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“Claes Oldenburg: An Anthology”

I knew the world was forever changed with the advent of the 32-ounce fountain soda. Sometime in the late ’70s, as I remember it, a trip to the Blue Star Cinema on Route 22 in Watchung, N.J., left me awestruck by the General Cinema Corp.’s bold new drink size. It had not been many years since I first downed a 16-ouncer (a grape Fanta) all by myself. A doubling seemed impossible, even grotesque, but unlike a large bottle, GCC’s cup clearly targeted a single thirst. In retrospect, it was but the leading edge of a wave of snack- food gigantism that has since engulfed the nation, bearing aloft rafts of triple-pack Suzy Q’s, leaving us awash in 64-oz.(!) Double Gulps. But it was not just the container’s sheer capacity that stunned me—it was its message. For printed on each cup was the most elegant, irreducible expression of an undeniable axiom of American life: BIG IS MORE.

It is a truth Claes Oldenburg keeps in his back pocket, and he’s had it there since the ’60s. Not content, unlike the minimalists, to concern himself only with the theat ricality of space, Oldenburg embraces the theatricality of lunch, offering us a heroic, athletic Giant BLT, with a toothpick like a javelin, an olive big as a football, and striped strips of wooden bacon that lack only wheels to be skateboards. And a huge, soft, comic ice cream cone that beckons like beanbag furniture and pauses mid-ooze like a snail easing off a wall. And Two Cheeseburgers, with Everything (Dual Hamburgers), just large enough to be too much for a meal, that look like the teats that suckled a nation.

Not that Oldenburg restricts himself to the edible. He gives you giant toothpaste from a Giant Toothpaste Tube so you can brush up, then it’s off through a house with 4-foot-high switchplates, an industrial-size vacuum cleaner that has all the sense of purpose of a night light, and a droopy vinyl toilet (with droopy blue water), to a Bedroom Ensemble that dances deliriously with zebra prints and shocking blue Formica, patterned-fabric “Pollocks,” and marbled lampshades. All the furniture is built on trapezoids and parallelograms—perspective takes a holiday.

Rubbing this dream from your eyes, you find your clothes as you left them, in your closet or draped over chairs, breakfast ready for you, and all surprisingly, hearteningly life-size. But it’s all hard, chalky like dried Play-Doh, or drippy and shiny like a car enameled by a housepainter’s brush.

High-school art teachers wanted us to think this stuff was easy; in my day, students were encouraged to make huge painted cardboard sneakers and 5-foot-long eyelash curlers. But Oldenburg’s only easy up to a point, and you get there pretty quickly, even with his student imitators. There is a certain absurd wallop to seeing the familiar outsized or made of unusual stuff, but the thrill dims with recognition, as the abstract jells into the everyday. What gets me giddy with the real thing, and this doesn’t go away, is Oldenburg’s dead-on material sense and formal savvy—when he sets up currents that flow interminably, unpredictably from the mundane back through the fantastic, then out into the room.

Most traditional sculpture is a trifle unreal in its inflexibility. It is supposed to relate to the body, but is hard, durable, and robust in ways the body isn’t. In a series begun in 1962, Oldenburg gives back to sculpture a sense of frailty, softening its effect by making it, literally, soft. In so doing, he conjures a force completely mundane, but commonly rendered invisible by sculpture—gravity.

Most of us are so familiar with being dragged down that we make little distinction between what is ours (mass) and what gravity does with it (gives it weight). When gravity deals a comeuppance, it can be as balletic as a Buster Keaton pratfall or as gruesome as William Holden’s drunken topple. Gravity is merciless. If you’re clumsy, gravity guides you into corners instead of around them. If you’re fat, gravity reminds you by shifting your flesh around your bones as you move, around your skullas you tip your head. But so long as we’re stuck with it, Oldenburg figures gravity might as well be comic.

If it’s delicious the way Floor Cake‘s frosting overhangs its filling, which bulges like ripe brie and drapes down its back in a sagging pillow, it’s almost poignant how a yellow plaster slab of butter bobs atop the kapok-stuffed Baked Potato I, forever denied its flesh. And if gravity implies the weakened slouch of age, a pair of Giant Soft Fans gives hope of a cartoon afterlife, the all-white Ghost Version of which rises like a soul next to the limp black body of the finished piece.

The soft masterpiece is Giant Soft Drum Set. It stands, or rather slumps, as a memorial to all the crazy-drunk skinsmen from the golden age of the extended solo who never saw 40. Hardware lies around the drums like shackles on marshmallows, sticks are hinged in two places, brushes are plastic flaps, and in the middle of the bass drum, at the end of a spindly, stuffed, silver arc of vinyl, is a melon of a beater, its pulse gone dead from overexertion. The composition of the exhausted, played-out mess changes each time it’s installed, but for now it’s fixed; I think they’ve got it just about perfect.

Oldenburg melded hard and soft for his first outdoor monument, 1969’s Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks for Yale. A rigid 1974 reconstruction stands between the gallery’s two wings, but in the original design the lipstick was to be inflated via a hand pump by any would-be public speaker wishing to draw the attention of a crowd. Lipstick led the way to a series of public commissions that have constituted Oldenburg’s major body of work for the past two decades, one undertaken with the collaboration of his wife, art historian Coosje van Bruggen. The so-called “Large-Scale Projects” have taken them to 25 different cities, where they have constructed such things as a 45-foot Clothespin, a 16-foot Split Button, a giant Pickaxe, and a huge rubber stamp that says “FREE.”

Sadly, I prefer some of Oldenburg’s many unbuildable projects to the “feasibles.” For Florence, there’s a kitschy neofascist train station in the form of a watch propped up as if on a nightstand—maybe that’ll get the trains to run on time! There’s a monument to the American war dead—a giant concrete block bearing their names, which would completely fill the intersection of Broadway and Canal Street, blocking traffic in eternal mute protest. There’s a Proposal for a Cathedral in the Form of a Colossal Faucet, Lake Union, Seattle that would, in a reversal of the usual shot-from-the-ground form of public fountains but in keeping with the dispensing of pollutants, spew water into a lake from above. (Oldenburg’s humor has always been coarse and mean-spirited; he has also proposed a big, glass drop of jism as a site for skating competitions in Oslo, and he actually constructed a towering metal baseball bat in Chicago, perhaps in commemoration of the good old Daley days.) But even Batcolumn (Model) is better in make-believe; in its original incarnation as Proposed Monument for the South-East Corner of North Avenue and Clark Street, Chicago: Bat Spinning at the Speed of Light, its motion was to be invisible, but “so fast it would burn one’s fingers up the shoulders to touch it.” (Oldenburg had obviously had it with all those who would poke at his admittedly inviting constructions.) Whenever I see one of those T-shirts bearing the well-intended but fatuous slogan “Art Can’t Hurt You,” I like to keep this project in mind. Another is Chris Burden’s The Big Wheel, a giant flywheel that, once motorbike-started, will spin for hours before it runs down, but could take your arm off in the meantime. It, however, has the advantage of actually existing.

And that points to a central problem of this show. Not that the organizers and the artist don’t know it (this is called an “anthology” rather than a “retrospective”), but it is impossible to adequately show Oldenburg in a museum—or anywhere for that matter. The “Large-Scale Projects,” which do in fact exist, are scattered around the globe; they can be collected on film and in the artists’ personal recollections (offered in a March 5 talk), but they cannot be gathered before the viewer. So far as this exhibit is concerned, their presence is only slightly stronger than that achieved by works of outright fantasy. Even a particularly diligent and well-heeled pilgrim could not attain the sense of confluence usually offered by a retrospective. Perhaps Oldenburg and van Bruggen could be supported in the construction of their own Disneyland, but the Mouse has weenied out on Claes before (at one time Disney was going to sponsor Giant Icebag). Besides, that would only destroy the “Large-Scale Projects” ‘s ironic out-of-placeness. If there’s one thing they don’t need, it’s company.

When Oldenburg’s art did need company, it had it. In 1960, The Street, an urban tableau constructed of cardboard, wood, and other street trash, was installed at the Judson Memorial Church and at the Reuben Gallery in New York City. Consisting of rough, two-dimensional renderings of the places, things, and people found outside, it embraced an entire cultural landscape through its litter. Judson’s Street also served as the site for Snapshots of the City, a performance that brought urban chaos indoors. In 1961-62, Oldenburg set up shop, literally, in The Store, at 107 East 2nd St. He moved his studio to the rear of the store-front space, then, in mimicry of local businesses, opened it to the public, having appointed the front in proper mercantile fashion with painted plaster sculptures of typical goods—meats and pies, blouses, underwear, suits, and sneakers.

In the meantime, Oldenburg wrote one terrific laundry-list of a manifesto, pledging his Pop allegiance to the stuff at hand. It must be seen whole (the catalog reprints it) to take in its full breadth, but among other things he was for “an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap & still comes out on top,” an art “heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.” In particular, he was for “an art that comes out of a chimney like black hair…the art out of a doggy’s mouth, falling five stories from the roof…an art that helps old ladies across the street…the art of red and white gasoline pumps…the art of clicking among the nuts when the roaches come and go…an art that is…shaved from the legs, that is brushed on the teeth, that is fixed on the thighs, that is slipped on the foot.”

What then could be against him? The museum, that’s what. Of all the dozens of things he was for, there is only one he was against, art that “sit[s] on its ass in a museum.” But that’s exactly what it’s doing now. The Street and The Store are not fully represented by a mere selection of the objects that once filled them. Gone are the locations, the ambience, the happenings for which they served as sets, the times when they were new. But the lavishly illustrated catalog, the artist’s tales, and the silent films of early performances (released by his nostalgically named production company, Store Days, Inc.) only sharpen the gnawing feeling. It was all wonderful, it all happened, and you weren’t there. It’s enough to drive one to seek the comfort offered by stasis, as in the Giant Soft Drum Set, made just before Oldenburg’s later work began to scatter. There’s not much else to do but go back to that Slingerland pedal, to its sudden collapse, its head resting in the creased muslin skin, back to the soft thud it, of course, never made.