July 10, 2013

Collective Obsession: Claes Oldenburg at MoMA

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Claes Oldenburg is a rebel with a cause. This can be easy to forget. Cheerful and kitschy, his supersized sundaes and inflatable lipsticks pass off as standard fare in pop art — which Oldenburg helped invent. He is best described in his own words: “I am a magician. A magician brings dead things to life.” Oldenburg’s magic is palpable at his summer-long retrospective, on view at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. This is not to say that much isn’t lost when Oldenburg’s gritty, crowded universes are transplanted into MoMA’s airy galleries. Jed Perl, The New Republic’s art critic, had a point when he derided MoMA’s show as the “sanitizing of a junk art genius.” Still, a few things are clear: Oldenburg’s work is, in many senses, larger than life. He doesn’t just respond to environments; he makes them. And he is still suspicious of the term ‘sculpture.’

Born in Sweden in 1929, Oldenburg grew up in Chicago, where his father worked as a diplomat. While studying at Yale, Oldenburg decided to pursue art. He moved to New York City in 1956, and soon joined the artists Jim Dine and Allan Kaprow in their assault on abstract expressionism. “The Street,” Oldenburg’s second show at the Judson Gallery in New York, was a grimy world conjured out of found cardboard, burlap and newspapers, piled on floors and suspended from ceilings. In 1961, he turned his studio in Manhattan’s Lower East Side into the “The Store.” People could wander in and buy plaster caricatures of everyday wares. Lavishly covered with impasto and dripping paint (a not too subtle parody of Jackson Pollock’s favored style), Oldenburg’s hulking sculptures of groceries and apparel were sinister yet alluring.

Four decades later at MoMA, the cardboard people and cars of “The Street” still intimidate. They are massive, and they are everywhere. Their real power lies in Oldenburg’s frenetic calligraphy; he has animated them with urgent black scrawls. Two Ray Guns rear their bulbous muzzles across a walkway. Visitors are, unsuspectingly, caught in the crossfire.

“The Street” precedes “The Store” in MoMA’s sixth floor gallery. It’s understandable why the show’s curators, Chief Curator Ann Temkin and Assistant Curator Pauline Pobocha of MoMA’s Department of Painting and Sculpture and Achim Hochdörfer of Vienna’s Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, have chosen this arrangement. It reminds visitors of the darker origins of Oldenburg’s supposedly sanguine later works. But “The Street” seems bland in contrast to “The Store”; many visitors give “The Street” a fleeting glance before moving on to its gregarious counterpart.

MoMA’s edition of  “The Store” looks and feels like a celebration. It’s a wonderland of comical, supersized burgers and oddly life-like, luscious pastries. Visitors tread reverently about Floor Burger (1962), a crinkly golden bun topped with an emerald cucumber slice.  A bemused security guard answers questions about the ingredients of this colossal confection. It’s acrylic on canvas, filled with foam rubber and cardboard ice cream cartons. The same foods recur on various scales: one motif is a sunny side up sizzling in between streaks of bacon; a less lofty version of Floor Burger smolders across from overdressed Dual Hamburgers (1962). It’s not hard to see why  “The Store” is often read as a comment on a modern day malaise —  the fetishization of mass-produced commodities. We have made out commodities to be bigger and shinier than they really are. We have lost all sense of proportion. Oldenburg’s sculptures, comic and violent, embody both our fascination and loss of control.

“I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all … I am for the art of teddy bears and guns and decapitated rabbits,” Oldenburg wrote in his 1961 manifesto. This early vision is more fully realized in Oldenburg’s self-contained galleries “Mouse Museum/Ray Gun Wing,” first constructed in the 1970s and now rebuilt on MoMA’s second floor. In “Mouse Museum/Ray Gun Wing,” Oldenburg takes our obsession with collecting to its logical conclusion. Time collapses. Any kind of order collapses, as we fervently guess at the relationships between objects.

The “Ray Gun Wing” takes the form of a Ray Gun. Anything that resembles a right angle qualifies as a Ray Gun, it seems  — metal scraps that look like relics from an ancient spacecraft, splintered wood and plastic toy guns. The objects are arranged by size and material, with great precision, in six glass cases. Visitors form a solemn procession. The whole exercise takes itself too seriously.

The “Mouse Museum” is shaped like a camera morphing into Mickey Mouse. Inside, everything seems to be melting or gestating. Or perhaps it’s just the insidious soundtrack — a burbling recording of Oldenburg washing rubber toys. “We’ve got to start charging admission to my mother’s house,” a man says, as he surveys the snaking glass cases overpopulated with bland and fabulous knickknacks. There’s a purse shaped like a satin blue slipper, large enough only for a few pennies. Wax candles take on the guise of fast food. A weathered piece of needlework near the exit reads: “a stitch in time saves nine.” Glittering parfaits share a case with buttered tempura and an elaborate cutlet lunch — a nightmarish incarnation of Tokyo’s Kappabashi Street, the capital of pristine plastic food models.  It’s a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in, say, Mulholland Drive.

Oldenburg has been right all along. We are hungry, and we are obsessed. I didn’t have to look very far to know that. On that sweltering Monday, people stood in line, holding umbrellas for five hours for a delirious 15 minutes in the Rain Room. All around me were tourists, armed with iPhones or large cameras, eager to document the iridescence of van Gogh’s The Starry Night or Monet’s Reflection of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond. And I was one of them, devouring art, and wondering how many more pilgrimages I’d be able to make to MoMA.

“Claes Oldenburg: The Street and The Store” and “Claes Oldenburg: Mouse Museum/Ray Gun Wing” will be on display at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, until Aug. 5.

Original Author: Daveen Koh