Claes Oldenburg: The Street and The Store
April 14–August 5, 2013
Oldenburg first showed this work in a 1959 two-person exhibition, with Jim Dine, at the Judson Gallery. Constructed of torn newspaper pasted to wire armatures and loosely painted with a wash of casein, the sculptures in that exhibition marked a radical departure from the figurative paintings and drawings that had dominated Oldenburg’s artistic production in the preceding years. Thematically, the ray gun epitomized this shift. “Ray Gun is both a form of deception (to everyone, including myself) and a form of play . . . i.e., only the comic is serious, only the offhand is effective,” Oldenburg wrote in his notebook. “Therefore Ray Gun is a series of contradictions, paradoxes. Ray Gun is ultimately the unknowable, pursued futilely through all its disguises.” An impossible invention of science fiction, the ray gun in Oldenburg’s work can assume any number of forms and exist in a range of materials.
Claes Oldenburg: The Street and The Store, April 14–August 5, 2013
Director, Glenn Lowry: Claes Oldenburg used the science fiction term “ray gun” to describe any form that’s a right angle. “Empire” (“Papa”) Ray Gun is at the heart of his work.
Artist, Claes Oldenburg: That's a piece that's made out of very simple materials. Its chicken wire coated with paper dipped in glue, which dries and forms a surface. And I used newspaper, because I found the surfaces interesting. And then this piece was hung from the ceiling, so it sort of floated in the air.
“Empire” refers to the state of New York. “Papa” refers to the fact that it looks like it's the father of many things. It was about changing things, and, it was about magic. It was about all sorts of parodies of worshipping magic forms sort of a tongue-in-cheek, religious approach. It one of the things that was said about “Ray Gun” was “Annihilate, illuminate.” And that connection “When Ray Gun shoots, no one dies.” So it had these sayings.
And “Ray Gun” became a catch title for all sorts of things. Looking down on the street, I would find this angle in the shape of a ray gun everywhere. And I would collect the ray guns. They became quite an obsession. So this was the beginning of a period called "The Street."
This "ray gun," as Oldenburg calls it, hardly looks threatening. Its bloated shape, made out of flimsy papier–mâché, resembles a hairdryer as much as it does a weapon. It was made, however, in the spirit of assault, as a parody of artistic traditions and consumer culture. In the 1960s, this work was part of a cacophonous installation called The Street in the basement of Judson Memorial Church in lower Manhattan. The space was filled with an unruly assortment of cardboard and newspaper scraps, burlap objects covered in soot and black paint, and other materials that appeared destined for (if not taken from) the trash. Oldenburg performed in the space on several occasions and in one particularly memorable instance issued one million dollars of Ray Gun currency to audience members, which could be used for purchasing works from the installation.