New York

Claes Oldenburg

Sidney Janis Gallery

Claes Oldenburg’s current show at Janis presents another maddeningly sensible group of his metamorphosed objects. More than any other artist currently engaged with the fascinating perplexities of the simulacrum, Oldenburg consistently follows through with each of his extraordinary images to a definitive form. He is so keenly aware of the vast number of conventional associations we all make with certain materials and with even the isolated qualities of materials that a frank disregard of the function of almost any object can lead him to create its familiar form in a material which has only one of its “proper” qualities. That we associate “shiny” and “white” with hardness without thinking any further, leads him to, say, a bathtub that is shiny and white but soft. Immediately the tub is transposed to another plane of existence its functional sine qua non has been extracted, or rather omitted, and so its form is now ridiculous, even pathetic. Pathos is changed to menace when the element of gigantism is introduced instead of, or along with, a transposition of materials. A french-fried potato four feet long is not just bizarre, it is alarming. If it is that big, how big are we? The arbitrary framework of all the unwarranted assumptions required just to get through a single day, that we of course know how big we are, that the shapes of familiar things are not divorced from certain material qualities, that food may be eaten, are all subverted totally.

Oldenburg quite gently, really, shows us up as blind ninnies when it comes to really looking and knowing. Everyone will grant that perception in itself need not be tied to considerations of utility, and in fact that it is probably not so until a certain critical point in the development of the personality is reached. But how distressing to have to own up to this not in the comfort of a philosophical discussion but by the direct experience of the senses!

Oldenburg’s Air Flow model cars present yet other complexities due to their scale and the variety of textures and materials that must be analogically present in their artistic identities. So far Oldenburg has dealt with parts of the full-size image in tinted canvas but still seems to be working out, part by part, the possibilities of the total image. Several miniature specimens in vinyl and plexiglass are draped limply on their stands like sleepy kittens held up in one hand. Of the fullsize pieces the Soft Tires and Soft Doors appear most successful, perhaps because we are at least somewhat accustomed to seeing these things amputated, crumpled and discarded in their metal incarnations. The tentative results of the Air Flow pieces on view most likely indicate that they may be considered work in progress, and that the theme will receive further treatment in yet other works.

Filling out this large show are a number of handsome drawings. Six “Projects for Colossal City Monuments” are witty and not so silly at all; if the Chinese put marble ships in ornamental lakes, why not an immense hotdog on Ellis Island? Would it be any nuttier than a circular wall with millions of names on it? Ten additional assorted drawings include several that are isometric renderings of things like three-way plugs, cut out and mounted between sheets of glass. The concept here is essentially that of Duchamp’s Water Mill Within Glider, but the updated and banal subject matter takes to this treatment very well. Those nostalgic for the now familiar, almost homey plates of hard food will not be disappointed in a platter of Saumon Mayonnaise or some marvellous Oeufs Poches Vulcania, avec Saucisses.

Dennis Adrian