BY Steven Stern in Features | 07 JUN 03
Featured in
Issue 76

Taking stock

Claes Oldenburg's 'The Store'

BY Steven Stern in Features | 07 JUN 03

'I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all, an art given the chance of having a starting point of zero.'
Claes Oldenburg, Store Days (1967)

Oldenburg's early plaster sculptures are protagonists in a classic American success story, but I wonder sometimes how they feel about that. I wonder what's on their minds these days, so far from home, and whether they ever think about the old neighbourhood. Because they've done well for themselves; they've really moved up in the world.

Like a lot of renowned social climbers, these works got their start on the Lower East Side of New York. More precisely, they came into being in a narrow room at 107 E. 2nd Street, during a two-month period in 1961. Rent for this space was $60 a month - 'including steam heat and hot and cold water', Oldenburg noted in a prospectus for the project. The idea was to create a store, or at least the functional equivalent of one. Oldenburg constructed 'objects after the spirit and in the form of popular objects of merchandise' in the back, and retailed them in the front. You could buy a relief of a rumpled girdle for $249.95, a Big Sandwich (1961) for $149.98; the 9.99 (1961) hanging in the front window went for $399.95. The slapdash painted sculptures mostly replicated coffee-shop food and bargain basement clothing, but mannequins, bits of signs, a wilting red-ribboned Success Plant (1961) and even the cash till were up for grabs. Clearly this was a store where Everything Must Go.

And everything pretty much did. If these works grew up not knowing they were art, surely they must be aware of it by now. While some are currently missing in action - perhaps lost, thrown away, gathering dust in the corner of someone's basement - most have found their way to museums and collections around the world. (It didn't take long: MOMA was an early customer, grabbing Red Tights with Fragment 9, 1961, presumably at its original price of $395.99.) This is, after all, what happens to things in a shop: they get sold, are brought home. And, of course, it's also what happens to art. Yet here it feels like some context is lost in this diaspora.

The environment surrounding the store was echoed in the works in the most literal of ways: the built-up plaster and heavily applied pigment were meant to recall the fixtures and mouldings of New York tenements, architectural details gradually losing definition as more and more paint is layered on with each succeeding generation of tenants. The choice of objects, too, is mired in time and place: they are the kind of things sold in the discount stores once common on the Lower East Side - the linear descendants of the rag merchants of the original ghetto, updated with the shoddy products of postwar America.

Looking at the store as captured in photographs actually feels like picking through a bargain bin - there's an effort of sorting involved in simply making visual sense out of the jumble of puckered, spattered objects on display. Oldenburg piled his creations on tiered counters, hung them from the ceiling, set them out on plates, impaled them on makeshift pedestals. 'Environment' seems too precious a term to describe what's going on. The chaos suggests what Manny Farber meant by 'termite art': 'the feeling that all is expendable, that it can be chopped up and flung down in a different arrangement without ruin'. Except here, the chopping and flinging have already occurred.

The difficulties of perception are compounded by the formal uniformity of materials and techniques. Everything is made the same way, from the same stuff - strips of muslin soaked in wet plaster, built up around wire frames - and distinctions get blurred. Oldenburg worked in unmixed enamel paints, using only eight or so shades in all. This restricted palette adds to the air of expendability. Neither naturalistic nor expressive nor arbitrary, the dumbed-down colours are simply adequate, beyond finicky concern. They gesture towards the real with a half-hearted shrug, the way you greet a neighbour whose name you don't know. A string of sausages is exactly the same red as the trim on a housedress, which is precisely the same yellow as the yolk of a fried egg, which matches a pair of white running shoes. This chromatic shorthand offers up unsettling similitudes and overlaps, like the way a brown suit jacket continues a smear of liquefying chocolate.

At the same time the objects are irresolvable by design, refusing to cohere into a single scene. Scale shifts woozily from piece to piece: some are life-size, others blown up to clownish not-quite-monumentality. Sometimes within a single piece incongruously sized objects are yoked together by amorphous chunks of hardened ooze - a dripping ice-cream cone dwarfed by the heel of a shoe. Verisimilitude wavers: a dangling joint of roast beef, thick with creamy fat, approaches trompe l'oeil, while the till is almost an abstraction, its blocky shape merely sufficient to indicate its inspiration. Freestanding pieces are mixed in with flattened reliefs and rough-edged fragments, bits torn away from some absent whole. Within the world of the store, signs are as palpable as the things they represent, and prices take on a life of their own, as in the huge '9.99,' suspended like innards on a meat hook.

'Eye clusters' was Oldenburg's term for this supersaturated visuality, 'fragmentation, simultaneousness, superimposition', the desired effect. It's an urban form of perception, a pedestrian mode: briefly noted glances piling up in endlessly additive mass. And, as in the city, individual gestures count for little. There's something liberating about this carelessness. Pop music critic Frank Kogan talks about what he calls the 'context of abundance': a freedom possessed by particularly lively, unselfconscious genres at certain points in history. Within a context of abundance an artist can get away with a whole range of felicitous eccentricities precisely because they don't matter, are not a big deal: repletion is part of the bargain and part of the pleasure. It's a familiar concept for the city-dweller, and productive in thinking about Oldenburg's project. After all, what better emblem of abundance than a shop? What better model of unforced openness? (It might as well have a sign on its door saying 'Open'.)

So what happens when the abundant context of the city street and the shop is replaced by the context of the museum? What comes in to take the place of the missing piece of the torn fragment? Here's a hint: looking at the giddy, viscid brushwork of Oldenburg's Mu-Mu (1961), Barbara Rose sees 'clothing for one of de Kooning's women'. Arthur Danto describes the contrasting trim wobbling down the front of the dress as 'a Newmanesque red zip'. No surprises here, really: that's the point of the enterprise, providing an art-historical narrative as a stable home for wayward objects. While these critical readings seem a bit forced, they're not unjustified: Oldenburg, not the naïf he sometimes made himself out to be, was certainly aware of how his marks resonated with earlier painting conventions. And yet ... And yet there's a feeling of loss here, a certain you-can't-go-home-again melancholy.

Books are often less easily abstracted from their surroundings than artworks, better at bringing contexts with them as they move through the world. In 1961, the year Oldenburg set up shop, Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book of urban theory unlike any that had been written before. Reading it today, Jacobs' carefully rendered portrait of lived urban experience seems just as significant as her polemic - or, more accurately, the two are inseparable. Jacobs' world, and her arguments, revolved around her West Village neighbourhood (as it happens, just across town from Oldenburg's store). She wrote unsentimentally of the tangle of relations on her block, describing the small necessary negotiations occurring in the 'ballet' of everyday life, and then moved outwards, asking what worked and why. What worked - what made cities desirable places to live - were things no one had valued before, at least not in urban planning circles: clutter and density, people loitering on the streets, old buildings and the intermingling of industrial, commercial and residential spaces. These were what made a city 'lively' - the book's highest term of praise. Suspicious of top-down theorizing and over-arching schemes, Jacobs' adversaries were those who would raze lively 'slums' and turn the city into an idyllic green place: suburbanize it, in other words.

This vision of the city as a product of make-it-up-as-you-go along, ad hoc functionality naturally resonates with Oldenburg's store, a work of 'mixed-use' art. Not surprisingly, shops were a crucial part of Jacobs' schema: they were places where public and private mingled, conduits of vital information. The 'authorities' cited in Death and Life were, for the most part, local shopkeepers: Mr Goldstein the ironmonger, Mr Halpern the laundry man, Joe Cornaccia at the delicatessen. Jacobs knew that what a shop dealt in was more than simply what it sold.

There's some nostalgia in this attempt to reconstruct lost context, I suppose, an embarrassing bit of good-old-days corn. Perhaps this is unavoidable. The title of the collection of notes, sketches and photographs Oldenburg published in 1967 already has the air of the wistfully retrospective about it: Store Days. Vladimir Nabokov was once asked in an interview, 'Is nostalgia debilitating or enriching?' His response: 'Neither. It's one of a thousand tender emotions.' Tenderness seems to be a useful way to approach Oldenburg's belated gentrified objects, a way to think oneself back to that starting-point of zero.

Steven Stern is a writer living in New York.