If you’re a devotee of Claes Oldenburg’s pop sculpture, you might want to skip reading this. The Pulitzer Arts Foundation’s summer show in St. Louis, Missouri offers some dozen examples of Oldenburg’s signature work – replicas of everyday objects ballooned to out-of-scale dimensions. So what you get are things like a 12-foot-tall three-way plug and four-foot-long French fries. But what you don’t get is #Art.
Exhibit literature says Oldenburg’s enlargements are meant to confront our perception and even provoke it. Sure enough, the exaggerated sizes can be unsettling to view, even threatening, which may be why the 1972 horror flick “Night of the Lepus” about mutant rabbits terrorizing populations comes to mind. Not that Oldenburg’s work is all that scary. In fact, despite his fidelity to reality, his work can’t even be called realistic. Jacking up the size of an object is a distortion of reality.
The focus of the Pulitzer show is on Oldenburg’s “soft sculpture,” objects we normally experience as solids now made of collapsible materials as in plastic hamburger or a canvas telephone. Oldenburg made his goal clears when he famously said, “the ordinary must not be dull.” To his credit, by switching from the traditional materials of sculpture and by mucking up the usefulness of everyday object, he made sculpture history. Even so, inflating the sizes of banal things simply magnifying their banality.
Is copying art?
Oldenburg isn’t the only sculptor fixed on making facsimiles of familiar things, although others don’t pump up size the way he does. Victor Spinsky’s ceramic sculpture of a dustbin or Alan Kessler’s masons’ tools made of painted wood are as skillfully rendered as are Oldenburg’s works. Yet you’re left to wonder what the point of all this copying is. Replicating reality no matter the size cancels out all hope of creating an illusion, and without that there can be no art. Yes, the bigness of Oldenburg’s celebrated 45-foot-tall clothespin gives the solemnity of an art work, but that’s the only illusion the work can claim.
This negative view is not the accustomed take on Oldenburg’s work. Most of the art world extols it. A wondrous book titled “Transforming Vision, Writers on Art” published by the Art Institute of Chicago in 1994, has John Updike comparing Oldenburg’s blowups to the enlarged muscles that Michelangelo gave his figures. He called Oldenburg’s effort a “joyful reclamation” of the tangible world that Abstract Expressionism made so somber. What’s more, Updike said that a towering clothespin can also help us to see how elegant and beautiful a humble utilitarian device is and how nothing is too lowly to notice. He called this effect “glorification of the overlookables.”
Updike’s points are well taken, including this one: The giant clothespin stands on exhibit upside down from the way it usually looks on a clothesline to further Oldenburg intent to disrupt our experience of ordinary things. Agreed. But when Updike says that Pop Art has an intellectual pedigree, he blows reality out of proportion just as Oldenburg does. #Buzz