PRINT January 1977

Oldenburg’s Monuments to the Sixties

THE ’70s ARE TURNING OUT to be hostile territory for ’60s art. Sixties art travelled at supersonic speeds; it spewed forth frenetically, exponentially hyping energies and expectations alike. Art was in the headlines, and the artists who soared to fame and fortune were barely out of art school. Retrospectives, traditionally the museum’s seal of approval on a long career, suddenly became the summation of a mere decade, and the artist’s first decade, at that. The Museum of Modern Art signed off the ’60s with Oldenburg and Stella; the Whitney retaliated with Dine, Warhol and Rosenquist. Oldenburg was 39 at the time, Stella only 35. Where do you go from there?

The ’70s so far have produced some disappointing, though perhaps inevitable, answers. Old Masters in their 40s, many ’60s artists are not responding favorably to the change in climate. Or is it that the climate is unfavorable to the art? Conceptual, environmental, and project-type art, and even certain post-Minimal sculpture have, for the past few years, quietly been questioning the morality of the saleable object, which the ’60s mentality never thought to doubt. The art object, whether painting or sculpture, was still seen as an idealistic gesture, not an expensive commodity (although more often than not it was just that).

But when Lichtenstein’s Big Painting # 6 fetched $75,000 at Sotheby Parke-Bernet in 1970, the highest price ever paid for a living American artist and well on the way to the astronomical, it blew the whistle on the artist’s other-worldly image. And a younger generation, faced with having to break into such a vastly inflated market, preferred to sidestep what would likely be disaster by deflecting attention from the purchasable object. (Even the ’70s artists who sell work regularly at high prices are loath to admit it.) The emerging scene deliberately turned off the limelight.

All of which presents a dilemma for the ’60s artists. Since they’ve been kicked upstairs by the ’70s sensibility, they’re at something of a disadvantage before they even start. And, to judge from a recent rash of shows chronicling their latest efforts, the predicament in which they find themselves has proved deeply unsettling.

Oldenburg’s November show at Castelli gave evidence of this malaise. Let me say first off that Oldenburg is not alone in his difficulties. On the basis of 1976 gallery shows in New York alone, one could as easily substitute Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, Stella, Poons, Noland and perhaps even Johns. Their new work is often disappointing and problematic for the ’70s critic and, I suspect, puzzling and not altogether satisfactory to the artists themselves. For they seem to be in a state of aftershock, struggling to come to grips with their own myths—looking back on their prolific output and wondering just what was that monster they created and how they managed to do it. As the propelling energies subside, the iconoclastic sense of newness which obscured art-oriented roots and gave impetus to further innovation has faded. The creators of the most anti-“art” gestures seem to have turned back toward modernism’s self-generating artfulness.

Though Oldenburg’s cheap, funky, trashy materials (vinyl, plaster, cloth) have not been much in evidence for several years, one is still not prepared for the highly polished marble—yes, marble!—form that heralds the current show. Abstract and biomorphic in shape, it struggles forth from a rough-carved hunk of stone for all the world like a Michelangelo giving birth to a Brancusi. A closer look is temporarily reassuring—this piece of art is, in fact, a bicycle saddle, standing on end in a most phallic pose. But a disturbing scent of high sculpture pervades.

That’s not all, however. The thing is sitting in a square metal tray of stones resurrected from Smithson’s Site-Non-Site works of 1968. And if that’s not enough, the “Smithson” rests on a stacked base of rough-hewn post-Minimal beams. The effect is staggering. Next to it are three small translations into West Coast ceramics—Kenny Price-inspired creations with beach sand in the metamorphosed Smithson trays and glazed in Billy Al Bengston colors of olive, eggplant and brown.

Across the room is a series of large Cor-ten cut-out penis silhouettes reminiscent of William King sculptures (in technique at least) and feebly disguised as (the label claims) Bread Shadows. The slice of bread, it turns out, rests flat on the floor, providing a Giacometti-like base and reversing the usual position of object and shadow. The back room had several giant steel Fagends—the filter part post-Minimally rusted. Crumpled Minimal? Denuded Chamberlain? The most familiar object was a giant typewriter eraser with rough ceramic brick-colored “rubber” and metal bristles each an inch in diameter. It was the most recognizable Oldenburg, a welcome reminder of Oldendays.

The show continued a couple of doors down the street in a store front gallery. Here were more Arp/Brancusi/Mooreish objects—Inverted Q being their common source and title, though their flatulent fatness obliterated the central hole. These were in various sizes and materials, large shiny black plastic, large cast concrete, small concrete, small shiny plastic (all of which were finished to look like stone) and a small matte plastic one that had more in common with early poured Benglis. All bore the slickly fabricated stamp of Lippincott, which has been producing Oldenburg’s sculpture since 1969.

The decision to collaborate with Lippincott may prove to be a more crucial turning point in Oldenburg’s art than has yet been acknowledged. Though it most likely came about primarily for practical reasons (i.e. Lippincott had an obvious winner), it has ended up completely altering the character of his work, as well as the context in which we perceive it.

Whatever else Oldenburg is and has been, up until his first professionally fabricated pieces (the Ice Bag for LACMA’s “Art and Technology” extravaganza, Yale’s Lipstick, the Geometric Mouse for his MOMA show), he was, essentially, a visionary. The hard-soft inversions, shifts of scale and particularly the “monuments” were subtle, witty, sophisticated intellectual exercises that reflected on the character of objects by proposing interlocking sets of contradictions. The small was suggested as giant; the non-object heroicized (of all the flotsam that drifts unnoticed through our lives, who would ever think to not notice a typewriter eraser?). The colossal scale, left casually ambiguous in the drawings, was inevitably further amplified by the viewer’s imagination—imagination being, of course, the perfect medium through which to approach his art.

The first large-scale works to be realized must surely have seemed the culmination of Oldenburg’s visions. But they managed, ironically, to describe the limits that the imagination had been careful to overstep. After all that imaginary build-up the results inevitably seemed puny. (I had the same disappointing sensation when I finally saw the Hagia Sophia. The art history textbook would have you believe that the dome is so large you can’t even see to the top.) Oldenburg’s monuments, when actualized, dwindled to large sculptures, and consequently lost much of their conceptual charm. They substituted an assertive physicality which codified and memorialized not the objects they overtly paid homage to, but Oldenburg’s own past “good ideas.” And as “good ideas,” such works as the Three-Way Plug, the Clothespin, even the enigmatic Geometric Mouse, manage to survive their materialization.

The “good idea,” epitomized in the comic-strip lightbulb, may go down in art history as a proposed colossal monument to Oldenburg himself. For on it hinges the success of so many of his earlier images, and without it, many of his new ideas fail to make it. The light switch was a good, even brilliant idea. So was the hamburger. But the bicycle saddle, inverted Q and bread shadows are not good ideas. They seem effortfully contrived, and lack the “recognition factor” that gives instant access to his best pieces. They are also tediously phallic, and suffer heavily by comparison with the amusing sensual/sexual undercurrents in which he previously trafficked.

But the conceptual poverty of the images themselves, though disappointing, is not the larger issue these works raise. Why the encyclopedic inclusion of all those undigested art historical references?

Certainly the works read as a litany of the problems the ’70s are causing the ’60s. Art has been forced to slow down, and as a result often seems to be circling in a holding pattern around itself. Stella’s most recent works, for instance, tried literally to blow up Abstract Expressionist space, tipping various sections of what could once have been called the surface to lunge obstreperously into the room. By the time he covered them with day-glo and glitter-filled parodies of the action painters’ splatter, the effect left the shattered viewer wondering what he was trying to defile—the Abstract Expressionists’ art or his own.

Lichtenstein’s comic-strip imagery has given way to Matisse and the Futurists—when he’s not mining them for subjects, he’s working out on classical entablatures. Rauschenberg’s Jammers, lightweights by his own ’60s standards, seemed to pirate everyone from Eva Hesse to Noland to Richard Serra. And in the abstractionist camp, Noland is venturing tentatively into irregular shapes, Zox has tossed over his zingy hard-edge diagonals for a soft, feeble replay of “lyrical abstraction,” and Poons is loading his canvases with multicolored sheets of rain, as though Pollock’s violent drips had exhausted themselves and collapsed, pouring despondently down the paintings.

There is certainly nothing intrinsically wrong with art building itself on other art; it has always done so to varying degrees. But there are two puzzling things about the current rash of recycling—first, the artists who are doing it are the very ones who shot to instant stardom with work that set itself against past “high art” traditions, knocking the “esthetic” with deliberately banal subjects and styles. References, if they did exist, were not in the form of pirated imagery, but as ironies implicit in presenting the new work within traditional contexts and through traditional channels (museums, galleries). The second aspect of all this is perhaps more disillusioning than actually puzzling—the work suffers by comparison to that which it is using. Stella as AE, Lichtenstein as Matisse, Oldenburg as post-Minimal—none is as good as either his source or his old self. Style, in such incongruous metamorphoses, has capitulated to fashion.

The ’60s’ most destructive contribution may turn out to be that it promoted the perception of art as fashion. Art became extremely visible, and began to run with a chic crowd that awaited the new art season as eagerly (and with many of the same expectations) as the latest Paris couture. It demanded that art be outrageous, and in order to maintain such a status, the artist had to remain one step ahead of the predictable (a role to which Oldenburg and his art were particularly suited). Even as Rudi Gernrich gave way to Yves St. Laurent, artists were expected to change—or land in the thrift shop. There was no place in the ’60s for the proverbial Chanel suit. (The parallels are uncanny, undoubtedly too good to be true. As ’70s art heads for the outdoors, the low-key, away from the gallery hype, fashion bestows a Coty award on L.L. Bean.)

The critics have much to answer for in the encouragement, however well-meaning, of art’s frenetic impulse to remain new. In the ’60s the championing of styles was such that certain critics became inseparably paired with “their” artists. And the “styles” that emerged—Color Field, Pop, etc., had as much to do with the way the work looked (dressed?) as with the sensibilities behind its making. The critic is eternally vulnerable, forced to write what inevitably becomes history without the luxury of hindsight. Much of what is now evident about the art of the ’60s was not visible on the spot. And just as much of what seems obvious now will undoubtedly be less clear-cut, and certainly less important, as we recede further from that still-crucial period. Who’s to say that 1965 to 1975 may not ultimately reveal enough unifying characteristics to earn the epithet “decade”?

Meanwhile, back at the loft, the artists are puzzling it out. The ’60s swept them along at 100 m.p.h.—an exhilarating pace—but an energy crisis has reduced the speed limit to 55. Oldenburg’s response, it appears, is to convert his ideas into real monuments. The pace is slower, the task more ponderous. The commitment to technology, so superfluous to his early work, must represent for him a certain solidarity. The results so far have been disappointing, but Oldenburg is by no means finished. It remains to be seen where the route he has taken to survive the ’70s will lead.

Nancy Foote