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Cold Start: Soft Serve

Cs Claes

Do you know the artist Claes Oldenburg? He’s one of my favorite 20th-century artists because he was ambitious and playful and understood that a good part of what makes art important is a willingness to take the effort to make something just because it’s unusual and fun. He made a lot of sculptures of ordinary small stuff rendered huge and imposing, or hard things made soft, or things so out of context you have to confront these forms that you’d see all the time but never consider. The picture up there (via MoMA) is of Oldenburg with his 1955 VW Beetle, huge soft ice cream sculpture laying languidly on the roof, in front of the Dwan Gallery in LA for his first big West Coast Show in 1963.

Of course I like the picture because it shows two favorites of mine together – Oldenburg and Beetle – and I also like what rough shape his Beetle is in. It’s only about eight years old at this point: I think it’s a ’55 because even though those low-mounted front indicators were used from ’55 to ’57, in ’56 VW went to dual exhaust pipes, and I think I only see the shadow for one back there behind the car. And despite not being that old, it looks like it hasn’t been babied. The front fender has sideswiped something pretty good, there’s a missing hubcap, and somehow he seems to have lost his rear bumper as well.

I think Oldenburg was fond of his Beetle, or Beetles in general, because he did make a wonderful soft sculpture Beetle on what may be an actual VW chassis (at least in part), with real parts:


What I like about this sculpture – and, really, all his soft sculptures – is that it feels like he wasn’t trying to make a soft version of the object, but rather he was trying to replicate the object, and the soft materials were all he had handy. It’s not built like you would do it if you understood you were working with such floppy materials. It’s built like you were expecting the materials to be rigid, and just ended up disappointed, but you finished it anyway. This gives these objects a strange and appealing plucky pathos that’s hard to convey in words, but hits me when I see them.

He also made one of my favorite deliberate jokes in the art world, his 1967 piece Late Submission to the Chicago Tribune Architectural Competition of 1922:


Sure, it’s fun that his submission is a giant (nicely rendered) clothespin, but the very concept of a “late submission” to an architecture competition that had been over for 45 years and the resulting building long since known as a landmark is just a hilarious thing, at least to me.

Anyway, who says I’m not using that Art History degree?

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11 Responses

  1. Claes Oldenburg seemed like he would be an interesting person to know. I haven’t been fortunate enough to see any of his outsize or soft works in person, but I like tham just the same. Jeff Koons owes him at least a bit of a debt, I think – though putting a basketball in a clear case must have really taxed Jeff so much he’d need a holiday afterwards. I might not be a successful abstract painter, but at least I do my own painting.

  2. I love Claes Oldenburg, but some of his art (giant clothespin, giant paintbrush, giant eraser) point out the fine line between art and an advertisement at a mall. Seriously, whenever I look up at that giant paint brush on Broad Street I think, if a marketing team created that for a Utrecht parking lot, no one would consider it art. I mean, it’s not like it really has anything to say other than, “I’m a paint brush next to an art school and art schools have paint brushes,” essentially the same thing it would be saying in a Utrecht parking lot. Only this happened to be created by an established artist. 

    If a city or college gave me enough money, I’m sure I could find a team to assemble a giant (looking around my apartment for Oldenburgian inspiration) cardboard box, dumbbell, pink platform stiletto (Pride month doesn’t end around here). But I’m not famous, so no one’s giving me $200,000 to hire a team to sculpt a giant oscillating fan. 

    Old-man-screams-at-cloud aside, said clothespin is at Centre Square in Philadelphia, iconically placed behind Jamie Lee Curtis in Trading Places, and it fills me with joy every time I see it. Maybe that’s all Oldenburg ever set out to do. In which case, in a field of hackneyed messages and rhetoric shoehorned into $120,000 rotting bananas duct taped to the walls at Art Basel, Oldenburg is refreshingly delightful.

    1. Franklin Mills Mall used to have giant oversized vinyl records hanging from the ceiling in the food court, I think they were junked when the place was renovated, because they were seen as disposable 1980s mall decorations.

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