Claes Oldenburg, Swedish/American (1929 - )

Claes Oldenburg (born January 28, 1929) is an American sculptor, best known for his public art installations typically featuring very large replicas of everyday objects. Another theme in his work is soft sculpture versions of everyday objects. Many of his works were made in collaboration with his wife, Coosje van Bruggen, who died in 2009 after 32 years of marriage. Oldenburg lives and works in New York.

He began his formal art training at Yale University, graduating in 1951 and then enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1952 to 1954. In 1953, some of his satirical drawings were included in his first group show at the Club St. Elmo, Chicago, and he also painted at the Oxbow School of Painting in Michigan.

Whimsical sculpture of pop culture objects, many of them large and out-of-doors, is the signature work of this Swedish artist. His father was a diplomat and moved his family during Claes' childhood to New York State; Oslo, Norway; and Chicago Illinois, but Claes did not become an American citizen until 1950.

In 1956, he moved to New York where he drew and painted while working as a clerk in the art libraries of Cooper-Union. He became interested in environmental art through Allan Kaprow and his "Happenings," and in 1959, had his first one-man show, held at the Judson Gallery, New York where he exhibited wood and newspaper sculpture and painted papier-mache objects.

In 1960, he created his first Pop-Art environments and Happenings in a mock store full of plaster objects. Beginning 1965, he did colossal sized public sculpture such as pairs of scissors, ironing boards, and a typewriter eraser. "Lipstick" was the first to be executed and was placed outdoors on the Yale campus in 1969.

From the early 1970s Oldenburg concentrated almost exclusively on public commissions. His first public work, "Three-Way Plug" came on commission from Oberlin College with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. His collaboration with Dutch/American writer and art historian Coosje van Bruggen dates from 1976. Their first collaboration came when Oldenburg was commissioned to rework Trowel I, a 1971 sculpture of an oversize garden tool, for the grounds of the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands. Oldenburg has officially signed all the work he has done since 1981 with both his own name and van Bruggen's. In 1988, the two created the iconic Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota that remains a staple of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden as well as a classic image of the city. Typewriter Eraser, Scale X (1999) is in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. Another well known construction is the Free Stamp in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. This Free Stamp has an energetic cult following.

Using Lippincott, Inc., a fabrication firm, he made some of the objects in metal such as "Geometric Mouse and "Colossal Ashtray" and in 1976, a forty-foot clothespin in Philadelphia.

His work has been shown in many exhibitions of Pop and contemporary art including the 1964 Venice Biennale.

In addition to freestanding projects, they occasionally contributed to architectural projects, among them two Los Angeles projects in collaboration with architect Frank O. Gehry: Toppling Ladder With Spilling Paint, which was installed at Loyola Law School in 1986, and Binoculars, Chiat/Day Building, completed in Venice in 1991;. The couple's collaboration with Gehry also involved a return to performance for Oldenburg when the trio presented Il Corso del Coltello, in Venice, Italy, in 1985; other characters were portrayed by Germano Celant and Pontus Hultén. "Coltello" is the source of "Knife Ship," a large-scale sculpture that served as the central prop; it was later seen in Los Angeles in 1988 when Oldenburg, Van Bruggen and Gehry presented Coltello Recalled: Reflections on a Performance at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center and the exhibition Props, Costumes and Designs for the Performance "Il Corso del Coltello" at Margo Leavin Gallery.

In 2001, Oldenburg and van Bruggen created 'Dropped Cone', a huge inverted ice cream cone, on top of a shopping center in Cologne, Germany. Installed at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 2011, Paint Torch is a towering 53-foot-high pop sculpture of a paintbrush, capped with bristles that are illuminated at night. The sculpture is installed at a daring 60-degree angle, as if in the act of painting.

Patty Mucha was Oldenburg's first wife, from 1960 to 1970. She was a constant performer in Oldenburg's happenings and performed with The Druds.

Between 1969 and 1977, Oldenburg was in a relationship with the feminist artist and sculptor, Hannah Wilke, who died in 1993. They shared several studios and traveled together, and Wilke often photographed him.

Oldenburg and his second wife, Coosje van Bruggen, met in 1970 when Oldenburg’s first major retrospective traveled to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, where van Bruggen was a curator. They were married in 1977.

In 1992 Oldenburg and van Bruggen acquired Château de la Borde, a small Loire Valley chateau, whose music room gave them the idea of making a domestically sized collection. Van Bruggen and Oldenburg renovated the house, decorating it with modernist pieces by Le Corbusier, Charles and Ray Eames, Alvar Aalto, Frank Gehry, Eileen Gray. Van Bruggen died on January 10, 2009, from the effects of breast cancer.

Oldenburg's brother, art historian Richard E. Oldenburg, was director of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, between 1972 and 1993, and later chairman of Sotheby's America.

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