PRINT December 2012

Hal Foster

View of “Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties,” 2012.

WITH SOME SHOWS, I leave knowing less than I did before entering them. “Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties” was not one of those. Beautifully installed at MUMOK by curator Achim Hochdörfer in close collaboration with the artist, this exhibition allowed us to see the early mature work of the great Oldenburg anew, in large part because, even as it traced his singular development of motifs (such as the “ray gun”), it also displayed his interconnected use of mediums—by way of hundreds of objects, drawings, watercolors, posters, and documentary films and photographs (many of which were related to his legendary Street and Store events of the early 1960s).

“My art,” Oldenburg wrote in 1967, “strives for a simultaneous presentation of contraries”—among them the ordinary and the extraordinary and the aesthetic and the unaesthetic.¹ Yet at MUMOK other tensions activated by the Street and Store objects, such as that between the visual and the bodily, struck me even more. “These are rips out of reality, perceptions like snapshots, embodiments of glances,” the artist remarked of his shirts, cigarettes, cakes, and the like, molded out of lumpen muslin, wire, and plaster and slopped with bright enamel, and through these “eye-clusters” he aimed to present a “formal model for a kind of visual experience,” one that involved “fragmentation, simultaneousness, superimposition.”² This is a mimesis of vision as experienced on the Lower East Side of Manhattan at a time when light industry still mixed with mom-and-pop stores, a mimesis that, even as it tears each “eye-cluster,” whether street debris or product ensemble, from its setting, also grounds it both in the materiality of the urban world from which it came and in the corporeality of the individual viewer who snatches it, as it were, with his or her look. “They are shown as fragments (of the field of seeing),” Oldenburg repeated about his objects, and this is precisely how they were presented at MUMOK—as “torn-birth flesh-fragments.”³ Exemplary in this regard is Two Girls’ Dresses, 1961, which evokes a sighting of such garments in a store window, but a sighting that is weirdly embodied, literally fleshed out (the dresses are white and pink, like skin).

If the Street and Store objects are “embodiments of glances,” what kind of body is evoked here? “The erotic or the sexual is the root of ‘art,’ its first impulse,” Oldenburg insisted, and clearly he wanted to tap that root. At the same time, he saw that it was entwined with “fetichistic stuff” [sic], by which I take him to mean commodity fetishism.⁴ According to art historian Julia E. Robinson, Oldenburg pits the sexual fetish against the commercial fetish in a way that not only “pathologizes” the commodity but also mimics “regression, in order to mark out a path back from [the] alienated object relations” that it has effected.⁵ This reading is right, though I would inflect it differently. Oldenburg compounds the two kinds of fetish, seeking to charge his objects with the “intensity” of both, and so to restore a “magic” to materials and objects alike.⁶ Indeed, two different models fundamental to twentieth-century sculpture, the commodity and the part object, are often combined in his work, and here the fact that it is crafted (not ready-made) is key. In any case, his objects do not fix desire as a fetish does; rather, they remain “constantly elusive,” which is how Oldenburg wanted them: “It is important to me that a work of art . . . mean many different things to many different people. My work is always on its way between one point and another.”⁷

Although his objects often have fetishistic associations (the ray guns above all), the Oldenburg world is finally less phallic than anal, as is the case with other masters of regression, such as Kurt Schwitters before him and Mike Kelley after. “Store is cloaca,” Oldenburg once commented, “defecation is passage,” and some of his works do appear less half-baked than half-digested, “residual objects” passed through the insides of a body. (This is especially the case with Jacket and Shirt Fragment, 1961–62, with its fecal brown and blood red, but Cash Register, 1961, also looks as though it were deformed by intestinal acids.) Ernest Jones once proposed that the prototypical act of artmaking is the infantile shaping of shit. Might this be what Oldenburg means by the “first impulse” of art, and what he wishes to reclaim by his “shit view”?⁸ “I am for the art of kids’ smells,” he declaims in his famous manifesto of 1961. “I am for the art of mama-babble.”⁹ For Freud, this anal zone is one of indistinction—a young child might associate feces with a penis or a baby, he thought—and one can only regress there. But might not the anal also be a site of emergence into difference? In this regard, Oldenburg treats us not to the collapse of form into formlessness, to the breakdown of language, so much as to the development of signs from amorphous stuff, from things seen on the street, like a piece of bent metal or scrap wood that might be used to signify a gun or a flag. Or, rather, Oldenburg offers us a range of (a)signifying possibilities. He once described the objects in his Mouse Museum, which was begun in 1965 with leftovers from his performances as well as assorted purchases and gifts, as “examples of things that have no form, things that have form, things that are trying for form but dont [sic] make it.”¹⁰

Claes Oldenburg, display case 4 of Ray Gun Wing, 1965–77, wood, Plexiglas, found objects.

There is, then, another tension here, now between the “contraries” of body and sign, or the material and the semiotic, whereby almost any piece of scrap might become a signifier and vice versa. “I try to have everything equal a ‘Ray Gun,’” Oldenburg remarked of this part of his language. “Every sidewalk is a Ray Gun beach.”¹¹ Yet, of course, not everything turns into this one figure; again, that would hardly be “elusive” enough. Rather, Oldenburg is concerned with the formal-semiotic transit “between one point and another” along a relay of associations, as exemplified in this great riff on some of his Store objects:

cock and balls
cock and balls equals tie and collar
equals leg and bra
equals stars and stripes
flag equals cigarette package and

heart equals balls and triangle
equals (upside down) girdle and stockings
equals (sidewise) cigarette package equals

This riff is phallic, to be sure, but only as much as Bataille’s Story of the Eye (1928).

The image of a “Ray Gun beach” conjures up Oldenburg as a Robinson Crusoe on the Lower East Side, a Baudelairean ragpicker, somewhere between the Beats and the Pops, who strolls through a postwar forest of symbols in search of new correspondences in the tacky everyday. For me, though, his work calls to mind an even more mythical event—the moment when signification exploded into being. “Language can only have arisen all at once,” Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote in his 1950 essay on Marcel Mauss. “Things cannot have begun to signify gradually. In the wake of [this] transformation . . . a shift occurred from a stage when nothing had a meaning to another stage when everything had meaning.”¹³ At this hypothetical origin, there was a sudden surplus of signification such that any signifier might float free as “a simple form, or to be more accurate, a symbol in its pure state, therefore liable to take on any symbolic content whatever.”¹⁴ According to Lévi-Strauss, such was the case for Mauss with the Polynesian term mana. Oldenburg has this mana touch, too; his art is a ray gun of magical transformation.

“Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties” is currently on view at the Guggenheim Bilbao, through Feb. 17, 2013; travels to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Apr. 14–Aug. 5, 2013; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Sept. 13, 2013–Jan. 12, 2014.

Hal Foster is the author, most recently, of The Art-Architecture Complex (Verso, 2011) and The First Pop Age: Painting and Subjectivity in the Art of Hamilton, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Richter, and Ruscha (Princeton University Press, 2012).


1. Claes Oldenburg, Store Days (New York: Something Else Press, 1967), 54.

2. Ibid., 19, 14.

3. Ibid., 26, 80. Throughout the 1960s, Oldenburg also clipped and saved advertisements from a range of mass-market magazines.

4. Ibid., 62.

5 Julia E. Robinson, “Fetish or Foil: The Caprices of Claes Oldenburg,” in Claes Oldenburg: Early Work (New York: Zwirner & Wirth, 2005), 21.

6. Oldenburg, Store Days, 62, 60.

7. Ibid., 51.

8. Ibid., 142.

9. Ibid., 41.

10. Claes Oldenburg, “Draft A: The Collection” (n.d.), Oldenburg van Bruggen Studio Archives, New York, as quoted in Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Annihilate/Illuminate: Claes Oldenburg’s Ray Gun and Mouse Museum,” in Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties, ed. Achim Hochdörfer with Barbara Schröder (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2012), 267.

11. Claes Oldenburg in conversation with Richard Kostelanetz, in The Theater of Mixed Means (New York: Dial Press, 1968), 156; Claes Oldenburg, “Collecting Ray Guns in Nug Yar; or, The Use of a Useless Activity” (n.d.), Oldenburg van Bruggen Studio Archives, New York, as quoted in Buchloh, “Annihilate/Illuminate,” 252.

12. Oldenburg, Store Days, 51.

13. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss, trans. Felicity Baker (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987 [1950]), 59–60.

14. Ibid., 64.