Claes Oldenburg’s leaves mark on Philadelphia art

Claes Oldenburg’s Clothespin next to City Hall – Scott Baldwin via Wikimedia Commons

Claes Oldenburg was a Swedish-born American sculptor who is widely known for his public art installations commonly depicting large replicas of everyday objects. His popular work includes Shuttlecocks in Kansas City, Clothespin in Philadelphia, Ice-cream Cone in Cologne, and Spoonbridge and Cherry at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. But Oldenburg was more than just a sculptor, and Barbara Rose’s visual-biography of the artist contains many of his plans and possible art installations—the work of a creative and ingenuitive visionary.

Oldenburg’s sculptures were part of a Pop Art movement in the mid-to-late twentieth century. In this period art began to shift from abstract paintings and depictions back to the material world, relating art to specific images. Oldenburg’s work often disrupts the functionality of common objects—challenging our perceptions on common things or ideas in the world. Other artists from this movement include Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jasper Johns. 

Oldenburg proposed many humorous designs, which seemed completely out of place and proportion, revolutionizing global art. 

One of the many reasons he has grown to this level of international fame is that his sculptures are found all over the world, not just in Philadelphia. These works include an Apple Core at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, a Bottle of Notes at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art in Middlesbrough, England, and the Ice-cream Cone at shopping mall Neumarkt Galerie in Germany. He also had a proposal to put a toilet bowl float in the Thames River in London with the intention of bringing attention to the pollution of the river.

“He didn’t just make a clothespin. His proposals are often more humorous and interesting,” Visual Arts Department Chair Mr. Christopher Fox said. “He proposed putting a giant block of concrete in a busy intersection in the city of Philadelphia, completely blocking the intersection. It was to be a war memorial. Instead of having a war memorial, in a tidy park out of the way so you don’t bump into it, here was this thing that was going to force people to pay attention to it.” 

The clothespin lines up with buildings behind it such that they appear to be the same scale. It is a way to make you look at something you have seen a million times before in a different way.

Mr. Christopher fox

Many of Oldenburg’s proposals were more humorous and flashy, but he also has a serious side to his work. Even though his proposal to build a giant block of concrete blocking the flow of traffic in a busy city was never funded nor successful, the idea that art should not be tucked away into tidy parks is an important one. Sometimes, to bring attention to something, it needs to be in people’s faces and out of proportion to demonstrate its meaning. 

Oldenburg solved his size problem in another way. Rather than scale his sculptures to the size of skyscrapers as his proposals suggested, he strategically placed his work in a way that it could seem as big as these buildings.

“The clothespin lines up with buildings behind it such that they appear to be the same scale. It is a way to make you look at something you have seen a million times before in a different way,” Mr. Fox said.

Claes Oldenburg’s work became icons for the city of Philadelphia, uniting art and humor in new ways through all of his work. But he was just one of the many impactful members of the art community in Philadelphia who changed the city with their work. One example of this is the LOVE sculpture, made by Robert Indiana, which “was meant to encompass conceptions of free love, the sexual revolution, and anti–war counterculture movements.” 

Art is a window to look at life in a different way, and Claes Oldenburg conveys that through his creative form of art. Not only did his proposed works put art in the face of people who were just living their everyday lives, it put those objects in a perspective which can be very moving for some. Oldenburg died on July 18, 2022 due to a fall and complications in his home, but will be remembered as an artist who challenged artistic and everyday routines for the better. 

It is easy to get lost in the business of life, and gigantic clothespins or other inanimate objects are a much-needed break from the norm.