New York

Claes Oldenburg


Claes Oldenburg showed a group of recent prints at Knoedler’s along with some studies for a few of them. There is a way in which Oldenburg’s drawing style benefits greatly from a kind of lax academicism. The looseness of his crayon line and the happy slosh of his wash just don’t mind looking like homemade fashion illustration. Of course in Oldenburg’s orbit there is every reason to like that idea in its own right. It could even be argued that in his projects for monuments, which monstrify familiar objects, Oldenburg belongs to the advertising tradition of giant-size products. There is a specifically American, and quite historical feature in giantism: it reminds one of those 19th-century Hudson River painters who wound up roaming the Rockies and sometimes the Andes because the Catskills weren’t big enough.

What protects Oldenburg from being contaminated with the academicism is his often hilariously whole-hog indulgence in it, plus his perfectly charming, self-conscious draftsman’s style. Oldenburg probably has the best sense of humor of any artist of this century, his only real rival being high Jean Tinguely. Well, everybody knows that; I only bring it up because I hadn’t realized how specific his suggestive ironies can be. Take, for instance, the almost foolishly pleasing print Proposal for a Colossal Structure in the Form of a Clothespin—Compared to Brancusi’s Kiss, 1972. Not only is the idea amusingly iconoclastic (and involved with modern academic tradition), but its iconoclasm turns on a particular insight into time-bound stylistic qualities of The Kiss that in a more serious mood we might overlook: (a) the Dadaistic likeness of the sculpture to a household object; (b) the fin-de-siècle overtones of the analogous object—for the clothespin resembles the Eiffel Tower; and (c) the overall look of the print, which makes these statements about the timeboundedness of the supposedly timeless Brancusi—the print looks like a Beerbohm caricature.

On the same issue of modernist satire, it is worth noting that Olden-burg’s drippy black enamel Study for Announcement of Dance Concert by Aileen Pasloff Dance Company–Dancing Figure, 1962, antedates Lichtenstein’s mock-Abstract Expressionist Brushstrokes by a couple of years. Not that the fact is of earthshaking importance, but the way Oldenburg takes on Pollock and produces a funny, messy piece of half-legible “calligraphy” is as left-handedly historicizing as it is engaging.

It strikes me that the most amusing of Oldenburg’s monument projects are the pseudo-Futurist ones, perhaps because Futurism often took its own silliness so seriously that it leaves itself wide open. Thus the Proposal for a Colossal Structure in the Form of a Sink Faucet for Lake Union, Seattle, Washington, 1972, seems to expose the folly of the Italian Futurist utopia, with its plunging angles, its megalomaniac scale and self-importance, and its earnestly pseudo-utilitarian “progressiveness.” In the same way, many of Oldenburg’s prints are like gag souvenirs of our own times, and we will be lucky some day that their accuracy of characterization equals their immediate charm.

Joseph Masheck