PRINT October 1972

Claes Oldenburg, An Interview

What did you think of Documenta? How would you describe it?

It had an historical quality, with people that I regard as legendary figures, like Ben Vautier, for example. There were artists of the Viennese school who deal with abstract expressionism of blood and guts. Then there were eccentrics, such as the man who built the dirigible, Panamarenko, and Anatol, the policeman who built a house everyday, knocked it down, and built it again. There was a section on schizophrenic art, which I enjoyed very much. The exhibition did not seem to be directed toward the United States very much, nor was it one that went out of its way to flatter the United States.

You were in the last Documenta in 1968. Wasn’t this a change from the past when the emphasis was primarily on American artists?

Yes, that was one of the most remarkable things about it. There were few attempts to translate anything, no worship of the Americans, possibly a kind of subtle displeasure.

How do you consider your Mouse Museum in the Documenta context?

What I contributed was certainly historical. It was a perspective on my activities for the past ten or fifteen years represented by miniatures: it was like a history of my work. There was stuff that came out of both Happenings and sculptures and that reached back to relationships with people in the Fluxus group and to the idea of objects as being potentially art or potentially in a museum. Also, it made references to other artists’ work. I feel that it was a true museum. I felt there was a natural history spirit to this Documenta which I accepted. It was a combination really of an art show or, a carnival and a natural history museum. Or, like the museum in Newark which is 50% art and 50% elephants and alligators. I went there to see an art exhibition and on my way out I passed through a room where a live three-legged alligator was eating a dead white rat.

Aren’t there always tremendous problems in the organization and administration of Documenta?

Yes, I think so. The last time I was at Documenta most of my pieces were badly damaged. One piece was actually thrown in the street. The soft sink, now in Cologne, was rescued twice from the street. As a piece of soft sculpture, it was not considered art. Therefore when I go to Documenta, I go with trepidation. This time I was fortunate to have a German adviser, Kasper König, who could clarify the problems, deal with the laborers, and plead my case with the higher-ups. Furthermore, what I contributed was not really a work of art. I doubt that after my experience last time I would have sent art to Documenta. It was perfect for me to send small articles that could be easily taken care of and put into a protected private museum situation.

When was your collection started and did you conceive of it then as a totality?

I have thought of it as a collection since 1965. Originally I imagined an accessions committee consisting of Al Hansen, Richard Bellamy, and Alan Solomon, through which each object or acquisition would have to pass. For this formal occasion I made a careful selection and also added studies for work and models. The collection is divided into “unaltered objects,” “altered objects,” and “studio objects.” “Studio objects” do not have to be made in the studio, they can have been in Happenings, but they have caught some evidence of artistic process. The “studio object” is partly art and partly plain object, while the other two categories are just plain objects. When the Documenta 5 prospectus first appeared, it seemed to me the perfect occasion for the Mouse Museum.

Do you mean that when Szeemann announced the structure of the exhibition you could see that what you wanted to do would fit in?

Yes, very well. It seemed to be an exhibition about art as a form of knowledge rather than a survey of quality in art. It included a study of non-art or near-art and materials from popular culture. It seemed ideal for my museum and I doubt that I would have pulled the museum together if this occasion had not presented itself. Also an overscholarly approach was evident in the original prospectus. At first this put me off, and then I realized that I could apply the same approach to my museum it stood waiting for that, and thus would fit into the attitude of the exhibit. Kasper encouraged me because he felt the same way. We produced a catalogue that reaches toward the same kind of inclusive scholarship by listing each item in two languages.

Some American artists considered the categories of the exhibition absurd and meaningless, but the organizers took them very seriously, didn’t they?

Yes, I think so, but it is hard for me to know for sure, not speaking German. We may have all been captive in some master scheme which the organizers laughed about late each night.

Aren’t you disappointed that your catalogue is so small?

I think that it is long enough. My literary statements tend to take the form of list-making—the inventory of the Mouse Museum reads to me in two languages like a cosmology, though maybe that’s claiming too much. The Mouse Museum catalogue was not intended to be outside the main Documenta catalogue: as you can see it has wire rings so it can be inserted. But it was printedtoo late to be included.

What did you see in the exhibition that aroused your interest?

Kienholz’s piece was interesting to see develop. I had seen it set up in California in the Gemini parking lot, but in Kassel the balloon house containing it was much larger than necessary and created a sort of separate universe. Ed talked of shooting bullet holes in it to make “stars.” It gave a convincing impression of darkness. There was a big exhibit of kitsch, but it was boring to look at. My museum had similar material, but it was collected for personal reasons. For example, in collecting representations of soft or melting objects I used the same standards that I would in making my own art. I chose better ones rather than typical ones or say just those made in Hoboken, New Jersey. There was a necessity in my choice of kitsch that expressed my viewpoint.

Your museum was also unified architecturally so that it had a single image compared to the kitsch which was broad, rambling, and, as you imply, inconsequential.

Yes, that is why I found the schizophrenic art interesting. Minds picking things up around them out of necessity. I think that personal museums are interesting: walking into someone’s house and seeing what has been collected, salvaged, is more interesting to me than a survey of what has been produced. My museum was just a few steps away from schizophrenic art, but I am freer than they are. Their stuff is more intense, frightening, and necessary.

It seems very compulsive.

Yes, compulsive. I relaxed my compulsion enough to be called an artist. There’s a difference.

What interested you in the other building, the Fridericianum?

The Serra room interested me. I wish I could have seen it from above and I became curious how they had gotten the steel plates in. There were surprising lyrical pieces by Chuck Arnoldi which seemed strange there because Chuck is a young artist and I was thinking of that place as a history museum. His was a fresh touch. I liked the bubble that came out of the window, by a Viennese group—as if the Fridericianum was blowing bubble gum. Uriburu put sulphuric color in the fountains, which had a nice effect. I believe he also colored the East River in New York. I saw Walther König’s bookstore which is an exhibit in itself. Among other things, he sells art pornography. There should have been a section of pornography.

Beuys had a room which he used to further the development of his political party. What do you think of his contribution?

I must say that I was influenced and impressed by his collection of objects in the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt and the way he had arranged them. He had gotten old natural history museum boxes, glass cases, and arranged souvenirs of his life in them. One hears that he spent time in a prison camp so I assume that many of the objects are derived from that experience, like the blankets and fat. I don’t know as much about Beuys as I would like to. We once had a short conversation in which he told me that all the rabbits in North Germany were in his political party and he said that he supposed I liked bears since I was from Sweden. He also told me that the Bentley he then drove was a rabbit that he had transformed—perhaps I imagined that. I would like to have talked to him more but the language barrier made it difficult. Other artists have spoken to him through interpreters.

What did you feel about being in Kassel?

I escaped by going up to the top of a mountain outside of town on which there is an 18th-century architectural “folly” dominated by a giant statue of Hercules with a club in his hand. There is a waterfall every Wednesday and Sunday and miniature castles and ruins, a kitsch garden which seemed to fit into the scheme of Documenta 5. I went there as often as I could. An image of the Hercules and club was used on the first mailings for Documenta 5 but later discarded. I resurrected it from the files and put a mouse mask on it as an end-page for my catalogue.

August 25, 1972

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