If all you knew of Claes Oldenburg’s career were the colossal trinkets that brighten cities worldwide – a giant’s half-eaten apple core outside the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, a towering clothespin in Philadelphia’s Centre Square, an upside-down ice-cream cone melting off the roof of a Cologne shopping mall – you’d be surprised to learn how such mature whimsy grew out of a young man’s rage. The 84-year-old artist’s angry early work comes in for new scrutiny in two shows at the Museum of Modern Art: Claes Oldenburg: The Street and the Store, a focused study of the two projects that launched his career; and Claes Oldenburg: Mouse Museum/Ray Gun Wing, a selection of objects that inspired him, housed in two quirkily shaped structures in the museum’s atrium.
Disgust permeates The Street and the Store. It’s there in his glutinous candy bars and bulging hamburgers, which ooze gristle and fat. It’s there in the paint-lashed underwear and shirts that practically stink of body odour. The scrofulous denizens of his “Street” (1960) reek of corruption. In notes from 1959, Oldenburg announced a burning desire to “terrify and embarrass the artist and also wound and terrify and embarrass the audience”. He insisted that art “must grow out of scatological and masochistic impulses and all those impulses which produce the real power and the real motivations”.
The carefully calibrated crudity went against the grain of the artist’s cultivated background. The son of a Swedish diplomat stationed in the US, Oldenburg was raised in Chicago and educated at Yale and at the Art Institute of Chicago. He alighted in New York in 1956, settling into the grimy Lower East Side, a neighbourhood moulting its old population of Eastern European Jews to make way for new immigrants from Latin America. It was a time of transition in the art world, too, as Abstract Expressionism collapsed under the weight of its own seriousness. Rauschenberg had already begun scavenging the gutter for his “Combines”, the splattered, roughly carpentered objects that brazenly straddled painting and sculpture.
Oldenburg has powerfully mixed feelings about a neighbourhood caught between nostalgia and a certain vibrant misery, and he translated that ambivalence into “The Street”. To compose that monumental environment, he stuffed the basement of Judson Church on Washington Square with foraged refuse, corrugated cardboard and crude drawings. In one performance he staged there, he positioned himself amid the detritus, draped in rags and venting mad existential yawps.
MoMA has some of the slapdash stuff related to that first installation – most of the originals were too fragile to survive. There are blackened renderings of local signs, buildings, merchandise and personalities, enormous scrawls that look like comics, but creepier. A woman in a miniskirt with black tights and big hair might be funny if she didn’t also have zombie eyes seared into her skull. So might the “Empire (‘Papa’) Ray Gun” (1959), a phallic blob suspended from the ceiling. This curiously protuberant firearm, modelled on Buck Rogers’ weapon, brimmed with meaning for the artist.
The ray gun became a kind of ur-image for Oldenburg. He saw it everywhere, hidden in lumps of driftwood, twists of metal pipe, crumpled newspaper and skeins of thread. The simple right-angled shape resonated with him as pure form clothed in shimmering layers of metaphor. Like the artwork itself, it sends out intangible rays that can penetrate straight through to the brain without zapping any flesh. It throbs with sexual connotations and also augurs violence. “We are behaving as if a battle is being fought,” he wrote in 1959, “an aesthetic battle, but we may find ourselves in a real fight.”
He launched the next salvo in 1961, when he took over a shop on East 2nd Street, and turned it into a living art installation called “The Store” aka the “Ray Gun Manufacturing Company”. Oldenburg cut through the gallery world’s insufferable pretensions and sold his art the way a fishmonger sells mackerel, with a minimum of fuss. He stocked an assortment of items – shirts, ties, brassieres, bottle caps – all slapped together out of papier-mâché and slathered with cheap enamel. “The Store” thumbed its nose at Ab Ex’s dour priests, treating pop consumables with the broad, gestural strokes that De Kooning and co had reserved for heartfelt cris de coeur. Oldenburg was exposing angst as just another hustle. He wanted to have his cake and critique it too, selling one-of-a-kind artworks that resembled machine-made products and simultaneously treating his buyers as customers, connoisseurs and chumps.
That same year he issued a ponderous manifesto: “I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum … I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and course and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.”
Yet half a century later, his art is right here, sitting on its ass in a museum. MoMA, like the art market, is impervious to irony. Oldenburg’s cheap novelty items have aged into priceless masterworks, and the pristine white galleries of West 53rd Street absorb the slapdash East Village aesthetic with starched politesse. Yet listen closely, and you can still hear the young rebel’s impish cackle, the old scorn for solemn visitors who treat ugly paper-and-glue bibelots as if they were holy relics.
Oldenburg always had a gift for channelling childhood, and he did it best in the “Mouse Museum” (1977), a room-sized structure shaped like a Mickey Mouse head, containing his beguiling collection of ephemera. Walking in is like tunnelling through the inside of an eccentric mind, with its stream of formal associations. We can see the charms that have haunted his entire career – clothespins, cigarette butts, hamburgers, body parts. A box of chocolates serves as a stand-in for a cubist grid; a plastic baked potato is a platonic spud. The “Ray Gun Wing” (1969-77) – shaped, of course, like a ray gun – houses hundreds of totemic weapons. Some are elaborate models from the 1930s; others are just bent nails. Oldenburg didn’t simulate commercial techniques in the manner of Pop colleagues such as Warhol, Wesselman and Rosenquist, and the things he collected don’t reflect the flashy consumerism of the 1960s either. They are sentimental talismans of an earlier, perhaps imagined, time. Like so much of what Oldenburg dreamed up, they buzz with childhood potential, forever unfulfilled.
Until August 5, www.moma.org