PRINT Summer 1967

Claes Oldenburg’s Soft Machines

CLAES OLDENBURG, IS THE SINGLE Pop artist to have added significantly to the history of form. In order to perceive this, however, one must look beyond the Rabelaisian absurdity of his grotesque imagery to the inventiveness of his shapes, techniques, and materials. These are sufficiently original to identify Oldenburg, not, as he has erroneously been seen, as a chef d’ecole of Pop art, but as one of the most vital innovators in the field of contemporary sculpture, whose vision has affected the work of many other young artists of his generation.

Every major artist dreams of reconstructing the world in his own image, but Oldenburg has actually succeeded in translating the external environment into a series of shapes and images that physically resemble the large, mesomorphic frame of Claes Oldenburg. To accomplish this solipsistic goal, he had to invent a vocabulary of forms that would be as vulnerable, as irregular, as eccentric, unique and expressive as the human body itself. Oldenburg began to recreate the human anatomy in his own terms in the late fifties with crude pieces like the papier-mâché leg. In 1962 he hit on a way to make forms that were entirely foreign to the traditional concept of sculpture because they were soft rather than hard, as one expects sculpture to be. But this reversal of expectations is important, not because it conflicts with our notion of the nature of solid objects—this would be trivial—but because it challenges our ideas about the nature of sculpture, which we expect to be rigid and resistant like metal or wood, not soft, yielding and pliable like the stuffed and sewn canvas and vinyl world Oldenburg has created in his soft sculpture. By the same token, if Oldenburg were merely involved in a series of ironic puns of a conceptual nature, then his work would hold little interest. Fortunately, he is involved in much more; concept in his art is relatively unimportant when compared with his concern with the sensual and the expressive.1

Like many important innovations, soft sculpture was arrived at accidentally. Its origin was the oversize props Oldenburg made for use in his Happenings. According to Oldenburg, sewing as a technique began with the costumes and props for the Ray Gun Theater, a series of Happenings produced in 1962, which called for props like an eighteen-foot airplane and a fifteen-foot man. From these colossal props to the gargantuan stuffed cloth articles of food like the hamburger, ice-cream cone, and slice of cake exhibited in Oldenburg’s 1962 Green Gallery exhibition was but a short step. What led to taking this step, however, tells us something important not only about Oldenburg’s art, but also about the esthetic of the new sculpture in general, in which his work surely participates.2

In his notes, Oldenburg mentions that he began to think of making sculpture when a collector bought a boat and a freighter from Store Days, the store on lower Second Avenue that he filled in 1961 with misshapen replicas of objects sold in general stores. Oldenburg admits he began to think of these objects as independent sculptures because they were treated as sculpture. In other words, the work became sculpture by virtue of the way it was used. Such a view is, of course, to a degree merely an extension of Duchamp’s insistence that art is art by virtue of context, but its adoption as a working premise by artists as different from Oldenburg as Morris, Flavin, Judd and Andre demonstrates the degree to which the concept animates the thinking of the younger generation of sculptors and object-makers.3

Oldenburg’s first three-dimensional objects were painted plaster like the reliefs that preceded them. Like the splattered and blotched surfaces of the reliefs, the surfaces of these objects recalled the painterly brushwork of Abstract Expressionism. In the soft cloth pieces that followed, however, Oldenburg arrived at a way of translating pictorial concerns, such as chiaroscuro modeling, color, and texture entirely into sculptural concerns. In some works, like the “ghost” models of the typewriter and telephone, or the map of the postal zones of Manhattan, light and dark passages are added directly to simulate, literally, the chiaroscuro of painting. This transferal of painting problems to sculpture is typical not only of Oldenburg, but of many young artists. Like the object makers in general, Oldenburg is a literalist. In this spirit he describes his softening as “not a blurring (like the effect of atmosphere on hard form) but in fact a softening.” As artists like Bell, Judd, and McCracken make concrete and literal effects formerly used allusively or illusively in painting, so Oldenburg uses softness literally, as a quality that is both actual and specific.

In executing a work, Oldenburg proceeds as follows: first he makes a model of the object he wishes to reproduce, then he makes a pattern with stencils, which is transferred to the material to be used; the stenciled shapes are cut out and sewn together (usually by Oldenburg’s wife) and finally stuffed by Oldenburg, who fixes the actual form of the work by “modeling” it from within. Technically, Oldenburg’s modeling is the opposite of conventional modeling through building up clay or wax on an armature or cutting away from a solid block. Because the “modeling” is done from the inside, the outside surface is uniform and continuous, and lacks marks of touch. Oldenburg describes choosing the “kind of stuffing and how much and where it will gather—fat or lean” as the crucial moment in the work. In the stiffened canvas sculpture, which tends to stay put as placed to a greater degree than vinyl or soft fabric his degree of control is naturally greater.

Oldenburg’s interest in modeling relates him formally to traditional casting and carving just as his material and technique separate him from it technically. In many ways he is closer to Rodin and Matisse than to the Cubists and their heirs. For Oldenburg relies, not on plane, like Cubism, nor on volume, like primary structures, but on undulating mass, the means of expression of preCubist sculpture. Despite the fact that there are no finger marks to remind one of the sculptor’s personal touch, Oldenburg’s is both an extremely personal and an extremely tactile art. Moreover, his aim is not to reject, but to enhance this tactility, intensifying the urge to touch by “devices which prevent touching, like the silver chain in the door to the Bedroom Ensemble . . . or the glass of the pastry cases.” This interest in the tactile once again relates Oldenburg to Abstract Expressionism.

Like the human body, which it resembles in its lumps, bumps, folds, and crevices, soft sculpture is literally subject to the force of gravity to a degree that rigid sculpture is not. Gravity, which Oldenburg calls his “favorite form creator,” determines the final form a piece will assume. Thus, one of the reasons Oldenburg prefers the large form is because “on a large scale gravity most wins out completely.” Oldenburg’s choice of an oversize scale, which again has its origin in a theatrical problem—the necessity for props to be large in order to attract attention—has had many repercussions for the future of sculpture. His 1962 exhibition was, to my recollection, the first one-man show of sculpture in which the pieces, meant to impede circulation and to demand a certain kind of inescapable focus, were executed on the superhuman scale that is so familiar today.

The reliance on gravity to determine the final shape of a work can be viewed as a reliance on chance. The casual manner in which a soft form settles, or even better, relaxes into place suggests that the work is self-composed, or at least relatively uncomposed. This tendency toward relinquishing total control over composition is something Oldenburg shares with a number of advanced artists. It is part of the legacy of Pollock’s drip paintings, and very much part of the current attitude that assigns a lesser role to composition than that assigned to it by Cubism, with its insistence on the internal relationships of discrete parts. This attitude also accounts for Oldenburg’s choice of the single image as a format. Again, the preference for the single image is one that relates Oldenburg to many other young artists; it, too, is ultimately traceable back to Pollock’s arrival at the single image in the drip paintings.

Like Lichtenstein, Oldenburg shares more with the abstract artists of his generation than he does with the Pop artists, just as Johns and Rauschenberg, despite their Pop imagery, remain essentially second-generation Abstract Expressionists. In its large scale, use of the single image, and lack of internal relationships, Oldenburg’s sculpture has far more in common with the advanced art of Morris, Poons, Stella, Judd, et al. than it does with any Pop art, which, outside of Oldenburg and Lichtenstein, is indeed as reactionary and academic as most responsible critics have claimed it is. Like many object sculptors, Oldenburg is more interested in creating new shapes and surfaces than in concentrating on the tasteful arrangement or harmonious balancing of analogous forms that has characterized composition in Western art from the Renaissance through Cubism. Composition is treated casually, informally, even arbitrarily, and chance—in the form of the action of gravity—is a determining factor. Of his monuments (immense unrealized and possibly unrealizable projects to be erected in public squares and parks), Oldenburg writes: “The thrown versions of the monuments originated in disgust with the subject, the way one would kick over or throw down a piece of sculpture that hadn’t turned out well. Instead of destruction, I accepted as result a variation of form and position . . .” Such an acceptance of chance and the arbitrary as part of the creative process is characteristic in general of post-Abstract Expressionist art. Whether Oldenburg has received it directly through Duchamp and Cage, or indirectly through Abstract Expressionism, which seems more likely, given the extent to which his early reliefs and environments grew out of Abstract Expressionism, is unimportant; what matters is the degree to which it has liberated not only his imagination, but that of a generation of young artists.

Because Oldenburg’s work is imagistic, one must take into consideration the relationship of the soft forms to the types of images used, since part of the expressiveness of the work arises naturally out of this relationship. Oldenburg selects his range of images from the three environments that constitute his universe: The Home, The Street, and The Store. The identification of the image is crucial; it is necessary in order to establish the active relationship between viewer and object that Oldenburg desires. For this reason, he chooses food or objects of personal use, such as clothing or furniture. Normally these are objects we would pick up, handle, or consume. “The name of the thing tells you how to grab it (camera, gun) or what to do with it (ice cream, chair, jacket).” In each case, active participation is called forth. And the reaction of the viewer to these objects, even when they are re-created on a mammoth scale and eccentrically deformed, is still within the context of the intimate and the personal. In this way, both Oldenburg and the makers of abstract object-sculpture, it seems to me, are working to erode the concept of “psychic distance,” the sense of estrangement that we normally bring to the esthetic experience. By choosing to make objects or things, rather than paintings or sculptures that look immediately like “art,” they force the viewer to react in terms of his normal environment, not in terms of the specialized reaction we associate only with art. This works to short-circuit perception in a sense, forcing a more direct, intimate, personal contact with the work.

“Sanding the wooden typewriter keys,” Oldenburg writes, “I feel like a manicurist.” At another point he speaks of “the perception of mechanical nature as body.” Pursuing the concept of anthropomorphizing to its logical extreme, Oldenburg has invested inanimate objects with the breath and pulse of life, and cast them in the irregular, sagging, lumpy forms of the human body. Interestingly enough, this tendency to anthropomorphize the inanimate can be seen in earlier American artists, such as Dove and Burchfield. In some ways Dove’s bug-eyed ferryboats and dancing trees and Burchfield’s houses in which windows become eyes and doors become mouths are the ancestors of Oldenburg’s lewd grinning typewriters and sad-sack telephones.

Because they provide analogies with the human physiognomy and anatomy, one can see Oldenburg’s soft machines as a kind of reformulated figurative sculpture. In their humanization, the soft machines are the opposite of the dehumanized, mechanical figures of Cubist sculpture. And indeed they represent an attitude diametrically opposed to that of the earlier 20th century, which viewed industrialism and its concomitant alienation as a cataclysmic threat. Oldenburg makes analogies between the body and the machine, much as cybernetics sees analogies between the brain and the computer. As the distance between man and machine narrows, man does not become more like the machine, as Ortega prophesied, but the machine, which now appears not menacingly strange but reassuringly familiar, becomes more like man—singular, changeable, and, above all, vulnerable.

Softness implies vulnerability. Duchamp was perhaps the first to invest objects with feelings in his “unhappy ready-mades.” Oldenburg is pleased with the Airflow as a theme because “the implication of a bent fender or a crushed cab is considerable.” There is a certain poignancy in the melancholy exhaustion of the droopy telephones and unkempt tires. But to attribute human qualities and human feelings to inanimate objects is to hold a pathetic fallacy. Such a pathetic fallacy, however, which sees objects as tired and as scarred as people, is central to Oldenburg’s content. For it is a particular kind of world Oldenburg is trying to describe, and a particular kind of accommodation between man and his man-made nature that he is prescribing. In a passage reminiscent of the late Wilhelm Reich, Oldenburg writes: “Those who care for the world at this time tend to undress and go naked rather than in armor. I don’t find anything metallic suited to this sensibility.” If the soft machines are unthreatening, friendly even, in that they are like us, we cannot consider them alien. And it is an end to the alienation of mar from his industrial environment that Oldenburg, the post-Marxist and post-Freudian, prescribes. His is the message of the second half of the 20th century, the message of such post-Marxist, post-Freudian thinkers as Norman O. Brown, whose Life Against Death was obviously a profound influence on Oldenburg’s thought and iconography.4 Like Brown, Oldenburg sees the possibility of an end to the estrangement between man and the phenomenological world he inhabits.

“An object in the shape of the artist” is Oldenburg’s description of his work. Relating sculpture to one’s own body image can result in a kind of dislocated expressionism; and in one sense the soft sculptures are really a series of self-portraits. Many, like the gaping faucet-eyed wash basin or the phallic Dormeyer blenders actually parallel specific features of the human physiognomy or anatomy. Thus, Oldenburg’s images act as a surrogate for the human body. Oldenburg admits it is the same to him whether his image is a cathedral or a girdle, since “the contribution of subject matter is almost a side effect since what I see is not the thing itself but—myself—in its form.”

As surrogates for the human body, the soft machines serve as totems, “a kind of figure representation in which the presence of a figure is evoked, as in a seance or hallucination.” The image is individualized to the degree that one is convinced that “someone very particular is in the room with you.” Like Klee and Dubuffet, Oldenburg seeks to call on the power of the primitive totem which manifests the charisma of submerged psychic forces. Like them, he reveres childhood and the innocent naiveté of the child’s eye, as well as the art of the sidewalks and the madhouse. And like their work, Oldenburg’s works appear to play host to some primitive force or energy, an energy that often seems to have a specifically sexual charge.5

In certain respects Oldenburg’s “presences” are like the mysterious, quasi-human personages that peopled Surrealist painting. Other aspects of Oldenburg’s imagination also link him with the Surrealists, not in the sense of having been influenced by them, but in the sense of belonging to the same “family of mind.” Like the Surrealists, Oldenburg delights in the metamorphosis of one thing into another. The “hard,” “soft,” and “ghost” models of the typewriter, telephone, light switch, etc., show these objects in different states; the three daffy troll-like Silex juicits reveal the object in different comic attitudes; and the series of melting foods and partially eaten foods represent sequences that suggest the passage of time.

In a series of related objects, Oldenburg may alter the size, shape, form, substance, or state in time of each successive model. The alteration emphasizes the process of change; the state of the object in any of these series is always unstable, transitional, in flux: the objects are always in a process of becoming, rather than in any fixed, resolved, closed state. In the swimming pools, Oldenburg explores different forms of the same object. The interest in mutability is one he shares with a number of young abstract artists, most notably Morris, Stella, and Ron Davis. Oldenburg’s investigations of the possibilities for new forms available from each object are often as exhaustive as the permutations of Morris, the spatial rotations of Ron Davis, or the systematic structural exploitations of Stella. At one point, for example, Oldenburg suggests treating the Airflow four different ways: interior, exterior, in sections, and finally whole. The presentation of an exhaustive and equally meaningful set of alternative solutions is common to the methodical thought of the younger generation. Announced in Johns’s multiple presentations of the flag, it seems related to the discovery in the physical and social sciences that different types of coexistent models, each adequately accounting for the same data, are possible.

In keeping with his interest in metamorphoses, Oldenburg constantly sees analogies between dissimilar images which may assume, in his imagination, analogous forms.6 Thus the relationship of Oldenburg’s images to their prototypes is not literal nor even logical, but associative. Although Oldenburg claims that his approach is naive imitation, what he does with the objects he imitates is to “charge them more intensively” in order to maximize their power as contemporary totems. These totems, although functional, maintain their “magic” aura through being exalted by the artist’s imagination into charismatic personages or presences.

Oldenburg explains the degree to which the image differs from its prototype: “If I alter, which I do usually, I do not alter for ‘art’ and I do not alter to express myself, I alter to unfold the object and to add to it other object qualities, forces. The object remains object, only expanded and less specific.” Oldenburg’s decision to remain an image-maker in a period when abstract art is ascendent seems based on his conviction that since allusion cannot be eliminated entirely, it must therefore be rendered redundant. He apparently believes that if one cannot eliminate the image, then one can at least render it meaningless or neutral by reducing all images to the common denominator of the body image.

The world, for Oldenburg, is constantly in motion. He is impressed above all by the movement of New York. “Objects previously still begin to move. The Pizza becomes Fan. The Fan chops. Fragments fly.” Oldenburg has always conceived in terms of environments—in this, too, he has influenced current abstract sculpture which places so high a value on the relationship of the work to its environment.7 Oldenburg sees the city as the artist’s total environment, and suggests “a series of pieces treating New York . . . as an object sculpture.” In fact, one of the most striking things about Oldenburg’s imagination is his ability to conceive a complete personal universe and mythology. Oldenburg’s objects do not constitute merely a string of related images, but a highly structured iconographical program, as coherent as the iconography of any old master, and as tied to a specific world-view. From the point of departure of the Airflow, for example, Oldenburg generalizes “a place with many different sized objects inside it, like a gallery, a butcher shop, like The Store.” Later Airflow becomes a metaphor for the space around objects, a space in which objects can be seen falling, floating, or flying, propped up, lying down, or suspended.

Although at the heart of Oldenburg’s effort is a reversal of normal expectations—not as I have pointed out, our expectations about objects, but our expectations about art, specifically sculpture—irony is not a component of his work. In its total lack of irony, Oldenburg’s work differs from the rest of Pop art. But in place of the negative and pessimistic sense of irony, Oldenburg has substituted the cathartic force of humor, especially as it manifests itself in the tragi-comic. The sagging, clownish objects are, in their pathos and vulnerability, like the great oafish clown Oldenburg himself often impersonates in his Happenings. Here, as the dead-pan, baggy-pants ringmaster, the heir of Chaplin and W. C. Fields, Oldenburg directs the activities of his circus. And the metaphor of the clown is well-taken. From Pagliacci to Pierrot to Picasso’s and Fellini’s harlequins, the clown assumes the role of the deracinated tragi-comic hero of modern times, as earlier the fool had represented a persona of Everyman. Oldenburg’s art belongs to the tradition of the satyr plays, and to that of the fool and the clown; like the other works of this tradition, its message is the fallibility and vulnerability of man.

Oldenburg has claimed that he wishes “to present the geography of the human imagination . . . with real mountains and cities.” His content he describes as “always the human imagination . . . both as historically constant and as universal among individuals.” Oldenburg’s faith in the redemptive power of the imagination is the guarantee that his innocence is genuine, even if it comes clothed in the most extreme sophistication and awareness. From the genuine innocence, vitality and originality of his vision, he has extrapolated a new vocabulary of forms that has already enriched the history of art. This vision is both grandiose and optimistic, it bespeaks the expansiveness and generosity, as well as the generalizing intelligence of the large talent.

Barbara Rose



1. Oldenburg shows an unusual degree of objectivity about his work. For that reason, I have drawn to a great extent on his own notes, which seem to me by far the most intelligent things written about his work. All quotes in the text therefore are from Oldenburg’s statements in the following: “Extracts from the Studio Notes,” Artforum, Jan. 1966, and “Claes Oldenburg Skulptureroch Teckningar” (exhibition catalog, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sept. 17–Oct. 30, 1966). With his usual detachment, Oldenburg assesses himself: “My theories are not original, my execution is, and my distinction lies in my sensuality and imagination rather than my intellect.”

2. Outside of Oldenburg’s own writings, the most intelligent discussion of his work is Donald Judd’s “Specific Objects” (Arts Yearbook no. 8, 1965) in which Judd places Oldenburg within the general context of object sculpture, to which his work surely relates more closely than to Pop art, the context in which it is normally considered.

3. The extent of Duchamp’s influence on current esthetic attitudes can scarcely be overemphasized. What is interesting, however, is that the focus has been shifted from finding to making in an open situation that affords abstract artists the same freedom from restrictive conventions as the original Dadaists claimed. The highly eccentric, non-canonical geometric art of today is as dependent on freedoms won by Dada and Surrealism as Abstract Expressionism was. Not to acknowledge this aspect of current thinking is to falsify history.

4. So in tune with Brown’s thinking was Oldenburg that before Love’s Body, the sequel to Life Against Death in which Brown uses the human body as a metaphor for all political, social, and economic organization, Oldenburg had already anticipated this line of thought by using soft sculpture as a body image surrogate.

5. In his interest in the mythic and the totemic, Oldenburg appears to be exhuming the lost Surrealist content of Abstract Expressionism which was active in the early forties, but became submerged after the War when the Surrealists returned to Europe.

6. He notes such analogies as that between the square war monument and the square slab of butter in the baked potato; the giant Frankfurter and Ellis Island, and the ironing board monument and the shape of Manhattan.

7. “My work makes a great demand on a collector,” Oldenburg states. “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 and of my principles.” One is struck by how close this statement comes to the intention of primary structures, another suggestion that the meaningful links are between the strongest, most advanced artists of the younger generation, rather than in terms of artificially created “movements” or “schools” such as Pop or Primary.