On October 29th, Zwirner & Wirth will present a selection of sculpture and drawings from the 1960s by Claes Oldenburg. On view will be a group of works which established the artist as a unique figure of Pop Art, including a large selection of objects from The Store; a number of early soft sculptures from The Home; and works related to Oldenburg's Airflow project. Oldenburg's work is inspired by the realities of everyday experience: street life, consumer goods, household objects, and automobile culture are among the subjects he has explored and transformed through innovative manipulations of scale and material into mysterious, formally inventive works that address human experience in modern life.
In response to the pervasiveness of consumer culture, Oldenburg began making irregular, outsized replicas of the goods displayed in the advertisements and small shops of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where he lived and worked. These sculptural forms were produced by soaking muslin strips in wet plaster, which were then laid on wire frameworks and painted in vibrant, layered, enamel colors. The first of these works comprised a group of wall reliefs that were exhibited at the Martha Jackson Gallery (then located at Zwirner & Wirth's present address at 32 East 69th Street), in the May-June 1961 group exhibition Environments, Situations, Spaces. These reliefs, which include Blue and Pink Panties (1961) and Two Girls' Dresses (1961), incorporate elements of painting and sculpture into a unique synthesis. These objects were the first of Oldenburg's works for The Store, an intimate, enclosed environment created by the artist in 1961 in a shop on East 2nd Street, which was filled with his versions of consumer goods. The Store functioned as a 'popular' museum of sorts; in it, Oldenburg produced, displayed, and sold his own work, not only circumventing the traditional gallery/museum contexts for exhibiting and viewing art, but also laying bare art’s function as a commodity. The inanimate items represented and displayed in The Store (and in this exhibition)–which include articles of clothing hanging suggestively on display mannequins (Mannikin with One Leg, 1961); an oversized, misshapen Red Cap (1961); a fleshy Plate of Meat (1961); and a hulking Cash Register (1961, one of the key elements of The Store), among other seductive objects–are marked by their sensuous physicality.
Oldenburg also began to produce his first soft sculptures in the 1960s, creating works made of stitched canvas and vinyl, once again using utterly unconventional, innovative materials to create large-scale versions of familiar objects. These works include a series of sculptures that relate to the theme of The Home. In these works, the everyday is made unfamiliar and new with Oldenburg's interventions of scale and materiality. Objects related to daily rituals are radically de-contextualized and made uncanny, including the stuffed canvas Soft Key (1965) and an amorphous Soft Toilet–Ghost Version (1966). Other works from The Home include objects in vinyl (such as Soft Medicine Cabinet, 1966), cardboard (Model–Stripped Wall Switch, 1964), and painted wood (Light Switches–Hard Version, 1964-69). These psychologically-charged works are an extension of the Store objects, functioning as "monument[s] of personal and social everyday life."¹
This exhibition will also present a group of works that pertain to automobile culture, reflecting Oldenburg's continued interest in urbanism. Between 1965 and 1966, he created a series of sculptures and drawings that dissected the Chrysler Airflow, presenting this obsolete car in cross-sections and parts. The human body is transformed into an industrial prosthesis in such works as Soft Engine Parts #2 (Filter and Horns), Airflow, Scale 5 (1965), in which engine parts compare to internal organs; and in a suite of eight graphite Airflow studies, which will also be on view.
Ultimately, Oldenburg's early work is best described in his own words: "I have combined my unworldly fantasy in a shock wedding to banal aspects of everyday existence…so completely…the thing is likely to burst either way, as it has arrived at a point where the cohabitation is no longer possible…either into banality or the other way into poetry…"²
Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929, Stockholm) has exhibited widely in the United States and internationally since the 1960s. He has had solo exhibitions at such venues as The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1969); the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1977); and the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, Ohio (1992). His work was the subject of a major traveling retrospective organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York in 1995-1996. He continues to live and work in New York, collaborating since 1977 with Coosje van Bruggen on artistic projects.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully-illustrated, hard-bound catalogue that includes an essay by Julia Robinson.
¹ Germano Celant, “Claes Oldenburg and the Feeling of Things,” Claes Oldenburg: An Anthology (New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 1995), p30
² Claes Oldenburg, “Extracts from the Studio Notes (1962-64),” Artforum IV:5 (Jan.1966), p.32.