New York

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen

Whitney Museum of American Art

The Whitney owns ninety-two of Claes Oldenburg's drawings (the largest such collection anywhere) and all were on exhibition this summer at the museum, displayed in two groups—those from 1959 to 1977, and those the artist made with his second wife, Coosje van Bruggen, from 1992 to 1998. One is tempted to ask what the difference is between these two periods and an answer is suggested by Oldenburg's definition of drawing as “the accidental ability to coordinate your fantasy with your hand.” The later work seems less fantastic and accidental and looks predetermined, as if the drawings were documenting sculptures that were already commissioned, whereas the earlier drawings appear spontaneous and experimental—each one the “impulsive” rendering of an “idea,” to use Oldenburg's language again. The loss of intimacy makes it seem as though going public had become more important to the artist than having fresh impulses.

Put another way, in works made at the outset of his career, Oldenburg seems absorbed in the act of drawing rather than in the act of representing—with his imagery inseparable from the drawing process. The artist's energy and invention fall off during his passage from the phallic “Capric”—Adapted to a Monument for a Park, 1966, to Dream Pin, 1998, which is not much of a dream at all. He loses the sexual irony and surreal flair of Nude with Electric Plug, 1967. Casual deftness takes over his originally lively, even capricious hand, indicating that Oldenburg is conforming to a textbook idea of himself—monumentalizing himself, in effect. He no longer makes history, but is history, part of the pantheon of Pop idols. For that matter. his later monumental sculptures have a bland authoritarian look. Such later works have lost their critical edge and odd brutality—which had appeared most famously, perhaps, in Oldenburg's phallic Ray Guns—and are instead as banal as the social spaces the artist once aggressively subverted.

No longer made using a more or less automatist process, the preparatory drawings that accompanied these later sculptures have none of the artist's original metamorphic power, by which ordinary objects changed before our eyes into extraordinarily suggestive forms, often nightmarish as well as sexual, as happens in the weirdly tragicomic Two Fagends Together I, 1968. The Whitney's two charcoal studies of Perfume Bottle, Fallen, 1992, show something of Oldenburg's caricatural drama and touch; but Soft Shuttlecocks, Falling, Number Two, 1995, looks like a fancy illustration. Oldenburg's sculptures no longer work as ironic double entendres—lipstick is no longer a rocket or tank gun, for example, as it is in a study for the 1969 monument for Yale University, a marvelous blending of libido and hostility, but one-dimensional objects. Having lost their unconscious charge, the late drawings and sculptures are comfortably self-conscious, but no longer with any dynamic sense of the self.

Donald Kuspit