PRINT January 1968

Oldenburg’s Monuments

WITH THE BOOM IN PROPOSALS for public monuments recently, architectural critics continue to view the monument as something suspect. “Spurious and over-simplified; at best hollow; at worst a mockery,” writes Ada Louise Huxtable. And the only major monument project undertaken lately by an architect of reputation, Philip Johnson’s proposed monument to immigration on abandoned Ellis Island, could easily be read as camp. It is planned to consist of a cylindrical building resembling an open, hollowed-out, truncated “column” three hundred feet in diameter and one hundred and thirty feet high with the names of the sixteen million immigrants who had passed engraved upon its walls. Adjacent to this Wall of Sixteen Million, the monument site would also consist of the “stabilized ruins” of the old administration buildings, planted with vines growing over and through the gutted, empty structures. (Emily Genauer thinks that “The Wall of Sixteen Million doesn’t sound like the beginning of life. It sounds, rather, like death. It recalls the listing of names on the monuments in Europe and Israel to those who died in concentration camps. There is nothing at all to memorialize at Ellis Island on an oversized gas tank—horrid association—or the vine-shrouded ruins of ugly administration buildings.”)1

While Johnson’s “decadent” proposal is perhaps half-consciously camp, the “unconscious” naivete of Claes Oldenburg’s Monument to Immigration, consisting of a reef to be placed in the center of New York Harbor, is calculated “naturally” so that as time passes “wreck after wreck (should) occur until there was a huge pile of rusty and broken ship hulls.” Two versions of a monument for Ellis Island proposed by Oldenburg, one of a giant shrimp and the other a giant frankfurter, parody the shape of these “ships that pass down the Hudson into the Bay.”

More than food, the universal element in Oldenburg’s monuments is usually sex, which he views as the underlying (or overlying) basis for monumentality in a group of “geo-pornographic” projections. One of these, a Ski Jump Monument set on a hill near Oslo, seems to recall the form of early menhirs, which had their origins as phallic cult objects in early religion. Its general appearance is of a “saucer-shaped front of a penis set on end like a radar receiver. In the center is an oval hole through which the sky is visible, and an enormous tear-shaped form . . . at a distance . . . would seem to be a drop of sperm at the bottom of the hill.” The earth mound (the earliest known form of monument) represented a symbolic womb of “Mother Earth” and dated from the time when Man viewed himself as both immanent and integral to Nature’s “workings.” Oldenburg’s Underground Drainpipe—a symbolic vagina—alludes to the archetype. “From above ground,” the artist writes, the monument would appear to be a “large rectangular area that is kept always well cultivated. In the center is a little hole, almost unnoticeable, like a golfhole. If you lie on your stomach on the grass (you can) look down into the hole about eight hundred feet to the bottom of the underground drainpipe . . . (It) was conceived as a tomb.”

The advent of the early civilizations of Sumer and Egypt saw the transformation of the earth mound into a phallic spire, initially a ziggurat and then a pyramid. As Man’s aspirations were now directed towards transcendence of the forces of Nature, so he conceived of his new monuments as symbolic “bridges” enabling transport to a “higher” world than earth after his death. Man’s attitude had become more grasping as well as he sought now to willfully subjugate and appropriate Nature’s “treasures”: the so-called “rape of nature.” Oldenburg’s Door Handle and Lock for Stockholm projects upon the landscape—represented as an immense locked door in the process of being opened by the monument—a giant key symbolically screwed into the earth. The myth is as the projection of Man’s sexual relations with a hypostatized “Nature,” and monuments—meant to be imposing—would be symbolic “erections” representing the willful imposition of man’s (societal) “organ” on the “body” of “Mother Nature.”

Life for civilized man had become more of a struggle; making a living was termed labor. A lust for life—part of his newly aspired-to “stature”—found satisfaction in the laying bare of Nature’s “secrets” for mankind’s exploitative use. Oldenburg’s Leg Monument for the Thames Estuary at Low Tide is an enormous human leg striding upon the “face” of the landscape symbolizing this “stance.” Man’s reach, unfortunately, was fated always to exceed his grasp (“the impossible dream”) as he didn’t quite possess the tools or knowledge to gain complete (Faustian) mastery.

A similar attitude in the Romantic Era came to be applied to the artist’s work life. Laying claim to the secrets of Nature’s inner workings through a privileged inner vision, he struggled to wrest from life a unique meaning. She was the raw material needing completion. The artist in turn felt completed by his work, which connected him in some mysterious way to the source of life. (Sometimes, paradoxically, this even involved identification with Nature; for instance, in the “creative process” where, through a “labor of love,” he would give “birth” to the finished work of art.)

Death, the inseparable twin of life, idolized by the Romantics, traditionally has been memorialized by the type of grandiose monument which Oldenburg’s Sullivan Tomb parodies. One of six proposals for the city of Chicago (where his drawings and models for monuments were recently exhibited in the new Museum of Contemporary Art), the tomb is a mock memorial to one of the city’s Great Men, Louis Sullivan. The Tomb is based on the anecdote “that he spent the final years of his life sleeping on the floor of a small closet under a bare light bulb.” It is designed as a simple monolith with a shadowing overhang (like the left wing of the Chicago Art Institute). Inside would be a “gigantic six-hundred foot lying figure of Sullivan, in brown metal . . . (which at first sight would) seem to be a mountain,” and complex, “painstaking reproductions in metal and concrete, of the Master’s works” illuminated by “a dim light” emanating from “an enormous light bulb of the ordinary kind, in the heights of the space.”

Apposite to the Tomb is the Fallen Hat Monument in memory of Adlai Stevenson, whose non-memorable modern death is represented as a modest moment. “It would be a small obstacle on the street . . . (close to where Stevenson) fell near Grosvenor Square. The London streets have twenty-four inch rectangular stones. The fallen hat is set into such a rectangle. It would be a modest-size monument for anyone who died on the street.”

The traditional monument, as distinguished from all other things that are present, has been meant to endure forever. However, Oldenburg has altered this in proposals for temporary or semipermanent monuments, which, rather than attempting to “withstand” or “make their mark” on Nature, are temporal through their contingent interrelationship with a specific environment. An example is a giant copper ball proposed for the River Thames in London, “based on the form of a toilet float which is connected by a long rod to the center of one of the bridges” of this dirty river and would rise and fall with the going out and coming in of the approximately sixteen-foot tides. Oldenburg’s “obstacle” monuments, such as the Monument to Immigration and his 1965 five-hundred-ton solid concrete War Memorial designed for the intersection of Canal Street and Broadway in New York City, are unnatural intrusions causing the “natural” to function “unnaturally” in a “natural” way. By blocking the intersection of the four streets, the War Memorial, by precipitating their occurrence, a priori memorializes “natural calamities” such as war.

When asked for a work by a committee which exhibited outdoor sculpture in various sites in the city of New York this fall, Oldenburg originally proposed the creation of a massive traffic jam which would be programmed by parking buses at a number of intersections—somewhat analogous to his War Memorial. It was finally decided that he do a more temporary monument, nearly instantaneous in fact and invisible after its completion. A six-by-six foot grave was dug and immediately covered by professional grave diggers on a selected site in Central Park, the artist’s medium being earth.2 The Moving Bat proposal for Chicago, instead of using “invisibility” literally, uses it as metaphoric hyperbole in the Ripley “Believe It Or Not” style: “The Bat is a cone-shaped metal form about the height of the former Plaza Hotel, placed with the narrower end down at the southeast corner of North Avenue and Clark Street. The Bat is kept spinning at an incredible speed, so fast it would burn one’s fingers up to the shoulders to touch it. However, the speed is invisible and to the spectators the monument appears to be standing absolutely still.”

Dan Graham



1. Johnson’s other government project is a memorial to the late President John F. Kennedy, to be built of concrete in a park a short distance from where Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Mrs. Kennedy had asked for something “simple, modest and dignified”; a simple monument composed of seventy-two upright slabs of pre-cast concrete—roughly booth-shaped—is proposed. It will be fifty feet square and thirty feet high.

2. A sculpture by Carl Andre consisted of a conical pile of sand “composed” with gravity (and with levity) when the sand was dropped by the artist from directly above what would be (in context) a grave site. The element of time would “decompose” the sculpture, just as the “body” (buried beneath) disintegrates into invisibility. Sol LeWitt’s proposal for an as yet unconsummated outdoor exhibition of “earth-moving” would be entirely invisible. It would consist of a buried cube containing something unseen—accomplishing nothing and burying the issue (of monumentality) forever.