Claes Oldenburg

Like commemorative representations or monuments, Claes Oldenburg’s sculptures and drawings for “The European Desk Top” are designed to reveal the significance of their surrounding world as well as their underlying allegorical structures. Olden-burg’s works function like agglutinations of signifiers for the historical, political, and economic meaning, as well as the use value of the place they have been designed to mark: here, a European gallery.

The four painted, expanded polystyrene sculptures Oldenburg presents, entitled Sculpture in the Form of a Writing Quill and an Exploding Ink Bottle, on a Fragment of Desk Pad; Sculpture in the form of a Rolling Blotter, Rearing, on a Fragment of Desk Blotter; Sculpture in the Form of a Collapsed European Postal Scale; and European Desk Top Model (all works 1990), immediately engender a sense of chaos within their new-found site. Suggesting antique desktop paraphenalia, Oldenburg’s monumental writing quill, ink bottle, blotters, and scale refer to their original site (the desk top), but they are mediated by our preestablished symbolic relationship to the gallery. These works initiate chains of references not only to a pre-FAX office structure but to European geography, Martin Luther, Europe’s unification in 1992, Leonardo da Vinci, and the gallery’s economic and symbolic function. The triangular tabs used to hold in place the grass-green blotters read like mountainous forms. These topographical desk tops function as a metaphor for a classical, pre-Copernican vision of the European world. The mirror-writing that appears on the surfaces of these desks is presented in its legible (left to right) form on the surface of the rolling blotter. The publication accompanying this exhibition informs us that the text is composed of fragments from both Leonardo’s notes on flying machines and Coosje van Bruggen’s text “To Federic.” The inverted text collage, which is almost impossible to read, strains the limits of interpretation to a metaphoric comment on both our position in the gallery and in relationship to the work of art itself. Oldenburg’s use of the exploding ink bot tie in the sculpture, or its repeated presence together with a black, hovering fly in the drawing, refer to the legend surrounding Martin Luther’s belief that the fly was sent by the devil to disrupt his efforts to satisfy himself about the divine, as opposed to evil, source of his calling. Within the current of “The European Desk Top,”on the eve of European unification, this reference to Martin Luther, the man responsible for creating a theological/political division between Germany and Italy at the start of the 16th century, creates a sort of political vertigo by calling into contemporary consciousness Europe’s ever-present divisions. Oldenburg’s Collapsed European Postal Scale, lying on the floor like an exhausted praying mantis, seems to reveal the tragicomic dimension of this unification.

Oldenburg’s works for “The European Desk Top” operate within an expanded field; his chosen subjects function as signifiers that move beyond the actual focus of this piece. For this work Oldenburg leaves the public sites we have learned to associate with his production to reenter the gallery, which he symbolically opens and energizes. While the logic of the monument speaks through a limited, preestablished symbolic language about the place in which it is presented, Oldenburg’s “The European Desk Top” becomes his social/public work space as it adopts a cultural position anchored within this complexly determined site.

Anthony Iannacci