Claes Oldenburg, Two Cheeseburgers (1962)
While checking out the giant squishy ice cream cone and French fries, the hanging inflatable plug, the glass case full of fake food, the cardboard and burlap cut-outs, and the melting toilets that make up "Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties" at the Walker Art Center, you may find yourself getting an irresistible urge to reach out and touch the art. The exhibition, which is broken up into different stages of Oldenburg's work from the '60s into the '70s, teems with so much life that it almost seems to be breathing.
Street Chick (hanging) by Claes Oldenberg, 1960
Organized by the MUMOK (Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien), the exhibition premiered in Vienna, and has been shown in Germany, Spain, and in a condensed version at the Museum of Modern Art. It contains nearly 300 pieces illustrating the progression of his work, from the crude, guttural pieces of "The Street"; to the satirical whimsy of "The Store"; to the large, soft sculptures of "The Home"; to later works such as "Ray Gun Wing" and "Mouse Museum"; to, finally, the beginnings of the public art stage of his career. That final phase brings us to Spoonbridge and Cherry, the iconic sculpture that stands at the centerpiece of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, and is one of the most recognizable public artworks in the Twin Cities.
While nearly all the sculptural work contained in the different sections produce a kind of living energy, it's the exhibition's first section, from Oldenburg's "The Street," that allows you to enter into the fearlessness of what he was creating in the early 1960s.
Oldenburg debuted "The Street" in the year 1960 in the basement of Judson Church House in Greenwich Village. In the late '50s, the progressive church had converted its basement into an arts and studio space, eventually becoming Judson Gallery. Here, Oldenburg's work was shown with "The House," an installation by Jim Dine, along with three nights of experimental performances titled Ray Gun Spex.
Experiencing "The Street" would no doubt have been quite different 53 years ago in the basement of that church, but you at least get a sense of it at the Walker. The cardboard, burlap, and wood figures are deliberately crude -- though not haphazardly finished. With titles such as Big Man and Street Chick, they are both recognizable but also ritualistic and almost sacred.
Unfortunately, we can't go back in time to see what it was like to be there during these happenings, although the exhibition does contain some short spastic films illuminating the insane performances. They're quite hard to watch -- there's a lot of yelling and nonsense, with the use of masks and objects -- but they are also intriguing, even though the film doesn't quite capture what it was like to really be there.
Claes Oldenburg, Soft Toilet (1966)
"The Store" was also originally not just an exhibit but a performative event. According to the Walker's press release, Oldenburg rented a storefront on East Second Street in New York, which he filled with more than 100 objects that people could buy, with Oldenburg present as the store's owner. Items for sale included hamburgers, hanging suits, a giant piece of chocolate cake -- none of which look particularly pleasing. The clothing was often wrinkled, the food unsettling. Here, too, you don't quite get the same effect as what it would be like to actually enter into Oldenburg's store, but you can imagine what it would have been like.
"The Home" contains modern appliances and objects symbolizing middle-class prosperity. Telephones, toilets, plugs, and cigarettes appear distorted, both in their size and in the warped effect that the squishy sculptures create. It's like seeing the American Dream deflating before your eyes.
The exhibition also contains a room full of nick-knacks from Oldenburg's collection, and various reiterations of a mouse theme, the most disturbing of which are a trio of Mickey Mouse-esque figures dressed in what looks like KKK masks. There are also some of Oldenburg's own writings and sketches on display, including documentation leading up to the creation of Spoonbridge and Cherry.
Claes Oldenburg, Geometric Mouse Scale C (1971)
In all, it's a fascinating exhibition, and one that would be of interest to anyone looking to find out more about the guy behind Minneapolis's famous Spoonbridge and Cherry. Of all the sections, "The Home" sculptures feel the most relevant to today's continued obsession with consumer culture. However, the earlier work of "The Store" and "The Street" gives you a taste of the different sorts of underground happenings you might experience here in the Twin Cities. It's one thing to view art in a museum, but this exhibit reminds us how much more thrilling it is to enter into an alternative space where art and performance are being created and discovered outside the walls of institutions.
"Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties"
Sunday, September 22 through January 12, 2014
There will be a Walker After Hours party starting 10:30 p.m. Saturday, September 21 and an opening-day talk with Claes Oldenburg at 2 p.m. Sunday, September 22
See the Walker's website for details