Claes Oldenberg, László Moholy Nagy

Richard Feigen Gallery; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

Claes Oldenburg has said that instead of working in a single studio he prefers the possibility of working in several, each located in different cities, in fact each city itself would become a studio. One of these, he has said, would be Chicago. With this city as its theme, his three-times postponed Chicago show was held in May at the Richard Feigen Gallery. It consisted of constructions, models and drawings—and also, of equal importance, his comments in the catalog, rewritten from notes kept in Chicago during his visits here since October 1967.

The statements in the catalog may be said to explain and to describe his various themes; they express his ideas in another medium, writing. Certainly he is easily articulate in whatever medium and on several levels, and for him words are a natural means with which to expand the fantasy so evident in this show. Therefore, one of the components of this exhibition was the seven prose poems published in the catalog. Such a poetic category seems appropriate to writings which are rich in metaphor but they also demonstrate his capacity for critical detachment and sometimes suggest his particular sense of history.

“If I am a landscape painter (and my ‘monuments’ are an excuse for doing landscapes) then I am a painter of the complete landscape . . . A city landscape is not a flat space with sky over it, but some spherical condensed form, or like a brain . . . The colossal ‘monument’ proposals have to be very precise as to scale—one has to see at a glance . . . just how big the thing proposed is . . . The main reason for the colossal objects is the obvious one—to expand and intensify the presence of the vessel—the object. Perhaps I am more a still-life painter—using the city as a tablecloth.”

With the city as “still life” Oldenburg creates his fantasy landscape. References to Chicago were sometimes direct and easily understood historically, such as Feasible monument (or Grant Park, Chicago: memorial to Louis Sullivan (1969); or with reference to recent, readymade monuments, Feasible monument for a Chicago site: giant cufflink: using Picasso head (1969). The humor in each of these is carried into another, more fanciful, realm with his Proposal for a skyscraper for Michigan Avenue, Chicago, in the form of Lorado Taft’s sculpture, “Death” (1968).

But the object which recurred most often, and which became the symbol for the show, was the fireplug. “A prosaic (seemingly limited) object is best for this demonstration of (a) man’s mind at work.” In its many forms it became a genus unto itself, in drawings of beautiful precision and restraint or with dash and bravura of great facility or in sculpture such as the hydrocal multiple (“for throwing”).

His crayon and watercolor drawing of a skyscraper-fireplug, Proposal for a skyscraper in the form of a Chicago fireplug (1968) suggests comparison with a Cézanne still life. Such a comparison is not meant to be facetious since Cézanne’s still lifes and his landscapes are analogous (and their parts are almost interchangeable). For example, a cup by Cézanne would not be out of place in a landscape and its existence as a monument seems entirely possible. This kind of game is not difficult to play with Oldenburg’s fantasy. The identity of the object in each case seems always to fluctuate.

The ubiquitous fireplug or the man’s hat, in another example, offer their own resistance and slip back and forth from the realm of the vernacular to the realm of fantasy by change of scale or physical state. While the initial selection of the commonplace object may be compared to Duchamp’s selection of a readymade, Oldenburg’s presentation creates a series of new and unexpected relationships. Although he selects man-made objects, the process is not unlike that which primitive man is said to practice when he endows some object with ritualistic powers. Such objects, too, are highly ambiguous and Oldenburg’s statement from the catalog, “The ritual nature of the events is what makes them worth recalling,” bears upon this. It probably also refers in a very real sense to those events attendant upon the Democratic Convention such as his Feasible monuments to be scattered in a city park: fragments of nightstick contact (1968-69).

His objects are not only subject to displacement but they are often replaced by others and their context modified as in his Pier in the form of a spoon, Chicago (1967). There are several versions of this subject in which a mirror, a bed-table lamp, a bath-brush and a pair of boots replace this local landmark. He suggests that the possibilities are unlimited.

Whether as still life or landscape it was Chicago from the “anonymous level of the child’s vision . . .” and also from “ . . . the critical sentimental level of the adult viewer.” Although not unsympathetic, the works expressed Oldenburg’s ironic attitude toward the city almost as if it were some archeological site.

An exhibition of the work of Moholy-Nagy has long been needed to balance and to broaden our understanding of this extraordinary individual. Such an exhibition has been organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Guggenheim Museum and it opened in June at the Contemporary. Until this time Moholy-Nagy has been known primarily as an educator and to be sure the greater part of his energy was probably devoted to teaching and to the formulation of his ideas about the education of the artist. One of the major figures at the Bauhaus in Germany from 1923 to 1928, he spent the last nine years of his life in Chicago where he founded a school known as the Institute of Design. His energy, his will and his enormous enthusiasm kept it going through the early critical years and although it was known as “Moholy’s school” it included at one time or another such individuals as, Kepes, Archipenko, John Cage and others.

Moholy’s faith in modern technology—both process and product—was a factor in his teaching and in his own work as well. (Note the number of different materials he used for painting surfaces in the ’20s and ’30s—galalith, bakelite, silverite, aluminum and finally, in the late ’30s and ’40s, plexiglass.) Almost a forecast of more recent approaches to utilizing industrial processes are the three versions of his “telephone picture” as early as 1922. E M 3 was carried out according to his telephoned instructions in porcelain enamel on steel.

But it was light as an expressive medium that evoked his most sustained interest and his most subtle response. His use of it takes several forms, as in photographs and photograms, where his vision was freshest. But it was the actual use of light, in the light and shadow play from his Light-space Modulator (Lichtrequist), the machine constructed especially for that purpose, and also Moholy’s proposals for “painting with light by technological means on clouds, reflecting and warped surfaces . . .” that illustrate his ideas in actual practice and at their most imaginative.

The fact that he continued to paint seems at first incongruous and inconsistent with his espousal of modern means for the artist. (He rationalized this activity by saying “Since it is impossible at present to realize our dreams of the fullest development of optical techniques [light architecture] we are forced to retain the medium of easel painting.”)

Several of his finest works are early, such as the portrait drawing of Dr. Reinhold Scheyrer, 1921, which has a particular richness of line in its Jugenstil character, and his 1920 painting, Large Emotion Meter, with its quality of Dada playfulness, is comparable to Picabia or to Schwitters. In this painting the line is more geometric and mechanistic and it shows Moholy’s affinity with the Russian Suprematists and Constructivists. His passionate interest in light recurs in his paintings as effects employed to render light. Most often such effects are representations of transparencies. In his watercolor of 1922–23, Colored Segments, layered, overlapping shapes suggest the actual plastic materials which he would later use. Unlike the use of transparent planes developed by the Cubists to fuse form and space, his use of the device (and here he was consistent with the other Constructivists) almost always suggests the actual material construction. This helps to explain his constructions out of plexiglass and chromium rods which were completed in the ’40s. These too extended the Constructivists’ sculptural concepts, since the linear rods and the light-edges of the plastic describe depth, not volume. However, the convoluted form and the elusive material seem to be responsible for their incompleteness and lack of clarity.

This is not true of his Light-Space Modulator, constructed between 1921 and 1930 when he was head of the metal workshop at the Bauhaus. Although stilled and unmoving now, its domination of the show was unmistakable. More and more as its bearing upon kinetic and light sculpture of the present becomes clear, its importance to 20th-century sculpture stands out.

Although Moholy-Nagy’s attitude toward his time was positive and essentially optimistic, his own position as an artist (at least as confirmed by this show) was somewhat ambivalent. A statement in Vision in Motion can almost apply to his dilemma, “. . . he approached the new dimension with obsolete practices and failed to translate his newly gained experience into emotional language and cultural reality.”

Whitney Halstead