PRINT February 1968


Store Days

Store Days By Claes Oldenburg. Something Else Press, Illus., Color, 152 Pages, 1967.

The writings of Claes Oldenburg printed in Store Days consist of fragments, notes, philosophical observations, and scripts, dating from the Store of 1961 and the Ray Gun Theater of 1962. As he sketches his ideas, Oldenburg does not outline a coherent theory so much as he suggests an attitude toward theory. He thinks abstractly: “I operate, idea-wise, far above the ground,” but he counters the abstractions with an earthy factualness: “I have a compulsion . . . to relate myself to what is on the ground” (62). An example of dry intellection is the formula, “my art is a resolution of opposites: strives for a simultaneous presentation of contraries/opposites” (54), and this is followed by five pairs of opposites followed by etc. The etc. implies that such a theory has its own uninteresting momentum and meets too little resistance from the facts. Elsewhere he spurns theory entirely: “Evanescence is not just a theory, it is part of me. Come and go. Nothing I do is a theory but is me” (53). The work of other artists is seen as theoretical (Dine, Kaprow), and therefore different from the works of Oldenburg, who in this book offers theories of life, art, commerce, education, etc. etc. etc.!

Let me state clearly that this book is an unusual record of the workings of an artist’s mind. It shows an awkward but typical American confluence of facts and theories, and it helps to establish the difference between how an artist thinks with ideas and how he thinks with things. If Oldenburg has more notes, we must have the rest of them, for they document a way of thinking about reality with the physical and intellectual skills of an artist, and we have nothing comparable from artists of his generation. Anyone could show flaws in his thinking, but those are not flaws in the book, which he and editor Emmett Williams have arranged with a simplicity which conceals a few traps. Let the reader object to the shallowness of the distinctions Oldenburg lists—ordinary and extraordinary; esthetic and unesthetic; mystery and commonplace (54). He then finds Oldenburg complaining about his limitations, “I have not remained unintellectual but uninformed. Apart from ideas” (63), and not trusting distinctions: “. . . distinctions I suppose are a civilized disease . . .” (83). Some of the photographs in the book are murky, fuzzy, and obscure, but they have a value here, which they might have nowhere else, since Oldenburg is concerned with “. . . rips out of reality, perceptions like snapshots, embodiments of glances” (49).

The theory in these notes is not a coherent system, but it does succeed in getting in the way so that Oldenburg has to make an effort to get around it, and out of that effort comes the art. Trying to avoid a theory of art, he hits upon the idea of making things: “Assuming that I wanted to create some thing what would that thing be? Just a thing, an object. Art would not enter into it” (8). The idea of making things yields the idea of a Store in which to make, display, and sell the things. The Store is a portmanteau image in which he packs studio, gallery, museum, as well as store. It is a storehouse of memory, a stomach, a tomb, a libido, a magician’s magic circle, and at times the store is a bore. The Store can refer inclusively to stores, store windows, and advertisements, just as the objects sold in the store, such as an ice-cream cone, have many references (an actual ice-cream cone, pictures of cones, giant cones, fetish cones, symbolic cones, et al.). The things which we have known in the numbness of ordinary time, space, commerce, and causality (14th Street), we will come to know as they are distilled by the sensibility of the artist, storekeeper, ragman, magician, Claes Oldenburg, proprietor.

The objects which were for sale in the Store were not to be duplicates of objects for sale in a store, for most of those were jaded and exhausted. The objects in the Store were to represent the artist’s perception of the power in objects, and to make that power available to others by alterations in scale, fragmentation, changes in hue and value, superimpositions, and whimsical arrangements. These modifications remove most traces of other people’s theories—the designer, the manufacturer, the storekeeper, the customer—and free the object to be the radiant and powerful thing it is in the eyes of Claes Oldenburg, who seems to feel that he has purged himself and the object of theory in a single process: “At the completion of my work I’m afraid I have nothing to say at all. That is I have either thrown it away or used it up” (141). A critic can accept this description of the relationship between theory and practice, and still point to those mute things as eloquent embodiments of theory. The artist wants to present his vision purified of theory, but as the etymology of theory suggests, a theory is a way of looking at something, a vision. His works are theoretical objects, as much as any works of art are, but he seems not to notice, perhaps because they are his theories.

The work in the Store, to revive the power of objects and the ability to perceive that power, was amplified by the Ray-Gun Theater, named for an object, the child’s toy ray gun. Oldenburg plays with the image of the Ray Gun, turning his vision upon his own symbol of artistic vision. He starts with the matter-of-fact toy which supplements the imagination of the child, and he ends with an image of the artist’s ’ability to penetrate opaque walls of thought, to illuminate the darker corners, to make facts into images. He even offers cryptic sayings: “All will see as Ray Gun sees” (44).

What of the man who writes, “When Ray Gun shoots, no one dies”? He regards his experience of things as the material of his art, but he must represent that experience in order to communicate it, and in the process of representation he handles plaster, cloth, and paint, and experiences those. The first experience happens to the artist and cannot be communicated without the complication of the other experiences, so in effect the first experience remains uncommunicated and the artist remains isolated. But the unknowable artist also handles the paint and plaster, and is knowable as painter, plasterer, sign painter, baker, tailor, jack of all trades: “When I carry my plaster and paints up the stairs, the neighbors assume I am improving my home” (62). The use of these many disguises is his way of unfolding himself to the public, but he shows so many selves, and such contradictory ones (the theorizing anti-theoretician), that he eludes capture. Each disguise is a self-discovery and a revelation, but so many revelations leave the mystery intact: “No one reaches me. I reach no one, except thru disguises and thru others (players)” (27).

The theme of disguise pervades the book. Clothes disguise one’s sex, and an interest in sex can be disguised as an interest in clothes. What then is represented by a sculpture described as “Four Flat Panties in a Row free standing 149.95” (33)? The interest in clothes and disguises combines with an interest in women, masters of disguise, of changing relationships, phantom shapes, and fickle illusions. The women in his works often illustrate an ability to survive experience and to emerge innocent, or to put it another way, an ability to make a disguise into a revelation. The whore (a walking store of Eros) would be one end of a scale of women who seem impervious to masculine irony, perhaps because the woman accepts herself as an object whose identity is revealed through disguises and transmogrifications. Women and works of art have much to learn from each other: “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” (42). In this context, what does Oldenburg mean when he writes, “Just now I am indulging my femininity” (59 and 65)? Probably that he is finding the sources of his strength.

Store Days is not only an “evocation of a seminal moment,” as the dustjacket says, it is an illuminating companion to Oldenburg’s later works. He shows himself aware of the fact that his choice of images is unusual for “fine” art: “. . . at center of my use of pop art is a love for the rejected, inexplicable and simple” (142). The strategy of his art is not so much to elevate the base or low thing (toilet, girdle), as it is to demolish the judgment of lowness or baseness. “Satire is not the word” (62) because satire requires a rigid hierarchy, while Oldenburg softens hierarchy as a preliminary to his soft sculpture. He notices, for instance, that the profile of a toilet resembles the map of downtown Detroit in the postal-zone map, and that the toilet and Detroit both resemble Mt. Ste. Victoire as painted by Cézanne. The Cézanne is not degraded, and the toilet is not upgraded; they simply have a resemblance which proves that they belong together. This “softening up” of hierarchy (girdle equals cathedral), this genial insubordination, is a way of thinking with resemblances, sympathies, and correspondences, not with laws of causality, contradiction, or the sameness of differential equations. Things are coordinated in the world of Claes Oldenburg, not subordinated. When the resemblances of the object have been noted, and when its theory has been grasped, then the object can be made in vinyl, which yields to the law of gravity. But in the convolutions of Oldenburg’s outlaw thought, yielding is a source of strength and power. His soft sculptures are a way of thinking about resistance and nonresistance, a theme that is handsomely developed in the Air-Flow series.

In Store Days Oldenburg objects to the bourgeois value of non-resistance (8), and in his studio he creates resistance: “I create more and more spatial obstacles, so that I must duck and weave, fall and jump, in order not to be pierced.” He writes, “I always set myself problems” (26), and he finds that as he suffers the lack of time, space, and money, “. . . partly I enjoy the pressures these limitations put on me . . .” He resists theories but remains attached to them because he needs their resistance. The fact that he counters a superficial theory of science “Nature means nothing by itself” (80)—with a homemade theory of magic does not make him a poor scientist or an amateur magician; as it happens, it makes him a superb artist. He likes to present himself as a peaceable-kingdom primitive, a man of feeling who is painting and plastering his way out of theories: “I wanted to see if i could make significant form out of a pair of ladys pantys!” He has, I would say, and he has also brought several kinds of levity out of several kinds of gravity. Not even Central Park will ever be the same.

William Wilson