Pop artist Claes Oldenburg, known worldwide for his whimsical public sculptures of everyday objects: a clothespin, a spoon with a cherry and even a toilet– died at 93.
“I am deeply saddened by the loss of Claes Oldenburg, a great artist, and also a good friend,” his longtime gallery owner Paula Cooper told Artnet News. “It was thrilling to work with Claes, whose weird take on things was delightful and could completely change your mood.”
When Cooper met Oldenburg, in the mid-1960s, “he was already a remarkably strong force among his peers,” she said. “The strikingly original early work had a tremendous influence on many artists who were informed by his freedom of thought and radical mode of expression.”
Oldenburg frequently worked with his wife, Coosje van Bruggen, who died in 2009, to produce monumental sculptures, which are now prominently displayed in museums and public gardens around the world. When he began his collaboration with van Bruggen, “the work got bigger and bolder”, according to Cooper.
The Museum of Modern Art held a second retrospective of Oldenburg’s work in 2013, while the Whitney held one in 2009, cementing the artist’s status as a pop art heavyweight alongside Robert Indiana, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol.
Oldenburg was born in 1929 in Stockholm. He spent much of his childhood living between the United States, Sweden, and Norway due to his father’s work as a Swedish diplomat. Oldenburg studied at Yale University, where he focused on writing before attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
In 1956, he moved to New York, where he was fascinated by the aesthetics of the city’s streets: shop windows, graffiti, advertisements and trash. A few years later he open his show”The Store,” a fully functional bodega-style shop on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where he sold ice cream, oranges, cigarettes, hats and shoes, all cast in plaster.
One of the works in this show, yellow girl dress, sold for $1.7 million at Sotheby’s New York in 2008. Noting the rarity of a work from “The Store” on the market, former Sotheby’s contemporary scholar Anthony Grant previously told Artnet News that Claes “was really the sculptor of this first generation Pop movement.”
The highest price to date for an Oldenburg work at auction is $3.6 million, achieved at Christie’s New York in 2015 for ten foot clothes peg (1974).
Compared to the high prices achieved to date for many of his pop artist peers, Oldenburg’s market may seem relatively modest. Observers say this is due to a scarcity of preparatory material like drawings and models on the market, as well as the challenge of owning and maintaining large outdoor sculptures.
As a result, many of his works are collected by institutions. spoonbridge and cherry (1985), for example, a massive sculpture of a spoon with a cherry on top leaning into a lake, is one of his and van Bruggen’s most beloved works and is on long-term display at Walker Art Minneapolis Center, which owns this.
Last spring, a massive garden trowel was unveiled at Rockefeller Center, marking Oldenburg and Van Bruggen’s first public installation in New York in over 20 years.
As Artnet News reported last March, “The comically oversized gardening tool – a 2,300-pound shovel made of aluminum, fiber-reinforced plastic and steel – stands over 23 feet tall and can withstand winds over 120 miles per hour.”
In 2002, a red version of the work was shown as part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Oldenburg and Van Bruggen on the Roof” exhibition. It was displayed next architect’s handkerchief (1999), Corridor pin, blue (1999), and Ruffles/blueberry pies I and II (1999). At the time, Dibber was installed atop the museum building with Central Park as a backdrop.
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