Portrait of Claes Oldenburg, 1985. Photography by Christopher Felver/Getty Images, courtesy Pace Gallery.
Claes Oldenburg, who died on July 18th at the age of 93, wrote in 1961 what would become one of the most famous art manifestos: “I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum,” he began. “I am for all art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.”
The Swedish-born American Pop artist insisted that this text was not rallying cry, nor a reflection of his own beliefs, but rather a “poetic ode” to the art movement he and his peers pursued. Still, it’s a fitting sentiment for Oldenburg’s mind-expanding, boundary-breaking oeuvre.
Oldenburg in The Store, 107 East Second Street, New York, 1961. © 2022 Estate of Robert R. McElroy / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
Oldenburg had a way with making the familiar witty. He legendarily rented out a New York storefront in 1961 to turn it into The Store—an immersive market of plaster foodstuffs. Soon after, he collaborated with his first wife, Patty Mucha, to make “soft sculptures”—seductively squishy creations sewn to resemble an oversized club sandwich, a clothespin, or a slice of layer cake. Later, together with his creative collaborator and second wife, Coosje van Bruggenthe artist turned everyday objects like spoons and bowling pins into monumental public sculptures that loom large as buildings, inspiring awe in cities from Minneapolis to Eindhoven.
To honor the artist’s legacy upon his passing, we share below the thoughts and memories of gallerists and curators who worked with Oldenburg and his art.
Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Balzac Pétanque2002. © Oldenburg/van Bruggen, courtesy Pace Gallery.
“Claes Oldenburg, in his own words of 1961, was ‘for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all.’ The irreverence of his work cannot conceal its brilliance and profundity. As much as a giant soft sculpture of an ice cream cone might make you smile, it is a serious sculpture, part of a deeply-ranging body of work that has been immensely influential for successive generations of artists, and whose ongoing impact will keep it perpetually young.”
—Ann Temkin, Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art
Claes Oldenburg and Arne Glimcher at Pace Gallery, New York, 2021. Courtesy Pace Gallery.
“I was honored one to have this great friendship with of the most radical artists of the 20th century. In addition to his inextricable role in the development of Pop art, he changed the very nature of sculpture from hard to soft, and his influence can be seen to this day.”
—Arne Glimcher, Founder of Pace Gallerywhich has represented Oldenburg since 1960
“The loss of Claes Oldenburg, a great artist and good friend, is deeply saddening. Though I had been introduced to his work by Henry Geldzahler in 1960, I did not meet Claes until the mid-’60s, when I was working at Park Place. By that time, he was already a noticeably strong force among his peers. The strikingly original early work was hugely influential on many artists, who were informed by his freedom of thought and radical mode of expression. When he began his collaboration with Coosje van Bruggen, with whom I had a close friendship, the work became grander and bolder. It was thrilling to work with Claes, whose odd take on things was delightful, and could completely turn one’s mood around.”
—Paula Cooper, Founder of Paula Cooper Gallerywhich has represented Oldenburg since 2002
Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Spoonbridge and Cherry, 1985–1988, Minneapolis. Gift of Frederick R. Weisman in honor of his parents, William and Mary Weisman, 1988 © Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.
“Oldenburg had an ability to uncover the mystery and power of commonplace objects to create a body of work that is completely unique. His approach to everyday subject matter, and his imaginative way of transforming it through scale and materials, has been incredibly influential to subsequent generations of artists.”
—Siri Engberg, Senior Curator and Director of Visual Arts at the Walker Art Center
“Claes was—in every respect—monumental.”
—David Platzker, Curator and Director of Specific Object
“Claes Oldenburg is a major part of the MCA Chicago history. In 1967, Oldenburg’s ‘Projects for Monuments‘ was one of the museum’s two inaugural exhibitions, this was also Oldenburg’s first solo show in his hometown of Chicago. The exhibition addressed topics that would continually re-emerge in Oldenburg’s work, including urban beauty, commodity culture, and the spectacle of so-called public art in public spaces. It is an honor to have a substantial holding of Oldenburg’s work in our MCA collection and to be connecting to this history in my current exhibition [“Based on a True Story…”].”
—Bana Kattan, Pamela Alper Associate Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
“Pop meets Happenings/performance, best illustrated in Oldenburg’s The Store but also in 1985, when he collaborated with Frank O. Gehry, Coosje van Bruggen, and Germano Celant on The Course of the Knifein Venice, Italy.”
—Claudia Gould, Director of the Jewish Museum, where Oldenburg’s work will be featured in “New York: 1962–1964” from July 22, 2022, to January 8, 2023
“Today we mourn Claes Oldenburg, one of the all-time greats of the art world. We are honored to have hosted his and his wife Coosje van Bruggen’s Plantoir Blue this spring, a work of visionaries in the heart of their hometown. New York will miss you!”
—The curatorial team at Rockefeller Center