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Claes Oldenburg, Floor Cone, 1962, polymer paint on canvas filled with foam rubber and cardboard boxes, 4' 5 3/4“ x 11' 4” x 4' 8".


PROPELLED BY AN ENGAGEMENT WITH the work of Sigmund Freud at the close of the 1950s, Claes Oldenburg developed a new species of art object. Transcending the existing models of the readymade and the objet trouvé—and jettisoning art’s symbolic conventions—he turned to that mode of psychic symbolization that shapes the strangeness of the world into a strangeness we can recognize, because it is of our own making. Oldenburg manhandled his sculptural material to conjure figures that could stand in for the manipulations of the unconscious, surrogates for the ego. At the outset of the burgeoning consumer-culture decade of the 1960s, he reclaimed subjective desire, wresting it from its co-optation and its encoding in the commodity object. This generative early phase of Oldenburg’s career will be highlighted in “Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties.” Working with the artist, curator Achim Hochdörfer has pulled off the near miracle of securing an extraordinary constellation of highly fragile works, including key elements from The Street, 1960, and The Store, 1961—that is to say, the most unloanable Oldenburgs in existence. This will surely be the last time these works appear together. Adding precious evidence to our understanding of these projects, the exhibition will also present unseen Super 8 footage that the artist shot as source material, and little-known contextual photographs.

One of the earliest works in the show, “Empire” (“Papa”) Ray Gun, 1959, materialized as the ur-symbol inserted into the real: a lumpen, bulbous (if not testicular), biomorphic weapon, complete with trigger. This massive, bewilderingly uncontainable object became the catalyst and inspiration for the desublimatory stance of Oldenburg’s radical object vocabulary. It was the largest item in his first “collection”: an array of bent sticks, crumpled metal pieces, and irregular manifestations of street matter, all in some way evocative of ray guns. This project developed into the immersive environment The Street, installed in the basement of the Judson Memorial Church in New York. An attempt to expand the categories of painting and sculpture into three dimensions and even four, The Street set up encounters with cardboard characters such as Big Man, Street Chick, and Van, all 1960, instantly rendering the spectator a protagonist-pedestrian. This theatrical logic led to the performance Snapshots from the City, 1960 (film documentation of which will appear in the MUMOK show), through which Oldenburg added the medium of real-time to his work, staging startling actions fitfully illuminated by flashes of light. Snapshots was one piece in a series of performances dubbed “Ray Gun Spex”: spex for “spectacles” or “spectacle.”

Oldenburg’s preoccupation with the interpellation of the spectator crystallized the following year in the landmark Store, which, in its most famous incarnation, was presented in a storefront space in New York’s East Village. Viewed through a window from the street, with its clustered wall-bound objects, shirts and caps positioned assertively on stands, and pastry cases arranged for delectation, the work announced itself as integrally infused with the concept of display. This central aspect of Oldenburg’s art—objects ready to see us seeing them—culminated in his Mouse Museum, 1965–77, a work in MUMOK’s collection that inspired the upcoming exhibition. A corrugated black metal structure in the shape of an alienated, geometric Mickey Mouse, it comprises a walk-through interior passageway flanked by enclosed window displays of found objects, models for sculptures, and other tchotchkes. Offering insights into the status of art, display, and packaging, the Mouse Museum is perhaps the most important formulation by an artist of his own project since Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise. With this crucial work at its core, “Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties” promises a new understanding of an indelible twentieth-century view of the object, of sculpture, of receptiveness and reception—recoded once more to the contingencies of the moment.

Travels to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Apr. 9–Aug. 4, 2013; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Sept. 13, 2013–Jan. 12, 2014.

Julia Robinson