Art appreciation

Appreciation: For Claes Oldenburg, art was the soul of pop

For more than a quarter of a century, a sculpture by Claes Oldenburg has been a landmark on a West Hollywood side street. A massive stainless steel knife blade, 6ft high and 12ft long, cut from the roof of a vernacular building on North Hilldale Avenue, jutting out to the street.

The gleaming silver blade, cutting through the center of the facade, curled sheets of gray stucco on both sides. The composition resembled the bow of a ship moving steadily through the water.

Or, like a cake being sliced, as the artist told Times reporter Suzanne Muchnic when the sleek sculpture was unveiled in 1989, its architecture blossoming like icing decorating the building. Oldenburg, the witty and prolific pop sculptor who died Monday in New York at 93, had an astonishing ability to layer provocative references through a precise selection of ordinary objects as sculptural motifs.

Hamburger, Pepsi-Cola sign, sports shoe, scissors, Pentecostal cross, three-way plug, underpants – these mundane objects and more, mostly made of plaster and covered in colorful brush paint, are among the nearly three dozens of his sculptures, drawings and multiples in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. They form one of the largest groups of his significant contribution to art in the second half of the twentieth century.

An older man in a dark suit at an art exhibition.

Claes Oldenburg at an exhibition in 2012.

(Rafa Rivas/AFP via Getty Images)

Popular culture is regularly misunderstood as a subject of Pop art, but Oldenburg knew that art culture is his true focus. Central to his stellar achievement was his ability to reveal the operations of art circulating in the spectral media maze of contemporary society. Its perfectly identified popular shapes are just the contemporary language for its delivery.

For example, the 1976 American Bicentennial celebration in Philadelphia – a fairly high-profile commission, government monuments having long gone out of fashion for major art – saw him craft a masterpiece. The massive 45 foot upright”Clothespin” is identical to those in your laundry basket – with some striking contextual differences. The pair of upright wooden pins, here crafted from industrial Cor-ten steel, echo (and surpass) the famous 37-foot-tall standing bronze figure. William Penn visible atop the nearby Town Hall, made in 1890 by sculptor Alexander Milne Calder. The two pins are held together in an embrace by the coil spring, also evoking the 1916 form of the smooching couple in “The kissa treasure in the Philadelphia Museum of Art down the street, sculpted in limestone by Constantin Brancusi, arguably the greatest modern sculptor.

The graceful line of the Oldenburg coil spring brings everything up to date, artfully and patriotically suggesting the number “76”. A century of sculpture is absorbed.

The Knife in West Hollywood had been commissioned for the facade of the Margo Leavin Gallery’s sculpture annex on the next block, where Stockholm-born, Chicago-raised, New York-based Oldenburg has shown numerous times over the years. (The sculpture was removed after the gallery closed in 2013.) Its reference to cake cutting implied a festive dimension, fitting for the opening celebration of an art exhibition.

He had been making cake sculptures since at least 1962, when his first wife, artist Patty Mucha, helped sew yards of canvas stuffed with foam rubber and cardboard into the shape of a giant slice of chocolate for a sculpture soft and fluffy that stands on the ground. (Over 9 feet long, that’s big enough for a futon.) And knives had been an integral part of his work since 1966, when he proposed a monumental one that would appear to open a London building at the bustling shopping intersection of London. ‘Oxford and Regent. streets, preparing the contents of the stores to spill onto the sidewalk. (The project never saw the light of day.)

Closer to home, Oldenburg has collaborated with Los Angeles architect Frank O. Gehry on several occasions, including the design and manufacture of an enormous Swiss army knife with huge blades and a corkscrew spiraling towards the sky like a caricaturist’s scribble signifying madness. In collaboration with art historian Coosje van Bruggen, Oldenburg’s second wife, it was built to serve as a boat to navigate the absurd but charming canals of Venice, Italy, as part of a performance elaborated. With the famous versatile mutability of a Swiss pocket knife, always at the ready, he made manifest the multiple allusions offered in Oldenburg art.

A sculpture resembling a boat made from a Swiss army knife stands in a plaza.

Parked in the MOCA square is Claes Oldenburg’s monumental 1986 sculpture “Knife/Ship II”.

(Brian Forrest / Museum of Contemporary Art)

On Hilldale Avenue, the stab in the stucco facade also suggested the spectacular opening of a modern art gallery. Hollywood popular culture dominates contemporary society, while artistic culture stands on the sidelines, occupying a somewhat cloistered space in everyday life. Oldenburg changed everything.

“I’m all for art that a child licks after removing the wrapper,” he once explained. Oldenburg’s embrace of ordinary objects to get to the heart of the matter dovetails perfectly with Gehry’s architecture of everyday materials, like chain-link fence and plywood, deployed as telltale elements of the real art.

The two worked together at the offices of an advertising agency in Venice, where Oldenburg provided a hilarious pair of giant binoculars that function like a triumphal arch, enshrining the driveway in the underground car park, as if acted as the modern version of ancient Hades; and, with Van Bruggen, the downtown Loyola Law School campus, where the artists’ self-descriptive “Toppling Ladder With Spilling Paint” — a sculpture notably wrapped in an oversized chain link — snidely warns students of the legal profession against accidentally making a terrible mess of things.

This fortuitous activity is reserved for art and artists. They get messy and experimental. Time and time again, Oldenburg made pop sculptures that contained art. Art is the ghost that lurks in Los Angeles’ global pop culture machine, and Oldenburg has set it free.