June 02, 2013

"The Street" and "The Store": Oldenburg @ MoMA

When the Swedish born artist Claes Oldenburg moved to New York from Chicago in 1956, it was with the idea that he would pursue a career as a painter.  But by 1960 he had all but given up the painting idea in lieu of making sculpture - a revolutionary kind of sculpture that had never been seen before and reflected both his New York experience and the nascent pop art culture of the time.

In an exhibition co-curated with the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig in Vienna, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, is currently presenting an unprecedented selection of Oldenburg's earliest works.

"The Street" comprises works created in 1961 that reflect the artist's experience of living on the very gritty Lower East Side of Manhattan.  The objects are crafted out of very ordinary materials like cardboard, newspaper and black poster paint and depict the sights and characters of the neighborhood.  Very crudely drawn and constructed, the end results speak volumes about life in a very run down part of town.  Barking dogs, manhole covers, prostitutes (see "Street Chick" right) and street signs all create a sort of snapshot of the district at that time.

At the end of the year, Oldenburg rented a storefront on East Second Street that would act as both a studio and a showroom.  Here he created a commercial fantasyland of everyday objects made of brightly painted paper maché.  These sculptures were primitive, lumpy and out of scale representations of items like shoes, cakes, soda bottles, cigarettes and hamburgers and they were available for sale to the public from Friday to Sunday from one to six o'clock.

The grit and audacity of "The Street" sculptures was replaced by a sort of sweetness and charm in "The Store" with its cheery and funny depictions of items that we see all the time.  One can only imagine the reaction of passers by as they saw these crazy objects for sale in the window of what Oldenburg called the "Ray Gun Manufacturing Company"!  He later expanded his repertoire to include oversize soft sculptures again depicting common items like ice cream cones and sandwiches made out of sewn and painted canvas.

The MoMA exhibition continues downstairs in the Marron Atrium with two large scale installation pieces rarely put on display.  "Mouse Museum" and "Ray Gun Wing" were completed in the 1970s and represents Oldenburg's own selection of hundreds of his sculptures and ready-made objects in his "museum of popular art, nyc".  One can clearly see the influence of Marcel Duchamp but these are unique works that reflect the artist's own dialogs regarding collecting and creating and the distinction between ordinary items and museum treasures.

Claes Oldenburg was revolutionary in his time and continues to play a major role in Contemporary Art.  This exhibition is a fascinating look at how Oldenburg bounded onto the art scene and why he remains influential to this day.  It will remain on view at MoMA until August 5th.

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