art.

DF Objects in a domestic environment often arrive from outside: stuff found in the street or bought from a store. Do you see the relationship between the inside and the outside as being analogous to, say, the subconscious and the conscious, or one’s imagination and one’s life as a physical being in the world?

CO Living in a city such as New York, which is so intense, crowded and constantly changing, you’re getting ideas from it, finding things, getting a kind of education. For example, there’s a game I play with what I call ‘Ray Guns’. Ray Guns are simply objects which are bent into a right angle. When I walk up and down the street – I look at the streets a lot because it’s important, in this city, to know what you’re about to step into! – I find many objects that have, for some magical reason, turned into this shape I’m looking for. When I see an interesting one, I pick it up and take it home. As you probably know, I have a collection of these things and, when other people play the game, I pretend to be an expert on Ray Guns. If they want to show me their Ray Guns and get a certification that it really is a Ray Gun, I’m happy to look it over and authenticate it. Fantasy can arise out of the most ordinary things. When I first came to New York to work, I lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan – a place where you find an awful lot on the streets. Walking around could be very inspiring. I made an homage to the street [The Street, 1960], just as I did an homage to the store [The Store, 1961–62], of which the same thing can be said. You walk into a store and things can spring into life.

DF New York has changed enormously since you first moved here in the late 1950s. Have you noticed, in your more recent explorations of the city, a difference in the materials or sorts of things you find?

CO You look out at the streets and you see cars passing by and it’s as if nobody’s been able to invent a new version of the car for some time. They’ll redesign it but it still looks like a car. I think there have been a lot of changes in the technical world but they’re not always very visible: they seem to get smaller and smaller.

Claes Oldenburg, Pastry Case, I (from The Store), 1961–62, enamel paint on nine plaster sculptures in glass case, 53 × 77 × 37 cm. Courtesy the artists, the Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection, MoMA, New York, and Scala, Florence 

DF What originally brought you to New York?

CO It was 1956, and I had been dropping in and out of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I’d tried a lot of other places – San Francisco, Los Angeles – and then I finally decided that I really had to come to New York. If you’re ambitious as an artist, you have to come here sooner or later. There’s a formula to it. You decide to go to New York, you start to pack things and then you realize: ‘I can’t pack too much because I don’t know where I’m going to go.’ So, you pack a few things that are essential, get onto a bus, arrive in New York and, when you get off the bus, you wonder: ‘Where am I going to live?’ Then you go to the YMCA, not far from the bus stop, and you get a room there. After a while, you roam around the streets and, finally, you find some kind of small room which you take. But it’s too small to make any art in, so you have to invent some kind of variation. In my case, I went out and bought newspapers and magazines and used scissors to cut out images and paste them together. I finally arrived at a large enough place I could use as a studio, five flights up on Avenue C and East 4th Street.

Claes Oldenburg, Soft Toilet, 1966, wood, vinyl, kapok fibres, wire and Perspex on a metal stand and painted-wood base,145 × 70 × 71 cm. Courtesy the artist and Whitney Museum of American Art 

I got a job, within walking distance, at the Cooper Union Library, which enabled me to support myself and also to study a lot of things. Not too many people came into the library but there were a lot of good books and things you could read while waiting for them to arrive. I was lucky and it’s always been the rule of New York that you have to be lucky. You have to arrive at the right moment. This was a good moment because it was right between the abstract expressionists and whatever was going to come later, and it wasn’t quite clear what that would be. It’s nice to be a part of something taking shape; you find other people you run into are thinking in the same way and you get together. With us, it became clear there was a new movement forming. Eventually, it would be called pop art, which is a somewhat misleading term, but it definitely involved using your surroundings and building your ideas and visions on the experiences you were having in the city.

DF You once said you wanted to ‘translate the eye into the fingers’. Many of the objects you make seem to have been subject to human touch – bitten into, squeezed, pressed, broken. Can you talk about that a bit? CO There isn’t much to say except that I live through my eyes and I live through my fingers; that, I think, is essential for an artist.

DF Could you tell me about your studio process?

CO I work in all kinds of media. Certain ones – such as cardboard, foam and soft materials – I can handle myself, but I need help when it comes to sewing or metallic pieces, so I have a number of factories that I liaise with. My first wife, Patty Mucha, was a very good seamstress and she was responsible for the fact we could make soft things. I would produce models in cardboard, foam and canvas and they would be translated into patterns. She would sew the patterns and then I would stuff the sculpture with more or less kapok. I’ve always believed in collaboration and in making use of the things that others can do better than me because, for me, it’s not about claiming you can do something: it’s about getting the thing done and helping the work into existence. It’s hard to tell what I’m going to make next because it comes from running into a certain kind of material, having a specific experience and then putting it together. You can see in the Paula Cooper exhibition that I’ve done this many times. There are many different materials in there – I’m open to anything.

DF Are there any new materials you’re interested in? Material technology has changed so much over the last 50 years.

CO Yes, it has changed a lot. Some decades ago, I discovered the beauty of vinyl when it first came out, and that was a marvellous moment. You could make something that looked hard but was actually soft. You could make a motor car out of it and it would be soft. I’m waiting for anything like that to come along. Plaster fascinates me greatly too, because it’s an inert thing that can do anything. It’s what led me into imitations of food. Plaster is natural for that. It’s like food. You can almost bite it – so the material has a lot to do with what gets made. For example, I made Soft Toilet (1966) among a number of other works based on objects you find in the bathroom, and they’re all perfect for white vinyl. They just transported me: I made the bathtub, the toilet; I made the medicine cabinet and just couldn’t stop. It’s the material that speaks, that says: ‘Let’s keep going!’

DF Humour, too, has always been important in your work.

CO It’s very important. I don’t see how you could survive very long without it. I like it spontaneous: smiles preferred to guffaws.

DF Do you have any interest in – if you’ll excuse the pun – the ‘soft’ space of digital technology?

CO I did not make an attempt to get very far into what was happening to a large part of the world, although I was lucky enough to have friends who could explain it to me. I’m afraid I still see the world in an old-fashioned way. I carry a little note­book instead of an iPhone, and I write my numbers and observations down. However, I think it’s absolutely stunning to see what can be done. I work with two young assistants who can tell me anything I want to know. I can walk into their office and ask: ‘What’s the name of this song?’ I’ll hum it and, a few moments later, I hear the song on the computer with a full orchestra. How it happens, I don’t know. I sometimes try to imagine the minute size of the particles that are involved, but it’s beyond me!

DF Do you have any unrealized projects?

CO I’m involved in one way or another in a number of things and it may be that I’ll put together something of a large nature later on but, for the moment, I’m working on a small scale. I’m making studies and planning books. I’m also trying hard to organize what’s already been done. It’s funny: with art you just don’t throw anything away. You wind up with a lot of memories and a lot of paper. I’m 86 years old. Through my daughter I have a younger life – she has three children and they live in Brooklyn and I frequently go over there to see the world as once I saw it.

Claes Oldenburg is an artist living and working in New York, USA. His exhibition ‘Things Around the House’ is at Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, from 5 November to 12 December.

Dan Fox is a writer, filmmaker and musician. He is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (2016) and Limbo (2018), both published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, and co-director of Other, Like Me: The Oral History of COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle (2020).