PRINT January 1966

Extracts from the Studio Notes

Claes Oldenburg has always been connected with literary expression of one form or another. Originally wishing to be a writer, he worked as a reporter in Chicago from 1950 to 1952. In 1956, having embarked on his career as an artist, he commenced taking notes––verbal impressions of city life––after walks through the streets. Two years later he began a kind of literary dialogue with, as it were, his own work. The extracts printed below date from 1962 to 1964, and thus correspond to the period during which his work came to international attention.

Admitting to what has become a compulsive habit, the artist keeps a typewriter and notebook in easy proximity to whatever creation is in progress. The notes (about two pages a day) sometimes function as recollections of sensations, word games, possible inspiration for future works, letting off steam.

I HAVE IMITATED, PARODIED, CERTAIN PROFESSIONS––all taken more seriously in the US than the profession of art: f.ex. the house painter, the sign painter, the advertising artist. Also the manufacturer, the merchant, the pastry cook.

Now I am beginning to parody the scientist and the inventor (something like that is what Duchamp has done all along.) While reading of Edison I am “inventing” the telephone and so on. Menlo Park Laboratory is the model of my studio, my “factory.” My inventions of course assert themselves as form (rather than idea) . . .

Critics never deal with form, only subject––always without detachment. The audience has no detachment, that is the artist’s problem. They think he is as possessed by his emotions as they, and therefore they have something in common––they are gripped both by a time and a place and a feeling. But in fact I am outside of time and place and feeling, and I do not believe at all in history.

I have found myself the last two years or so (1963) in a specific perverse relation to my surroundings . . . I have combined my unworldly fantasy in a shock wedding to banal aspects of everyday existence . . . so completely . . . the thing is likely to burst either way, as it has arrived at a point where the cohabitation is no longer possible . . . either into banality or the other way into poetry . . .

People’s lack of detachment about themselves surprises me. They operate––how one should say it . . . contained as if the machinery would fall apart if they could take a removed view of themselves and become self-conscious . . . People believe themselves . . . It is possible for me to treat my subjectivity and that of others objectively and this is a unique thing in my art: the emotion in it is the observation of emotion. I am both committed and not committed and man must learn, when forces make him more and more self-conscious, how to be self-conscious and still effective, how to be intellectual and still not “cold.”

The imagination of horror exceeds the experience of horror . . . or is a disguise for something else (like a nightmare). The representation of horror is not necessarily connected with what is being represented. Horror in reality is too impersonal and the natural body is too quick to protect itself . . . Imagined horror is absolutely limitless . . .

. . . the experience of staring into the abyss . . . the vision of horror . . . is personal and abstract, like Poe’s . . . coming when the defenses of the imagination are broken down . . . is an abstraction like music. . .

Before I close the door, before I try to put it all together, I go a little further than most. This accounts for the ugliness of my work which is easy to overcome. Man can get used to anything. I am extreme in everything I do, that is part of my sense of being alive. I take the form, say of feeling or some physical nature, like the path of piss across the pavement to a degree of extension or obviousness that is exasperating, and then, only then, do I save it––or I lose it.

I must have a medium that is completely adventurous, and that is why among other things I use experience itself. Shall we not take five or six people and lock ourselves in a cottage somewhere for a week, and see what kind of form that can yield? My work makes a great demand on a collector. I have tried to make it in every way so that anyone who comes into contact with it is greatly inconvenienced. That is to say, made aware of its existence, & of my principles.

I don’t know if you can sympathize with this, but it is the false and cynical treatment of real emotion, as in today’s publications, that fascinates me and yields more truth. Take at random any description from a magazine of pinups––language and idea is used in a way that accepts its shallowness because the picture next to it does the actual job. Words are equally devalued on television; it is the picture of the piece of pie that counts. The world is seeking its way back to feel and touch things.

But American commercial art with its passionate distance . . . while presenting eminently “hot” matter . . . “object pornography” . . . is in a way a model of the “objective expressionism” I practice . . . This is not to make a statement about its value as art . . . which is inferior . . . (I am not speaking of its craft.)

I am the only one who persists in creating my own form and I always look bad by comparison with those who rely on commercial techniques or found objects.

My theories are not original, my execution is, and my distinction lies in my sensuality and imagination rather than my intellect.

My art gives the (deliberate) impression of being concerned with the outside world . . . but in fact it is simply the personal elaboration of imaginary forms . . . of a limited number . . . in the guise of occasional appearances . . .

Its use of appearances, frankly and directly, is offered as an alternative to the elimination of appearances . . . which is not possible . . . but saying I hope more effectively that appearances are not what count. It is the forms that count . . .

It is the same to me whether my material image is a cathedral or a girdle . . . a telephone dial or a stained glass window . . . the resemblance, while amusing, means nothing . . . my art is the constant enemy of meaning . . . or you could say I have aimed at neutralizing meaning (which is unexpungable) . . .

To eliminate appearances seems to me impossible and therefore artificial . . . simply grasp them and show how little they mean . . .

Possible Statement for catalogue. April 1, 1963. I have had repeated the vision of human form, which is much more than that “trace” spoken of by Bacon. It is the forms that the living human being can take, in all its parts, mental and physical and this is the subject, in the fullest sense possible, of my expression––the detached examination of human beings through form. Myself, other individuals, and the expressions of human beings collectively, as in the city or the newspaper or advertising, or in any of the anonymous forms of naive art––street drawing, “mad” art, comics. I render the human landscape, and for me there exists no other, and this is a pimple or a body or a street or a city or the earth, because the human imagination does not obey any proprieties, as of scale or time, or any proprieties whatsoever.

A City Venus

Nature is one thing. The city is another. The city is too much. Someone has already been there. The vision is already disordered, but real. The hallucination is a fact. And your own hallucination makes it double. How many natures? How many realities? Too much.

First nature: nature

Second nature: the street, or asphalt nature

Third nature: the store, by which I mean: 1. billboard nature (all forms of advertising, newspaper included)

2. fake nature: clothes, cakes, flowers, etc., etc.

City nature is made up of streets, houses, stores, advertisements, makeup, clothing and vehicles. Makeup and clothing & the people who animate them are like trees, vehicles like animals. Stores are forests, streets, plains and rivers, advertisements and goods so many creeping and crawling dreams . . . Everybody talks about nature and the artist, but no one makes the distinction between city and country. What kind of nature is city nature? It’s a piece of man’s mind. To live in the city is to live inside oneself. One’s current hallucinations call out to others’ . . . as real as buildings or pictures.

As you know, my work is mystical in its center, though concerned with everyday experience . . . just as everyday experience is mystical in its center . . .

The Ray Guns are unorthodox and unguaranteed talismans . . . made of the material of a certain time and place for purposes of protection, inspiration and evocation . . . They are mounted as relics after their use. Their use is a period of time during which they acquire their characteristics, by chance contacts largely (dust, paint spots, certain forms). They are made of the studio and the material of a certain center of attention, e.g., the street or the store and have the character of souvenirs of that period . . . The gun form is phallic and a sign of ambition and vision. It is also by suggestion any number of objects of similar form e.g., the leg ray-gun, the shoe raygun, the finger raygun, the chimney raygun, the motor cylinder raygun . . . a suggestion of the poetry of everywhere which I practice.

I’m for an art that is combed down, that is hung from each ear, that is laid on the lips, and under the eyes, that is shaved from the legs, that is brushed on the teeth, that is fixed on the thighs, that is slipped on the foot.

I use wire to get a stunted incoherent effect. I am fond of watching cripples.

My room is filled with cigarettes the size of cannons.

The cloth work is decidedly “sculptural” . . . by which I mean that it emphasizes masses, simple and articulated. It de-emphasizes color. What the period of “sculptural” painting has left is the fluidity of the surface, which in these works is actual––that is because they are sculpture, the unillusory, tangible realm . . . The dynamic element here is flaccidity where in the paint it was the paint action and the sparkle of light . . . that is, the tendency of a hard material actually to be soft, not look soft (so it is a concretization or a naive translation of painting.)

Cloth pieces: a veritable simplicity of structure which would be offensive alone, altered by circumstances and movement . . . toward “rococo” effect . . .

gravity my favorite form creator


Store as sex. Storage-womb, breast, testicles any part of body containing. Whorehouse as in Celine––the notion shop, store as cunt, cunt as notion store, mysteries into back, curtain after curtain, gypsy store. Store on street––love, quick love, in and out. Orphan Annie furniture . . . or Krazy Kat Klassicism Bacon—Flag.

An Anglo-Sexual Greek piece with Colored Overtones (Description of Projected Washington Happening.) Newspaper equals drawing. Food equals painting Furniture equals sculpture.

getting cool in Cal(iente)

Anatomy––Ana to my––To My Asshole––Ananas/Pineapple



Da Engglish Langwidge iss all wrong for Amerca. Evrby talk here Placky, Germancky, PortoRiczky, et Saw On . . . Enn lotsa fox tawk jess Nigger. I mean, wherza d’Amercn? Topwich isda Wadwertizing! zinck! Nna no tawks cliczchez! Top uv all evreybudy talks jst squashscrichquashscrraww! Time furra new langwidge!

––Claes Oldenburg