Los Angeles

Claes Oldenburg

UCLA Art Galleries

Claes Oldenburg is simply a magnificent draftsman. Sure, the ideas are clever, succinct, fertile and cheerful, but if Oldenburg couldn’t draw like a goddamned bandit, those ideas would be merely insightful. It’s Oldenburg’s drawing—loose, tactile, economic and deliciously painterly and/or sculptural—which turns them into works of art. This short report is not adequate to detail what makes Oldenburg head and shoulders above everybody from Wyeth to Rosenquist as a draftsman. Suffice it to say for the time that Oldenburg has a terribly fortunate combination of natural talent, experience (the reporter), mischievousness and industriousness which yields paper wonders. But there may still be a point to be made about the man, and, since the exhibition at UCLA is called “Oldenburg at Gemini,” about a certain art-making situation.

A mythical Indian cure involved a steam bath in a closed teepee and then a quick dip in an icy stream; the cure broke either the disease or the patient because its effectiveness depended almost entirely on the patient’s a priori constitution. Gemini is not a hospital for sick talents, surely, but artistic success there depends on a hardy constitution as much as esthetic sensibility, and Oldenburg has one of the healthiest going. I can’t imagine any circumstance—being appointed Richard Nixon’s painter laureate, facing stark poverty and disrepute, being made an Art Department chairman, sent packing to Devil’s Island or given a retrospective at the Parthenon—which would debilitate Oldenburg’s ability to make first-rate art. Gemini, certainly the best print workshop in the West, isn’t quite as extreme, but to an artist without Oldenburg’s peculiar resilience, no matter how well he’s thought of at, say, the Whitney, it could be fatally corrupting. What Gemini offers its chosen is a) technical and physical assistance, b) the best materials and closest tolerances, and c) a slick but dignified marketing operation. Since Oldenburg is a veritable fount of projects, he benefits from (a) channeling them and making them manifest. Since his stuff involves an incredible “touch,” (b) insures that “touch” won’t be lost; and since, most important, Oldenburg’s art is social, c) is esthetically necessary.

Nevertheless, it would be irresponsible to pass on without mentioning some of the new work. The Airflow Profile, the show’s feature, consists of a large, semi-loose line drawing of that ’34 Chrysler covered with a transparent green plastic relief of same, whose image dimensions are coincidental. Oldenburg’s love of the car is genuine, his “expanded” drawing is rightly restrained, and, best, it isn’t camp. The Ping-Pong Table Sculpture is done with colored chalks on dark paper and runs the risk of that exotic self-illumination common to paintings of tigers on black velvet, but easily overcomes it through, besides nice “wet” strokes of chalk, Oldenburg’s color choices. From his notes, the page on Mickey Mouse (steel sculpture, fallen sculpture, balloon, etc.) contains almost as many plays on a thing as one could expect: the shape of the mouse-head, the ritual-image, a parody on Constructivism, “persistence of shape” Gestalt, etc. Last, in the blackboard from the film Commercial for an lcebag (entombed under plexiglass), Oldenburg reveals a loose visual shorthand as codified and as abstract as, but more beautiful than, Lichtenstein’s. In conclusion I would like to unburden myself of a hopeful, but terrifying, thought: Claes Oldenburg is the one contemporary American artist who ought to give serious thought to running for the Senate.

Peter Plagens