Artist Claes Oldenburg Lets Us Eat Cake

Claes Oldenburg – The Street and The Store

Have you ever dreamed of jumping onto a giant piece of cake?  Well maybe not but if you happen to see Claes Oldenburg’s retrospective currently on view at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City, you might be tempted to do just that.  And for anyone who has lived in a city, the title of the show, alone, should resonate…The Street and The Store.

Claes Oldenburg

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The Street

Giant figures made from cardboard are suspended from the ceiling, dangling like fragments in an imaginary landscape.  It’s an impressive and immersive feeling to walk through The Street.

Oldenburg’s work is also humorous – giant blobs of wheat-pasted newspaper or large burlap sacks referred to as “Street Head I” and “Street Head III” or scrappy bits of cardboard, burlap, muslin, and wood tied together with bits of string titled “Street Chick”.

It is a street – a New York street – in every sense of the word – signs, people, faces, tenement buildings…

The Store

From The Street you wander aimlessly into The Store where comically sized and cartoonish looking replicas of favorite American food items are placed around the room (chocolate cakes, burgers, pastries, ice cream cones, a giant bacon lettuce and tomato sandwich).  And then the other items that people just can’t seem to live without – cigarettes, a pepsi cola sign, bras, stockings, shirts, trousers, dresses and an auto tire.

Claes Oldenburg

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The most interesting thing about Claes Oldenburg was that all of these pieces were part of a show that was not designed for exhibition in a gallery or museum space but that actually occupied a real storefront in New York City’s Lower East Side in 1961.  Passersby were as much a part of the artwork/experiment as the pieces themselves, many imagining that this was another five-and-dime store with regular  items for sale.

The most irritating fact about most contemporary art is that it keeps us at arms length.  It’s like there is an inside joke going on that you are just not a part of.  Which I suppose is what makes the artwork of Claes Oldenburg still somehow charming and accessible more than 50 years later.   These vestiges of the Pop Art movement reminds us that art can be playful, engaging, and self-reflective.  However, seeing this exhibition hanging in a museum is really just like looking at confetti on the floor after a party.

Claes Oldenburg

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And yet somewhat ironically while leaving the exhibition, myself and fellow museum goers wandered thoughtlessly past the king of pop art, Andy Warhol’s, famous Campbell’s Soup Cans hung, almost as an afterthought,on a wall next to the cafe.




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