Claes Oldenburg, the Swedish-born American pop artist known for his monumental sculptures of everyday objects, died Monday at his home and studio in the Soho neighborhood of Manhattan. He was 93.
His death was confirmed by Adriana Elgarresta, a spokeswoman for the Pace Gallery in New York, which has long represented him along with the Paula Cooper Gallery.
Mr. Oldenburg entered the New York art scene in earnest in the late 1950s, embracing the then-fashionable “happenings” with audience participation and pushing the boundaries of art with shows featuring things like street signs, wire-and-plaster clothing, and even included pieces of cake. His approach to everyday objects, performance and collaboration has continued to influence generations of artists.
An early project, The Store (1961), opened in an East Village storefront and sold absurd plaster facsimiles of everyday objects—like a shoe or a cheeseburger from a comic book, covered only with the recognizable drips and improvised strokes of Abstract Expressionism.
As he focused more and more on sculpture, he began to expand the scope of his work, taking ordinary objects such as hamburgers, ice cream cones, and household appliances as a starting point and then enlarging them to unfamiliar, often imposing, dimensions.
One of his most famous installations, erected in 1976 – to mark the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence – is “Clothespin,” a 45-foot-tall, 10-ton black steel sculpture that represents exactly what the title suggests, complete with a metal spring that appropriately commemorates to the number 76. The work stands in stark contrast to conventional public sculpture, which Herr Oldenburg, posing as a city official, said should include “bulls and Greeks and lots of Nekkid females”.
Mr. Oldenburg was heavily influenced by French artist Jean Dubuffet, who brought so-called outsider art into galleries and museums and turned the institutional art status quo on its head. But like many pop artists, Herr Oldenburg took his cues from Marcel Duchamp, whose so-called readymade sculptures from the early 20th century were actually quite ordinary, mass-produced objects (a bicycle wheel, a urinal). However, Mr. Oldenburg’s sculptures were handmade rather than store-bought, and he wanted them to be, as he put it, “as mysterious as nature”.
“My intention is to create an everyday object that defies definition,” he once said. He rarely depicted people; Instead, he focused on things closely related to human needs and desires. “I’ve consistently expressed myself in objects related to people and not through people,” he said. As art dealer Arne Glimcher, who had known and worked with Mr. Oldenburg since the early 1960s, put it in an interview on Monday, “His work was almost psychoanalytic.”
Mr. Glimcher noted that accurate drawings served as the basis for Mr. Oldenburg’s work. “He was a draftsman comparable to Ingres or Picasso,” he said, but “with the daring to screw it up.”
His main contribution to sculpture, Mr. Glimcher said, was turning it from something hard like bronze or wood into something soft. The sculptures would deflate, and Mr. Glimcher recalled that Mr. Oldenburg instructed his staff to “shake them up.”
Paula Cooper, the New York art dealer who helped represent Mr. Oldenburg for many years, said of his everyday sculptures: “They were unconventional but always formally strong, and over time the work became grander. He took a simple idea and expanded it.”
Claes Thure Oldenburg was born on January 28, 1929 in Stockholm to Gosta and Sigrid Elisabeth (Lindforss) Oldenburg. His father, a diplomat, held posts in London, Berlin, Oslo and New York before being appointed Swedish Consul General in Chicago in 1936, where Claes grew up and attended the Latin School of Chicago.
Mr. Oldenburg studied literature and art history at Yale University from 1946 to 1950. In the early 1950s he returned to the Midwest to study at the Art Institute of Chicago under the painter Paul Wieghardt, a student of Paul Klee at the modernist Bauhaus school in Weimar, Germany. In his early years in art school, Mr. Oldenburg worked for the City News Bureau of Chicago, where one of his jobs involved drawing comic strips. He was the only major pop artist to draw comics professionally.
Mr. Oldenburg became a United States citizen in 1953 and moved to New York in 1956. His first exhibition at the Judson Gallery in May 1959 included drawings, collages and papier-mâché objects.
His first significant shows in New York were The Street (1960), which consisted of cardboard and burlap cars, street signs, and human figures, and The Store (1961), for which he opened his studio and then occupied a storefront on New York’s Lower East Side for visitors who mix art and commerce in the artist’s studio. Items for sale included sandwiches, pie slices, sausages, and wire and plaster garments painted in an exuberant teardrop style reminiscent of Abstract Expressionism. His work quickly grew in scope.
In 1960, Mr. Oldenburg married Patty Mucha, an artist who became his first collaborator and appeared in his films. He made drawings of the objects he would turn into sculptures, such as his famous “soft” sculptures made of canvas and later vinyl filled with foam, and Mrs. Mucha sewed most of them. “Floor Cake” and “Floor Burger”, both from 1962, led to a “Giant Toothpaste Tube” and an entire “Bathroom” installed at the Museum of Modern Art in 1969.
He also participated in happenings by Jim Dine, Robert Whitman, Simone Forti and other artists.
Mr. Oldenburg thought even bigger, however, and outlined tongue-in-cheek proposals for monuments such as a “fan in place of the Statue of Liberty,” a “design for a tunnel entrance shaped like a nose,” and a pair of “scissors in motion” to replace the Washington Monument.
His first realized “Colossal Monument”, as he called this type of work, was “Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks”. Here, a giant tube of vinyl lipstick was wheeled onto Yale’s campus on tractor wheels with obvious phallic and military undertones in 1969, as protests against the Vietnam War and the student movement rocked colleges and universities across the country.
Vincent Scully, the Yale architectural scholar and “lipstick” advocate, later described the scene as “a good bit like Petrograd, 1917.” “Lipstick” was made of steel in 1974 and installed in the courtyard of the Morse College apartment building at Yale.
During his early years in New York, Mr. Oldenburg met artists such as Allan Kaprow, George Segal and Robert Whitman and participated in the happenings that would develop into performance art. In 1962 he renamed his studio the Ray Gun Theater and hosted weekend performances there. In 1965, he rented the pool at a health club for a happening called Washes, which featured colored balloons and people swimming in the pool. Two decades later, Mr. Oldenburg still combined art and theater. In 1985 he collaborated with Dutch writer and curator Coosje van Bruggen and architect Frank Gehry in Venice to stage an elaborate land and water spectacle entitled The Course of the Knife, with a ship shaped like a Swiss Army knife as its centerpiece.
Mr Oldenburg met Ms van Bruggen after he and Ms Mucha divorced in 1970. Ms van Bruggen was then employed by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Mr. Oldenburg’s first collaboration with her was in 1976 on the final version of “Kelle I”, an oversized gardening tool installed in the grounds of the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, The Netherlands.
The couple married in 1977. They worked together on more than 40 projects, including Spoonbridge and Cherry at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden from 1985 to 1988 and Giant Binoculars (1991), which was included in Mr. Gehry’s design for the Chiat Day Buildings in Venice, California.
Mr. Oldenburg leaves behind two stepchildren, Paulus Kapteyn and Maartje Oldenburg, and three grandchildren. Ms van Bruggen died of breast cancer in 2009 at the age of 66. His brother Richard E. Oldenburg, director of the Museum of Modern Art from 1972 to 1994, died in 2018 at the age of 84.
In addition to his sculptural commissions, Mr. Oldenburg has been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions, including at the Museum of Modern Art in 1969. In 1995, the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Guggenheim Museum in New York jointly organized the retrospective “Claes Oldenburg: An Anthology.” His and Mrs. van Bruggen’s work is in the collections of most major modern art museums in the United States and Europe.
While Mr. Oldenburg’s work is most commonly associated with 1960s pop art, he saw his monumental versions of humble objects as more than just a celebration of the everyday.
“A catalog could be made of all these objects,” he was quoted as saying, “that would read like a list of the deities or things upon which our contemporary mythological thought was projected. We invest religious emotions in our objects. Look how beautifully objects are portrayed in advertisements in Sunday newspapers.”
Going further in the interview, Mr. Glimcher saw Mr. Oldenburg as an observer of an American culture in which certain objects, even the humble telephone, the hamburger or the ice cream cone, become more important and mean something. “They were prophetic,” he said of Mr. Oldenburg’s sculptures. “Those were sociological statements.”
Danielle Cruz contributed coverage.