Spoonbridge: It's Art, but Is It Good Art?

Spoonbridge: It's Art, but Is It Good Art?

The Walker Art Center is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its Sculpture Garden with a summerlong series of outdoor events (including "A Moving Spectacle" on Saturday, featuring free family art-making activities and performances from the Trisha Brown Dance Company).

The Sculpture Garden's best-known work, of course, is Spoonbridge and Cherry, the giant aluminum and stainless steel sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and his wife and collaborator Coosje van Bruggen, which has become one of the Twin Cities' most iconic images. Yet most of us are so familiar with Spoonbridge that we rarely discuss it as art.

So in connection with the garden's anniversary, we recruited Walker curator Peter Eleey to help us take a fresh look at the sculpture, by posing this question: If we were showing Spoonbridge to out-of-town guests who didn't know anything about art, how could we explain it to them in artistic terms? His answer:

"First of all, I would say that not everything should need to be explained in artistic terms for people to take pleasure in it. I think one of the last things museums want to create is the sense that somehow you have to know everything there is to know about a piece of work to enjoy it. You can accept all art wholly and completely on the level on which you experience it. And you should be able to take pleasure in doing so. Of course none of that is to say that greater pleasure wouldn't be gained by knowing more.

"Nevertheless, I think Spoonbridge and Cherry is pretty much exactly what it looks like. There isn't anything that anyone's missing when they're looking at it, except potentially by way of context.

"This is a case where actually going inside the museum helps, because we have a great Oldenburg piece in the permanent collection galleries right now [Shoestring Potatoes Spilling From a Bag, 1966]. It's a bag of French fries hanging upside down, sewn out of cloth, and the French fries are kind of falling out of the bag. And right nearby is a group of Andy Warhol boxes of various commercial products from the '60s--Brillo boxes, things like that.

"Those two works establish a kind of background for what the Spoonbridge and Cherry is doing out in the garden. They date from a period in American art when artists were doing what we call pop art, which used everyday materials as the sources for the art they were making. Throughout the 20th century, artists have been interested in trying to bridge the gap between art and life. What I think is particularly great about pop art from this period is how easy it is to find pleasure in it without necessarily knowing more, because its sources are so vernacular and recognizable.

"In that way, this is really about re-enchantment. You can look at the history of modern art more or less since Marcel Duchamp as one of trying to re-enchant the everyday world we live in. And whether its by things that sometimes look silly, like taking a bottle rack and putting it on a pedestal and calling it art [as Duchamp did in 1914], or whether its taking an average, simple thing like a Brillo box and making a sculpture version of it that looks just like the original, or taking a large spoon and imagining a cherry from a sundae, blown up to a monumental scale and put in a public sculpture garden, these are all things that operate on that level of re-enchantment--in the sense that we recognize what we're seeing, but something's changed. Its context is changed, its scale has changed, or something else has happened that allows us to see it in a different light, and in turn to see everything else around us in a different and refreshed light."

As a side note, Eleey mentioned one other tidbit about the famous sculpture. Oldenburg has said that his original plan was simply to create a giant spoon. It was his wife's idea to add the cherry.

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