Claes Oldenburg came to New York City from his hometown of Chicago in 1956, when he was twenty-seven years old. Initially aiming to make his mark as a painter, by 1960 he had changed his mind: the way to upend the art of his time was through sculpture—sculpture of a sort never seen before. The results are some of the most audacious and provocative art objects of the twentieth century.
Oldenburg conceived his efforts in two successive campaigns: first The Street, which he made and presented in 1960, and then The Store, of 1961. The Street was an immersive installation depicting the artist‘s gritty Lower East Side neighborhood. Its materials—scavenged cardboard, newspaper, and black poster paint—mirrored the scene it portrayed. Oldenburg‘s portrait conveyed not only the squalor of the neighborhood, but also the mysterious allure of its “bums” and “chicks,” its signage, and even its manhole covers. Crudely rendered, as if by a child, Oldenburg‘s sculptures and drawings presented an abstracted version of reality, “a mixture of things as they are and things as they are imagined to be.”
In 1961 Oldenburg shifted his gaze from the street to the store. During this intensely productive period, he created an array of brightly colored objects depicting comestibles, clothing, and other everyday items. He displayed his sculptures in a rented storefront on East Second Street that he called the Ray Gun Manufacturing Company. The Store was open to the public Friday to Sunday, one o‘clock to six o‘clock; in the off-hours Oldenburg used the space as his studio. The handcrafted and painted art objects on sale were as unconventional as their setting: lumpy and unruly, they neither resembled the mass-produced items they purported to represent nor shared the recognizable look of fine art. “I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself,” said Oldenburg, “that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.”
Oldenburg‘s fascination with the stuff of everyday life is manifested in his passion for collecting nonprecious objects that attract his eye. In the 1970s he assembled a selection of hundreds of these items in a structure he entitled Mouse Museum, to which he soon added Ray Gun Wing. Together Mouse Museum and Ray Gun Wing present the artist's complex and sustained engagement with popular culture and its relationship to his work in all mediums.
“The city is a landscape well worth enjoying—damn necessary if you live in the city,” Oldenburg wrote in one of his early notebooks; “Dirt has depth and beauty.” In 1960 the artist translated his experience of living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan into an immersive sculptural environment called The Street. From cardboard, burlap, and newspapers he created sculptures inspired by the characters and vistas of his gritty neighborhood, where junk and trash lined the streets and derelict tenements were left to crumble. Letters, scraps of words, and crudely rendered figures recall graffiti scratched onto city walls, while the sculptures' torn and frayed forms speak to a fragmented field of vision, evoking the rush of life in the hardscrabble Lower East Side.
The Street constituted half of Ray Gun Show, a two-person exhibition, with Jim Dine, that opened at the Judson Gallery in Judson Memorial Church (near Washington Square Park) in January 1960. This ephemeral presentation also provided the backdrop for Snapshots from the City (1960), Oldenburg's first performance. Most of the objects on view in the exhibition were made for a second version of The Street, shown a few blocks away at the Reuben Gallery, at Fourth Avenue and Tenth Street, in May 1960.
Oldenburg spent the summer of 1960 in the historic seaside town of Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he underwent what he would later call “an obliteration by non-city nature of my involvement with the city street.” Despite setting aside the theme of the street, Oldenburg retained his interest in making art from what he termed “anti-art materials,” swapping cardboard and burlap for driftwood salvaged from the shore. Drawing on the cultural significance of Provincetown as the site of the Pilgrims' first landing in North America (before they moved on to Plymouth), Oldenburg cobbled driftwood into constructions featuring forms of the American flag.
He described these assemblages in his notes as “souvenirs,” a label that hints at his particular interest in Provincetown as, he wrote, “a town so focused on the commercialization of patriotism and history.”
“I'd like to get away from the notion of a work of art as something outside of experience, something that is located in museums, something that is terribly precious,” Oldenburg declared. In 1961 he presented a new body of work whose subject matter he had culled from the clothing stores, delis, and bric-a-brac shops that crowded the Lower East Side. The earliest Store sculptures, which debuted in spring 1961 at the Martha Jackson Gallery, at 32 East Sixty-Ninth Street, are wall-mounted reliefs depicting everyday items like shirts, dresses, cigarettes, sausages, and slices of pie. Oldenburg made them from armatures of chicken wire overlaid with plaster-soaked canvas, using enamel paint straight from the can to give them a bright color finish. At the gallery, the reliefs hung cheek by jowl, emulating displays in low-end markets.
In December 1961, Oldenburg opened The Store in the rented storefront at 107 East Second Street that served as his studio, which he called the Ray Gun Manufacturing Company. A fully elaborated manifestation of the project that he had begun months earlier, The Store conflated two disparate types of commerce: the sale of cheap merchandise and the sale of serious art. Oldenburg packed more than one hundred objects into the modestly sized room, setting previously exhibited reliefs alongside new, primarily freestanding sculptures. Everything was available for purchase, with prices starting at $21.79 up to $499.99. After The Store closed, on January 31, 1962, Oldenburg used the space to stage a series of performances collectively titled Ray Gun Theater.
In September 1962, a solo exhibition of Oldenburg’s work opened at the Green Gallery, a commodious space at 15 West Fifty-Seventh Street in midtown Manhattan. Inspired by the luxury cars and grand pianos in midtown showrooms, Oldenburg had decided to make sculptures of an equivalent scale. Plaster was ill-suited to the task–too fragile and heavy–and so the artist, with the assistance of his then wife, Patty Mucha, a skilled seamstress, created sculptures of fabric. Working in the gallery, Oldenburg and Mucha made Floor Burger, Floor Cake, and Floor Cone, three oversized soft sculptures
“I like to work with very simple ideas,” Oldenburg has said. Despite their simplicity, Floor Burger, Floor Cake, and Floor Cone were groundbreaking artworks. Their soft, pliant, and colorful bodies challenged the convention that sculpture is rigid and austere, and their subject matter and colossal scale infused humor and whimsy into the often sober space of fine art. With this work Oldenburg proposed an alternate form of monumental sculpture, saluting subjects from contemporary American life. The following year, the artist began to make soft sculptures from colored vinyl. He exhibited a selection of these at the Dwan Gallery, Los Angeles, in October 1963.
Oldenburg has long been a collector of objects and images. His studio shelves contain an immense variety of items he has gathered during his daily travels, alongside experiments and prototypes for sculptures. Mouse Museum and Ray Gun Wing evolved from the artist's commitment to this practice of collection, storage, and display.
In 1965, soon after Oldenburg moved his studio to a loft on Fourteenth Street in Manhattan, he positioned various objects from his collection on a large storage unit and called it the “museum of popular art, n.y.c.” Although private, the display revealed the artist's egalitarian attitude: both artworks and knickknacks were valid candidates for inclusion in the “museum.” Seven years later, in 1972, Oldenburg formalized this project and made it public at the international art exhibition Documenta, in Kassel, Germany. Mouse Museum includes 385 objects selected from his collection of more than a thousand items, housed in a structure based on “Geometric Mouse,” a recurring motif in his drawings, prints, and sculptures. The Ray Gun Wing extension followed in 1977. Unlike Mouse Museum, which contains a miscellany of things, Ray Gun Wing features 258 “ray gun” specimens, including brightly colored toy guns as well as found objects with the right-angled form of a pistol. Its architectural structure echoes the shape of the objects contained within.
Mouse Museum and Ray Gun Wing propose an equivalence between collecting and creating while dissolving the distinction between everyday items and museum treasures. The accumulations contained within the structures offer the viewer the rare privilege of watching the artist see. They permit the visual equivalent of eavesdropping: it is as if Oldenburg were allowing us to stand behind him and look over his shoulder as he perceives the world.
Organized by Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien and The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Organized by Achim Hochdörfer, Curator, Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien; and Ann Temkin, The Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Chief Curator, and Paulina Pobocha, Assistant Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture, The Museum of Modern Art.
Major support for the MoMA presentation is provided by The Dana Foundation, Donald B. Marron, The International Council of The Museum of Modern Art, Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, The Contemporary Arts Council of The Museum of Modern Art, and The Junior Associates of The Museum of Modern Art.
Support for the publication Claes Oldenburg: Writing on the Side 1956–1969 is provided by Anna Marie and Robert F. Shapiro.
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