New York

Claes Oldenburg

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

Many of the Museum of Modern Art’s neighbors these days belong to the family. To the east stands Park Avenue’s famous “glass canyon,” to the west Sixth Avenue’s. Built a generation and more before, the Museum was an early champion of the International Style’s celebrated purities. In such an area, in such a setting, the work of Claes Oldenburg, however officially welcomed, simply cannot feel at home.

Oldenburg’s soft sculptures show an empathy and gentleness profoundly at odds with the International Style’s immaculate visual rationalism. His empathy consists of granting his sculptures the full respect due another “I.” “Do what you most want to do,” Oldenburg seems to have suggested to a great range of manufactured objects from scissors, cars, and drums to calendars. And all, freed from their common human use by the seriousness and gentleness of his urging, have done so. They have relaxed.

This is not conventional anthropomorphism, based on mechanical analogies between a man’s body and an object (such as showing a car seeing with its headlights). Oldenburg is interested in something deeper—possible parallels of feeling, not mere function. His respect for a given object is shown in believing that what it might feel, as another potential “I,” is more important than what it is designed to do, particularly since that design, after all, was the decision of alien, demanding beings.

Oldenburg’s soft sculptures are objects on vacation—comfortable, leisurely, languorous. They celebrate the deep, if often ungainly pleasures of that delicious posture, the slouch. Mechanical appliances, which when functioning properly are hard to the touch, perform hard, brutal tasks, and are hard to take, Oldenburg makes suddenly languid, almost companionable. Telephones and toilets are sorry slaves that have the annoying air, however slight, of expecting and inviting use. Oldenburg makes them suddenly stop broadcasting, slacken, and turn inward. The sigh of relief is almost audible. Fans and scissors, for the first time, are allowed the autonomy to go, instead of our way, theirs. They clump. Given the same freedom, so would we.

Oldenburg also attacks the mechanical, the rigid in realms other than the material. One of these is time. The bloated numerals of Soft Calendar are soft not only to the eye but to the mind; they tend to slur into one another the abstract units of time they represent. They provide a refreshingly slovenly contrast to the spirit of those new clocks which, instead of having relatively serene hands, crisply flash the name of every minute every minute. This strictness occurs in more than exceptionally compulsive clocks. Both visually and conceptually, Oldenburg reminds us, it occurs in the trenchant grid of the ordinary calendar.

It can also occur in a more restricted kind of time—music. In a rock band, the drummer tends to structure time more sharply than anyone else. To do this, he does a lot of slugging, producing hard, abrupt sounds. But Oldenburg’s Soft Drums relax the tension of taut skin and steel and fall silent. They have the luscious ease of the useless. Patterns of space too can be dismayingly rigid and efficient. In his Soft Manhattan, Postal Zones Oldenburg lets the island’s strict imaginary sections sag.

Oldenburg’s famous softness, then, is a far from purely formal device. As he applies it to carefully chosen object after object, it quietly reminds us of how pervasively one or more of an insidious cluster of values—rigidity, precision, efficiency—has infiltrated not just sculpture, not even just objects but infinitely more important, our experience itself, of which those objects are only the specialized emblems. “Those who care for the world at this time,” Oldenburg has beautifully written, “tend to undress and go naked rather than in armor.” Using rational, efficient patterns to experience one’s home, or this moment, or next week, or the island one lives on is wearing a kind of head-armor, Oldenburg implies. Our minds, our lives, normally so strictly shaped by these physical and conceptual tools, simply do not have to be so rigid.

Oldenburg’s dissatisfaction with armor has not always been expressed “from within.” Cash Register, a painted enamel on plaster work, for example, is shockingly different from the soft pieces. Where the other pieces, normally stiff, have “autonomously” relaxed, Cash Register’s visual—and moral—strictness has been savagely attacked from without. Its customary shape Oldenburg has wrenched and kneaded, its usually sober surface he has splattered wildly with paint. In short, he has vandalized it. Only later does his work turn from antagonism to empathy. Objects whose social misuse—if less blatant—is as noxious as the cash register’s then relax into their congenial protest against function.

Some read this slackness as pathetic. One prominent sculptor finds in Oldenburg’s objects as much doggedly sentimentalized affliction as in certain Wyeths. But the strictness of the sculptor’s own visual vocabulary may preclude sympathy with work whose mood is so much more relaxed; Oldenburg’s objects give small indication of needing compassion. Their idleness, because genuinely voluntary, is a sign of their being not overwhelmed or disabled, but assertive and free.

Oldenburg’s early monument proposals all call for colossal, clumsy, unwieldy forms. Unlike his sculptures, most are not made soft, but are naturally soft. The Vacuum Cleaner has a floppy bag; the chubby Teddy Bear sprawls. Clumsiness so interests Oldenburg that he even makes his huge proposed Good Humor Bar sag in a way a real one never would. With the exception of sculpture’s stupendous version of the sit-in, the fine War Hero monument, where unwieldiness becomes obstruction, the proposals are benign. They cheerfully celebrate, among other things, what is typically American—short-order foods.

The later proposals are more aggressive. Not only do their forms turn hard and often mechanical (Scissors, Windshield Wiper), but many are designed to move, a feature less than comforting, even in imagination, on such a scale. Mammoth pool balls rolling in Central Park or bowling balls coasting down Park Avenue, whatever their esthetic merit, would certainly dismay the average stroller.

Most of the proposals are drawn very casually. Impressionistic sketching works well for catching the intimate, evanescent mood of Pat Sewing. But as a technique for rendering colossal implausible objects, of whose weight and substance we must be convinced, if only dramatically, it is too merely suggestive, too vague. It leaves too much air in the fantasy, locating the monument, for the viewer, more in Oldenburg’s mind than at the specific, physical site for which it is intended. Literalism makes Christo’s project for Lower Manhattan more vivid than Oldenburg’s, and those proposals where Oldenburg uses altered photos (Thames Ball, Windshield Wiper) more vivid than his sketches.

A plan of the exhibition, posted right at its entrance, does more than its duty. It becomes an emblem of the show. The galleries, it shows, will be perfectly rectilinear. As a pattern for space, its mood will contrast all too neatly with Soft Manhattan’s. Inside, who is surprised to find a checklist whose cover is so belligerently strict, both visually and grammatically? And in the galleries themselves, strictness is king. The rooms are box after box. The atmosphere is Calvin made visual—no curves, no frills, minimum color. Pieces actually labeled with titles like Floor Cone, Floor Cake, and Floor Burger are put on bases. Showcases, cabinets, bases, even the tracks and positions of the installation lights on the ceiling—all are pure, geometric, sterile.

Oldenburg, advocate of the slouch, is rather hard to look at in such surroundings. Of course some will say his work profits by the contrast. But this argument would make a monk’s cell the pleasantest place to enjoy a Matisse. Rationalized by the esthetic of the Bauhaus and Modern Design, the interior of the Museum has become a machine for maximum viewing instead of an environment to enjoy. Two backless wooden benches left as the only places to sit reinforce the show’s deepest and saddest irony. The Museum sees its patrons more as hard products to be put through their paces than many of the show’s very objects, freed by Oldenburg, see themselves.

Oldenburg’s attitudes toward rigidity have varied widely. In Cash Register, as if furious, he savagely attacks it; in the soft pieces, as if strong enough to be gentle, he lets it relax. This split strikingly parallels possible reactions to the show’s own setting. The Museum is an extremely rigid place. One reaction, answering hardness with hardness, is to fulminate against it. The other is to urge Oldenburg and others to build us softer ones small but important steps toward the softer life.

Jean-Louis Bourgeois