September 10, 2012  |  Behind the Scenes, Collection & Exhibitions
On Loan: Claes Oldenburg’s Profile Airflow

MoMA is one of a network of museums in New York City and around the globe that often collaborate and support one another to facilitate scholarly and engaging exhibitions. One way that we do this is by loaning artworks to other institutions. This enables artworks to be seen by different audiences and within different contexts. MoMA’s own current exhibition Century of the Child, Growing by Design: 1900-2000, includes loans from museums and individuals from around the world.

Through September 30, visitors to the New Museum in New York City will have a chance to see an artwork from MoMA’s collection in the special exhibition Ghosts in the Machine, curated by Massimiliano Gioni and Gary Carrion-Murayari. This exhibition, defined in the accompanying catalogue as a “wunderkammer” of curiosities linked by a network of associations rather than a comprehensive survey of the field, explores the interactions among humans, technology, and art in the decades following the 1950s—years in which a digital paradigm came to replace a mechanical one.

Claes Oldenburg. Profile Airflow. 1969

Included in the exhibition from MoMA’s collection is Claes Oldenburg’s Profile Airflow multiple of 1969. Profile Airflow, a scaled-down relief of the profile of a Chrysler Airflow formed from translucent green polyurethane plastic, was produced by Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles in an edition of 75. Gioni and Carrion-Murayari have installed it in a small room on the museum’s third floor with Thomas Bayrle’s Madonna Mercedes of 1989, J. G. Ballard’s collages of 1958–71, and Harley Cokeliss’s film Crash of 1971 (itself based on a novel by Ballard). The room provides a vignette on the continuous influence of the car on popular culture and alludes both to the car’s seductiveness and its propensity for disaster.

Claes Oldenburg. The Store. 1961

That Oldenburg was drawn to the image and concept of the automobile is no surprise; by 1969 he had been producing sculptures and multiples of everyday objects for a number of years. This endeavor to recreate the world around him began in 1961 when Oldenburg established The Store in an empty commercial space in New York’s Lower East Side, from which he sold sculpted and painted replicas of common objects. “It was an attempt,” Oldenburg said, “to make art that would provide the pleasure of recognition, an art that would be relevant to its context.” Oldenburg, however, never wished to replicate common objects exactly as they were—instead he altered the material from which they were made or adjusted their size or placed them in a new context. In many cases, these changes lend the sculptures alternate identities, inspiring the viewer to see other, possibly surprising, forms within them.

From left: Claes Oldenburg. Pastry Case. 1961; Claes Oldenburg. Red Tights with Fragment 9. April 1961

Oldenburg created his first published multiples following his move in 1964 to Venice, California. When invited to produce a print for a benefit or a portfolio, Oldenburg often preferred to supply a multiple. “The multiple object,” he said, “was for me the sculptor’s solution to making a print.” Unlike Jasper Johns, or other artists who seemed to have an innate affinity for lithography, Oldenburg was intimidated by the process. Eventually, however, he learned how to adapt the process to his practice and has since made numerous prints.

Profile Airflow combines the aspects of a multiple and a lithograph. The translucent plastic relief of the Airflow is overlaid onto a lithograph that consists of the Airstream’s contours printed in black ink and a grid pattern printed in gray ink. Both parts are set within a welded aluminum frame. The lithograph beneath, with its economy of shading, lends further definition to the contours of the relief, while the grid calls attention to the car’s altered scale. Oldenburg enjoyed the “stylessness” of the motif, as the image was predetermined by the car’s shape—in fact, he claimed that he had used such a ubiquitous image in order to emphasize the work’s execution. Oldenburg was also fascinated by the concept of mass production, which he considered “to be a part of the modern object, which existed not only in one item but in many, many items,” and took pleasure in the irony of reproducing a mass-produced object.

Chrysler Airflow

The Chrysler Corporation released the Airflow—the first “streamlined” car—in 1934. In 1937, the Airflow claimed the honor of being the first car driven over the recently completed Golden Gate Bridge. As a child, Oldenburg had owned a maroon wind-up toy Airflow that remained impressed on his memory, for by the time he began working at Gemini G.E.L., he had already featured the Airflow in a series of his soft sculptures shown at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York City in March 1966, and as an offset lithograph on the cover of the January 1966 issue of Artnews magazine.

Claes Oldenburg. Airflow Box (Artnews cover). 1965

Gemini G.E.L. was one of the lithographic workshops that opened in the late 1960s and encouraged an art-world renaissance for the medium. Its founder Kenneth Tyler met Oldenburg in 1968. Originally, the two planned to create a portfolio of prints and vacuum-formed reliefs of different parts of the Airflow, such as the taillight, dashboard, wheel, and inside of the door. The amount of effort this would require, however, quickly became apparent and the plan was altered.

Claes Oldenburg. Three of 16 studies for an unrealized portfolio related to Profile Airflow, 1968

At the altered project’s inception, Oldenburg had specific ideas of how the multiple should look and feel. He wanted the relief to be clear “like a swimming pool” and wanted the surface to be “of a consistency like flesh” rather than hard, cold plastic. It also had to stand up to the test of time without changing its properties. In fact, when the multiple was subsequently produced and found to discolor due to faulty chemical ingredients, the entire edition was returned and remade. Tyler, who was likewise interested in invigorating and updating the process of lithography, was happy to meet Oldenburg’s requests and to push the technical boundaries of the print process.

Gemini’s location in Los Angeles was also fortuitous, for not only was it the nexus of car culture (as apparent in the work of other West Coast artists like Ed Ruscha), but it had also become a meeting place of technology and industry, serving as home to both the film and aerospace industries. Oldenburg called the city a “paradise of technology.” “You had the feeling that all you had to do was look something up in the yellow pages, drive for three hours, and there would be some guy who would make whatever you wanted.” Tyler was just that sort of guy. It took two and a half years to research and test materials and techniques for the edition and on his end, Oldenburg spent over one year alone building and refining the form from which the mold for the relief would be taken. When it came to production, Oldenburg and Tyler were able to make one impression a day.

Many of the tropes that Oldenburg had explored in previous works come together in Profile Airflow. It serves as an icon of consumerism, and in its celebration of sleek design and the Airflow’s smooth curves, it pays homage to the erotic quality associated with the automobile. It details Oldenburg’s interest in the everyday while demonstrating his modification of scale and texture in his sculptures. Lastly, it documents the artist’s interest in technology not only as a subject, but also as a means to produce his artwork.