The preface of Claes Oldenburg, published by the editors of the October journal, reads less like an introduction and more like a warning label, an Intellectually Explicit Advisory: prepare yourself, reader, for “a critical literature that is serious, sophisticated, and sustained.” It comes as no surprise that the essays at hand require a seriously sophisticated, sustained effort to read. They were not compiled for the casual fan or the easily concussed. Rather, they are “intended as primers in signal practices of art and criticism alike, and they are offered in resistance to the amnesiac and antitheoretical tendencies of our time.” While the intellectual intentions are clear, the subject, Claes Oldenburg, remains elusive. As Donald Judd admitted in a review in 1964, “I think Oldenburg’s work is profound. I think it’s very hard to explain how.” Without sacrificing the difficulty, Claes Oldenburg at least tries.
The essays, reviews, photos, sketches, manifestos, and interviews in Claes Oldenburg focus on Oldenburg’s work in New York City (with a bit of traveling to Chicago for a few Happenings) between 1960 and 1965. In 1960, he created the installation The Street in the Judson Gallery in Washington Square Park. As Joshua Shannon, the book’s first essayist, writes, “The Street was a visual cacophony of cardboard, paper, newsprint, wood fragments, and black paint.” As to what The Street meant—to art, New York City, or Oldenburg himself—you’re going to get a slightly different answer from every author in this book. That said, this much is clear: The Street made Oldenburg a player in the New York art world, a 33-year-old star to watch. In his next installation, The Store, he turned his studio into an old-fashioned general store; people shopped for his art while he worked. The objects that he sold resembled those available in any store, but they appeared handmade, grotesque, slightly off, and way more expensive (he once sold a loaf of bread for $99 dollars). The Store also hosted Oldenburg’s largely improvised, highly disorienting multimedia Ray Gun Theater. In an interview, Oldenburg said that he liked these primitive explorations of art and experience to be as “unpredictable as possible.” No doubt, for Oldenburg and New York’s artistic vanguard, these were exciting times.
Claes Oldenburg achieves its intended aim, providing a summation of critical thinking on Oldenburg’s work in the early ’60s; but for most readers, the most compelling and informative contributions come from the artist himself: an unpublished manifesto and two separate interviews from the time (followed, of course, by contemporary criticism). Such critical attention focused on Oldenburg is well deserved; his use of hard and soft materials and dark abstractions of quotidian objects (not to mention his performances) made him a pioneer and an icon. If you’re looking for a straightforward biography or color photographs, however, you’ll have to look elsewhere—try Claes Oldenburg: Early Work published by Zwirner & Wirth. And if you’re interested developing your own insights into the work, plan to visit “Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties,” which began its international tour back in February at Vienna’s Museum Moderner Kunst (on view through May 28) and makes stops at the Museum Ludwig, the Guggenheim Bilbao, MoMA, and the Walker Art Center.
Claes Oldenburg (October Files)
Edited by Nadja Rottner
220 pages, 50 black and white illustrations, $18.95
The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts 2012