Oldenburg at MoMA

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The everyday world is often boring and mundane to the eye. Who cares about store fronts and discarded crates, sacking and packaging blowing down city streets?

In the late fifties and sixties the answer to that, in New York at any rate, was Claes Oldenburg.

The son of a Swedish diplomat brought up in Chicago, Oldenburg moved to New York to showcase his skills and pretty soon began creating sculptures from materials commonly found on the streets of his Lower East Side neighborhood.

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The results were radical and highly influential challenging our notions of what constituted sculpture. They are however, not the work for which he is best known.

Perhaps his most famous works are those associated with food. His recreations of the cakes found in the glass cases of bakery windows in New York and later in Paris, are classics.

My personal favorites are his gigantic soft sculptures of food like burgers, BLT’s and gateaux.

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The simplicity of his idea was radically out of step with the abstract expressionist aesthetic very much in vogue when he began in the fifties that emphasized the inner subconscious world of the artist rather than the crass commercialism that surrounded him.

Commercialism clearly didn’t faze Oldenburg as he actually opened what he called ‘The Store’. This was a retail outlet no different from the stores in his neighborhood that sold his art as if it were selling hosiery or ice cream.

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Oldenburg’s work is often described as whimsical and fun but there’s a dark side to it too. His slightly abstract paintings of female underwear and signs declaring the prices of goods feel as if they belonged to some long ago emporium, abandoned by customers and left to rot.

The very familiarity of what we see reminds us of goods we buy today but are clearly in the styles of the past, bringing to our minds the passing of time that can’t be assuaged even by those things that seem unchanging.

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