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.
Gallery label from 2008.
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.
Gallery label from Claes Oldenburg: The Street and The Store, April 14–August 5, 2013.