Achim Hochdörfer on Claes Oldenburg

I LAST SAW CLAES OLDENBURG in March 2020, just before the Covid-19 lockdown brought life in Manhattan to a standstill. With his smile and soft voice, he received me on the third floor of his loft building on Broome Street. He had purchased the edifice in 1971, and with its whitewashed brick walls and open-plan kitchen, its light wooden table by Donald Judd and frayed cardboard chair by Frank Gehry, it still breathed the spirit of that SoHo era. How often I had sat at that table, calmed by its infinitely congenial proportions, while preparing “The Sixties,” a traveling exhibition of Claes’s work I organized at Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien in Vienna in 2012. Claes loved these meetings: with his daughter, Maartje; with Siri Engberg, Karen Kelly, Joseph Logan, Paulina Pobacha, Barbara Schröder, Ann Temkin. We would hash out each decision with long discussions; he would dig in his heels on some points, graciously come around on others, and occasionally find a way out of a dead end with a joke, a drawing, or some unexpected item he had dug up from his archives and laid on the table at just the right moment. His entire practice and vision of art were collaborative: from his early Happenings and the soft sculptures sewn by his first wife, Patty Mucha; to his work with his second, Coosje van Bruggen, and the patrons who commissioned the large-scale projects they made together; to those evenings we shared. During these conversations, which would often find us bursting out in laughter, I would eye the drawings that hung in a row on the walls: the colossal Trombone Bridge, Proposal for a Train Bridge Between Manhattan and New Jersey, 2005; the monumental pair of scissors sticking up from the earth, Proposed Colossal Monument to Replace the Washington Obelisk, Washington, DC: Scissors, Closed, 1967; a group of “Shuttlecocks,” ca. 1995–2002, speeding through the air, their feathers tightly bunched, puffing themselves up as though dancing with one another or crashing to the floor—at once following their own volition and buffeted through space and time by the blows of a racket.


Claes Oldenburg, Soft Light Switches—“Ghost Version” II, 1964–71, canvas, kapok, gesso, pencil, 47 × 47 × 12". © Claes Oldenburg.

Perhaps suspecting that meeting would be our last, Claes took me on a tour of the building’s four floors. The old elevator creaked and scraped along the walls, and he displayed a childlike glee when he managed to throw the metal lever at exactly the right moment so that the cabin would precisely align with the following floor. The sleeping area, with a sofa and a television, was on the top floor. He had just sold the white-canvas Soft Light Switches—“Ghost Version” II, 1964–71, which had hung above his bed for years, to the Art Institute of Chicago. We then traveled down to the windowless studio on the ground floor, where tools, paper scraps, paints, and cardboard fragments of varying thickness lay scattered across a draftsman’s table and workbench. To my surprise, the shelves on the facing wall were mostly empty. Hundreds of peculiar and formally striking consumer goods or found objects, some gifted by friends, had gathered there over the years. The ensemble had been reminiscent of the 1972 incarnation of the Mouse Museum, 1965–77, at Documenta 5, and he had regularly mentioned that he planned to build an annex to the museum to house them. In the end, most of the items made their way into fifteen arrangements that were shown at the Pace Gallery under the title “Shelf Life” in 2017. Now only a few personal items of memorabilia, such as his daughter’s clay figurines, remained.


Claes Oldenburg, Shelf Life Number 5, 2016–17, mixed media, overall 20 1⁄4 × 31 × 13". © Claes Oldenburg.

A shortcut led from the studio through the garage to the front door. Claes loved going out for dinner, with guests or by himself, often to the now-shuttered Mezzogiorno around the corner. Despite the knee pain that had tormented him for years—he kept putting off surgery—he enjoyed the short walk. He strode with broad steps, bringing one leg forward with a slight rotation. Now and then, he would greet old acquaintances or point out details of the street, like the shape of a trash can. So often he had sat at that restaurant with colleagues, gallery owners, curators, and patrons, and more often still with Coosje. I cannot remember an evening he did not mention her, his eyes clouding over as he exhaled through his narrow lips. Once, he told me about developing an idea for a public sculpture with her. Visiting her at the hospital where she was being treated for cancer, Claes brought her a bouquet. Together, they imagined Coosje carrying the flowers and stumbling, the blossoms slipping from her fingers and falling to the floor. Out of this tragic scene, she and Claes created Dropped Bouquet. The piece remained unrealized until last year, when it became a tribute to their passionate and suddenly interrupted love.

In Claes’s art, things are agents pursuing their own agendas, connecting with us in subliminal and mysterious ways.

By the time of my final visit, Claes’s knee pain had become so bad that on most evenings he could not go out for dinner. Lining the walls on the third floor were hundreds of snapshots he had taken from the windows with a simple digital camera. Sitting in an office chair, he observed the street, pedestrians, the building facades, and the changing sky, tracking the progress of construction projects and capturing odd incidents as though gathering evidence. He printed out the pictures with his office printer and stuck them to the wall with pieces of crepe tape. Claes, in the final years of his life, had gone back to his creative beginnings, turning again to the “city landscape” of his The Street installations of 1960 at New York’s Judson and Reuben Galleries. What I found fascinating about these printed-out digital shots—a selection of which appears in the pages following this essay—was that, far from being nostalgic, they were utterly of the here and now, focused on the world of things that hulked ever more densely around his studio building. “[The] street shows the inner penetration of the real, the inner real and the outer real of the psyche . . . the object and the essential mystery,” Claes noted in 1960. The remark might have been prompted by the pictures he took from his window more than half a century later.


Claes Oldenburg & Coosje van Bruggen, Dropped Bouquet, 2021, painted aluminum. Installation view, Pace Gallery, New York. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging. © Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.

Those images made me freshly aware of the central significance of his early Happenings—not only to The Street; The Store, 1961; and The Home, 1963, but to the colossal monuments and large-scale projects he realized together with Coosje. In their ephemerality, the Happenings allowed him to probe the complex entanglements between humans and things at a defining moment, when the culture of the commodity made its massive impact felt in every domain of modern life. Around 1960, artificial things had begun to accumulate in unprecedented ways, especially in the United States and Europe. Things were being produced and marketed for every imaginable activity, life situation, need, desire, and fear—things that in turn generated need, desire, and fear. That is why the critical engagement with the literalness and materiality of the world of things emerged as a central concern among artists of the 1960s.


View of “Claes Oldenburg: The Street,” 1960, Reuben Gallery, New York. Claes Oldenburg. Photo: Charles Rapaport.

What you see is what you see. Claes gainsays the materialist definition of things as “mute,” mere passive companions. In his art, they are agents pursuing their own agendas, connecting with us in subliminal and mysterious ways. Things are not just vehicles for feelings, projections, or attitudes; they are embodiments of a shared history. They do not just show us something; they are something with us. Claes often pointed out that the conjunction of things and the human in his art was closely tied to the idea of fetishism, and he objected to the disavowal of fetishism as self-deception or “false consciousness.” Far from being alien to us—which is to say other, foreign, primitive—fetishes are essential to our consumerist world, essential to the function of things, to the form we give them, and to their nature as images and physical objects. That is the nexus Claes homes in on. With their irregular contours and surfaces, his Store objects recall both body fragments and advertisements clipped from a magazine, both skin and flesh and crumpled-up packaging. Shreds of reality or a dream of reality, these items weave together the human and the thinglike, factual and mediated modes of perception. In this ambiguity, they also satisfy Claes’s conception of form, which is fluid and relational rather than fixed.


Claes Oldenburg, exhibition poster for a show at Dwan Gallery, 1963.  © Claes Oldenburg.

This fluidity is felt perhaps most strongly in the way his soft sculptures succumb to gravity. In particular, the unpainted, all-white Ghost Versions of his objects operate in an eerie zone between dead objecthood and living spiritualization, conjuring an effect of inversion, as though slivers of us were embedded in the things and fragments of the things in us; as though life were leaking from them and passing into us—and, conversely, as though the “sleeping” objects might at any moment be reanimated. Mucha, who produced almost all the soft sculptures in the ’60s, told me in May 2012 that she had to sew the pieces while they were inside out and never knew whether they would come out well. When she finished and she and Claes turned the vinyl right side out, they celebrated this act of eversion and the sculpture’s appearance as a kind of birth—as though they were midwifing the object and launching it into a life of its own.


Claes Oldenburg, Proposal for a Facade for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, in the Shape of a Geometric Mouse, 1967, crayon, graphite, and watercolor on paper, 10 7⁄8 × 16 3⁄4". © Claes Oldenburg.

It was only when I worked with Claes that I realized just how systematically he had structured his oeuvre. In his Happenings and exhibitions of the ’60s, the individual objects are hybrids that are capable of changing their status at any time. Depending on the context, they may emphasize qualities that are painterly, sculptural, theatrical, or poetic. Attributes such as scale, consistency, and presentation, too, are systematically interrelated: The pieces are hard or soft, tiny or giant; they lean against the wall, hang from the ceiling, recline, sit, stand, lurch. Their versatility, as playful as it is strategic, is one reason why Claes is an eminently important figure in the neo-avant-garde art of the ’60s. If he exerted a defining influence over Happenings and Pop art, Minimal art and Eccentric Abstraction, Conceptual art and Land art, it was in no small part because he conceived of his work as “active,” as he put it, both within and outside the art system. Every work is autonomous, yet its relation to the other works in an overall dramaturgy is co-constitutive of its meaning. For the retrospective of his work that Alicia Legg curated at New York’s Museum of Modern Art just as the ’60s were drawing to a close, Claes rethought and organized the logic of his writing and bodies of work. As a kind of summation of the decade, he presented the first version of the Geometric Mouse, an adaptation of Mickey Mouse that had already been featured on a poster for an exhibition at Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles in 1963, in the Happening Moveyhouse in 1965, and in the 1967 design for the facade of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. It became his alter ego: He and Mickey were born just a few months apart, he claimed, and Claes felt a kinship with the animation and mutability of the object world in Walt Disney’s films. In 1972, Oldenburg, then forty-three, laid out the entire spectrum of his ideas when he opened his Mouse Museum with 385 objects at Documenta 5.


Claes Oldenburg with his Mouse Museum, 1965–77, at Documenta 5, Neue Galerie, Kassel, 1972. Photo: Angelika Platen/bpk.

Like The Street, The Store, and The Home, the Mouse Museum is a scene of the fetishization of things. Unlike those earlier installations, it is a place where those things are brought to a halt: where they are immortalized, made untouchable, withdrawn from circulation as commodities and presented for contemplation. Built on a footprint in the shape of a Geometric Mouse, Claes’s museum resembles a crypt; he affectionately called it his “mausoleum.” At the same time, he was interested in the museum as an aggregation of things that function as a social unconscious: a storehouse of memories that has the power to make meaning and transmute even the most banal and incidental objects into monuments. Claes and I often talked about how the Mouse Museum marked the middle of his life. It was both retrospective and forward-looking, as though he had needed this self-musealization before he could go about realizing his ideas in public space. Seen in this light, it is no coincidence that one of his first collaborations with Coosje was the new home she designed for the Mouse Museum in 1977.

I said goodbye to Claes; standing in the door, we laughed over a joke. I had other engagements in the city, I had to run. I should, I would find myself thinking again and again over the days, weeks, months that followed, I really should. . . . When someone is in his nineties, the news of his passing is not surprising, but it does come as a shock. Since hearing of his death, I have missed him terribly. And yet something stays alive for me, for us, in the things he made.

Achim Hochdörfer is the director of Museum Brandhorst in Munich.

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.


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