In early February at the Vienna MUMOK Claes Oldenburg’s largest retrospective yet opened. He was a pioneer of pop art and a chronicler of all the absurdities tied to a consumer society. This weekend while visiting Vienna, we checked out the exhibition “The Sixties,” an exhibition that offers a really detailed insight into his production: as many as 300 exhibits set up throughout the museum’s four floors, following his earliest work from the early 1960s onwards up to his recent work created directly for the Vienna retrospective, while the exhibition “closes” with the Mouse Museum installation.
His lifelong collaboration with his spouse and partner Coosje van Bruggen is for the most part manifested in public sculptures worldwide, thus the retrospective provides detailed insight into the development of a concept from sketch to scale model. Due to the exceptional fragility of particular works created by Oldenburg, the costs of the set-up ran fairly high and there probably won’t be an opportunity to repeat the exhibition to this extent any time soon. The exhibition is undersigned by the curator Achim Hochdörfer, one of the currently most active art theorists of the 1960s and ‘70s.
Whether due to more or less all Vienna museum mastodons that try to “jam pack” a ridiculously huge amount of works into a retrospective set-up (case in point: Rene Magritte’s retrospective in Albertina), or due to the particular artistic oeuvre of Oldenburg himself, the exhibition “The Sixties” succeeds in providing an excellent insight into this specific time of awakening and blossoming of the consumer culture in America (but worldwide as well). Numerous works per se are analogue to the abundance of consumer production, where Oldenburg’s work seems like a Utopian concept to strive towards not omitting even one ARTefact of mass production. The retrospective is followed by a months-long project of the museum (on view from January to September 2012), an exhibition of the MUMOK’s permanent collection entitled ‘Pop and the Sixties’ including works from Johns, Warhol, Hockney and many other pop art pioneers, providing an adequate broader context that shaped Oldenburg’s work.
The central premise of Oldenburg’s art is his preoccupation with everyday industrially produced objects: whether he’s viewing them as disposable objects, luxury out of content, reproduced in ads or even cast away on the streets, he never criticizes, but treats them with irony and a grand dose of humor, almost as if he’s basking in their sheer banality.
Oldenburg was born in 1929 in Stockholm, but soon moved to Chicago, then New York, what had an exceptional impact on his artistic creativity. The exhibition detects this moment as a turning point for the creation of his Ray Gun myth, that is, an object shaped as a gun for which he believed emitted energy that could revive anything: everyday things, art and even artists and art market strategies. “Its goal is,” the artist says, “to populate the world with hallucinations, breathe life into inanimate objects and transform everyday banalities into something interesting and meaningful.” Ray Gun was actually the artist’s alter-ego, ready to make all things valuable or at least provide a new perspective.
The street was precisely the first thing Oldenburg used as a strategy for livening things up, where he, inspired by graffiti, obscene X-rated posters for pornographic movies or regular tarmac dirt, created his first big installations, obviously under the influence of the still actual ‘art informel’. Expressive perishability and ephemerality of street apparitions becomes an obsessive dimension in his early work, while the gigantic installations evoke figures of the homeless and prostitutes. Leaving the liveliness of New York behind for a short period, Claes moved to a small province up north, where he, fascinated by the concept of American awareness of nationality, produced a series of flags made from wood and plaster, completely different features than the usual breezy flapping Americana. The culture starting to manifest itself in consummation and production, the glorifying of all things national and preserving family values, is what was to become an inseparable part of the artist’s personality.
The artistic answer to that context started with a few plaster casts of iconic objects of that time from ‘The Store’ series: a men’s business suit or French fries and ketchup. Still, what really defines Oldenburg’s recognizable early work is the gigantic slice of cake, created in 1962, a completely absurd and grotesque soft sculpture that’s simultaneously attractive and abhorrent.
The cake as a symbol of pleasure and abundance was molded into an obese canvas structure that keeps on becoming increasingly repellant, like excrement of the consumerism industry.
It introduces us to his recognizable world of deflated household appliances entitled ‘The Home’ which float around like some kind of lifeless dolls from the museum’s ceiling. In considerable contrast to the expressive quality of the objects from ‘The Store’ series, here we have three oversized vinyl plugs, on the verge of minimal art, but ignoring its ideological aspects. The combination of minimalism in form and pop art in message seems an almost impossible combination, while it really reflects all the possibilities of the new hit-material, plastic, which slowly but surely started becoming omnipresent. An exceptionally interesting case study is the gigantic lipstick positioned next to various other objects, and this phallic motif is to become his first realized public sculpture from 1964.
Oldenburg’s sense of humor is most expressive here, starting from the gigantic plugs, through vacuums, mixers and bathroom parts, bearing in mind the then boom of the American industry of household appliances and numerous magazines that endorsed the profession of being a “housewife”, giving it almost cult status. His ‘Soft Bathtub’ is extremely interesting, seeming like a ghost hanging from the ceiling, or at least the suit of a ghost from then horror movies and comic strips. This tragicomic form can be perceived as an apparition in his many works from his ‘Bathroom Objects’ series, with a desire to awaken the myth of mysteriousness and an inherent presence of the living.
All objects have slowly but surely become ambassadors of neo-avantgarde pop art which has an effect of contemporary archeology, striving to not let even one trace of current existence out of sight.
Oldenburg’s film and photographic opus wasn’t neglected at the retrospective, displayed at the MUMOK for the first time. His films and photos are works from the early 1950s, snippets of social events that influenced his work. They brilliantly illustrate the way the artist succeeded in singling out objects for artistic interventions.
In conclusion, as a summary of his whole artistic development and transformation, the exhibition ends with an insight into his preoccupation with the Mickey Mouse motif. It all started in 1963 with designing a poster for one of his own exhibitions in Los Angeles, and later started implementing a silhouette of a mouse with big ears into various films, sculptures and even into the project of his own museum. This simple form isn’t derived just from the cartoon character, but evokes the earliest filming cameras.
The impressive and completely personal Oldenburg museum (within a museum) in the shape of a mouse is the last display of the exhibition, a challenging treasury of his motifs. For many years Oldenburg obsessively collected numerous small objects: children’s toys, randomly found objects, ray guns, kitsch gobelins, completely useless and weird stuff from everyday life. He named this collecting and categorizing of all objects with the aim to embrace the universality of production the museum of modern art n.y.c. This collection stood as an unfinished concept that slowly came to life at the Document 5 in Kassel, 1972, while it really sprung to life in 1977 as a real installation named the Mouse Museum. A small labyrinth where silhouettes of consumerism culture can be viewed behind glass panes, mark the beginning and end of culture as we know it according to Oldenburg.
photographs: Ivan Dorotić