Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties

By Ingrid Nordstrom

(Part 2 of 5- Institutional critique)

Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties, on view at the Walker Art Center from September 13, 2013 to January 12, 2014 amassed more than 300 earlier works of the iconic artist. The exhibition was organized by the Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien under the leadership of curator Achim Hochdörfer and realized at the Walker Art Center with coordinating curator, Siri Engberg. The curatorial feat in coalescing these very fragile objects that epitomize this generative period cannot be underestimated. The narrative of development the exhibition tells is intriguing and clearly laid out. It combines rare super-8 footage the artist used as source material and photographs to provide insight into process and historical/ cultural context. Specific to the local context, the Walker also details the development of monumental sculpture from the late 1960’s. It links the exhibition to Minnesota’s own local art history with the development of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden (celebrating its 25th Anniversary in 2013) and its commission of Spoonbridge and Cherry (1988) by Oldenburg and his late wife, Coosje van Bruggen. The rarity of seeing these works together is a privilege, to be sure, and one I was able to witness both at the MoMA in the spring of 2013 and at the Walker.

The problem with both the MoMA and Walker exhibitions of Oldenburg’s work, especially of The Street (1960) and Store (1961-1964), is the draining of life from the objects that make up the installations. The Street, initially, brought the dirty cacophony of the Lower East Side into the gallery, and shortly thereafter the work was activated in the Judson Memorial Church. It used human action and interaction in the form of an immersive environment with visitors as the protagonists. Later “performers” actives the as a spectacle in its manifestation as Snapshots of the Street. Through its use of street materials, inversion of scale (a tiny car, a gigantic human form), non-linear street signs that shout almost unintelligible nonsense and diametric (even dramatic) object opposition (a child / a gun) the noise of life resonated in these original spaces. The Store, on one level, could be said to have done the opposite. It demystified the artistic process by exposing it through a storefront in a neighborhood where “there was no art.” However, both of these endeavors have a commonality often lacking in their subsequent displays. In both of the original engagements with these works, the objects fight for supremacy in the eye of the viewer. Moreover, they crowd, jostle and nudge aside the viewer (and in the case of The Store, the artist) for supremacy of the very space, itself. I find photos and film footage more compelling in evoking the original energy  than the objects on display beside them. The objects are given too much space.

The journey through the exhibition is chronological and ends with the Mouse Museum (ca. 1970’s) and the Ray Gun Wing (ca. 1970’s) in the adjoining atrium. The Mouse Museum is a clever play on words for mausoleum and one enters the dark, confined space. The visitor winds through a reliquary collection of found objects of fun, fancy and utility mixed with small-scale models of Oldenburg’s works, only to exit back out the hole through which one came. The Ray Gun Wing houses any sort of small, hand size, found object in the form of the right angle, the “ray gun.” For Oldenburg, Ray Gun was an idea that came early in his career. It became, in anachronistic terms, his brand with the slogans “Annihilate/ Illuminate,” and “When Ray Gun shoots no one dies.” However, the form of the ray gun holds an even deeper significance for Oldenburg. The right angle is linked to gravity, or more accurately a resistance to gravity. For Oldenburg, it is the essence of life to resist gravity as it slowly and constantly pulls one down. The Ray Gun Wing displayed a myriad objects with all sorts of identities, but with the form of the right angle in common and thus defined by Oldenburg as a ‘ray gun.’ The mere suggestive power of the words, ‘ray gun’ endow every stick of wood, toy, or plaster molding housed in the free-standing right-angled room with an identity greater than the object itself. This is when a remarkable thing began to happen. What initially felt like a failing in the display, took on a sudden profundity when juxtaposed with these spaces of display constructed and curated by Oldenburg, himself. This seemed particularly poignant in contrast to the objects stripped of their lives in The Street. Perhaps unintentionally on the part of curators the dichotomy of these now lifeless objects with the meaning-making edifices of the Mouse Museum collection and the Ray Gun Wing lead me to much broader questions. How and why do we grant objects power, meaning and life? These questions remained through the following exhibitions and seemed to echo the Walker’s consistent challenge to define itself, either through or in spite of its collection of objects.




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