Imagine you’re outside on a summer day. It’s hot and sticky, and you want to cool down. Claes Oldenburg imagined placing a giant fan near the Statue of Liberty to blow a cool breeze up the Hudson River and cool off New York City. If you had a giant fan, where would you plug it in? Imagine how it might feel if you were standing in front of it!
Gallery label from 2019, for kids
Here Oldenburg has rendered a hard object in a soft material so that it sags and droops, and he has greatly inflated its size. There is humor in this transformation of a hard machine into a collapsible object, and the result has a bodily and sexual connotation. There is also a subtle nostalgia: in its focus on the culture of its time, Pop art seemed jarringly up-to-date in the 1960s, but this fan’s design was old-fashioned even then.
Gallery label from 2011
Pop art's gaze on the universe of commercial products is often deadpan and cool. With Oldenburg, though, it becomes more comically disorienting: sculptures like Giant Soft Fan challenge our acceptance of the everyday world both by rendering hard objects in soft materials, so that they sag and droop, and by greatly inflating their size. (There are also Oldenburg works that make soft objects hard.) The smooth, impersonal vinyl surfaces of Giant Soft Fan are Oldenburg's knowing inversion of the hard-edge aesthetic of the 1960s. There is humor in this transformation of a hard machine into a collapsible object, which, like Salvador Dalí's limp watches, has a not too elliptical bodily and sexual connotation. There is also a subtle nostalgia: in its focus on the culture of its time, Pop art seemed jarringly up-to-date in the 1960s, but this fan's design was old-fashioned even then.
Oldenburg often makes monumental public sculpture, enlarging his everyday objects to a scale far more enormous than even the Giant Soft Fan. Notes he wrote in 1967 show him playing with that idea: "The Fan's first placement was on Staten Island, blowing up the bay. Later, I sited it as a replacement for the Statue of Liberty . . . [guaranteeing] workers on Lower Manhattan a steady breeze."
Giant Soft Fan. 1966-67
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 249.