Me and Claes: Guns and Games

A visit to the Claes Oldenburg show is a must for anyone who has been seeing all the recent pop shows such as Warhol and the artists he has influenced at The Met, and Sinister Pop at the Whitney.
Seeing this early Oldenburg work is a flash back to the early 60’s in the East Village- where the artist is picking up cardboard on the street and turning it into east village personalities-“Street Chicks,” big and small, signs, cars, and then creating “Happenings” at the Judson Church famous for fringe performances, modern dance, and poetry readings. At the very beginning of the Street you see his interest in redefining sculpture for these times. Sculpture is usually thought of as permanent, hard, metal, wood, or stone- shown on pedestals or the floor. These cardboard works hang from the ceiling are made out of found cardboard and a minimum of black and white paint. They are held together with twine and occasionally stuffed to help create dimension.

Street Chick (Hanging), 1960

Burlap, muslin, cardboard, wood, string, painted with casein, 10′ x 38″ x 15″

Going from picking up cardboard on the streets of NYC, he summers on Cape Cod and starts picking up driftwood, as he walks the beaches in Provincetown. Out of the driftwood he scavenges he makes a series of flags. A wall of wooden flags in the exhibition helps you to realize what Claes is looking at and looking for. He picks up anything that is a rectangle, or that can be thought of as a stripe, or a flagpole or the square field of stars and assembles them into vague suggestions of flags. A couple of these suggest flags in a landscape with the setting sun or flying from the mast of a sailboat. I am remembering that the flags of Jasper Johns were being made around this same time.


Kornville Flag, 1960, scrap wood, 19 1⁄4 x 17 x 3⁄4 inches

Then the show heats up with a giant leaning mound of plaster on burlap painted loosely and expressionistically- a cash register the labels says which would not have registered to me without it. Then what unfolds is The Store a miscellaneous variety of objects from link sausages, to a baked potato, a candy counter to a pie case, a breakfast table, to a toy chest, double cheese burgers, and advertisement fragments hanging on the wall. It makes me think of another NY Pop artist James Rosenquist and his billboard size paintings of advertisement fragments.


Cash Register, 1961, at The Store, 1961
Muslin soaked in plaster over wire frame, painted with enamel
25 x 21 x 34 inches

Then comes Floor Cone, a BLT, a hamburger and a slice of cake- all giant, soft, and stuffed. I know that slick public works will soon follow, but they are not part of the story that this exhibition tells.


“Claes Oldenburg,” Green Gallery, New York, 1962

On the second floor are the Mouse Museum and the Ray Gun Annex- collections that Oldenburg has assembled going back to 1965-67. It is the Ray Gun Annex that means the most to me- a testament to repetitive forms and the infinite imagination of this artist.

The Ray Gun is an imaginary plastic gun, usually see-through to expose all of its innards spinning around while firing. It makes a gentle whirring sound when you pull the trigger and maybe shoots some sparks. Mine did. It was pink and something I had in the late 1950s as part of my dress up and imaginary play supplies. Ray Guns were meant to protect you if you happened to meet an alien from outer space. So these guns that Claes has collected were always of the imaginary sort. In his collection are toy guns, a theme and variation, like the one I have described. An endless number of miscellany of mostly found objects follow–which I am thinking imitate, in the most basic way, the reclining L shape of the ray gun form. The faucet, the folded straw, the twist of wire, the bent nail, and the stick, all find their way into the collection housed inside of the Ray Gun Annex. Oldenburg is enjoying the form of this signature interest and the many ways it shows up on the ground, in the trash, or across his worktable.




Display case 5 of Ray Gun Wing, 1965–77
Paper, rubber, plastic, bone, wire, soap, wax, cloth, wood,
metal, tar, stone, and various other materials
Various dimensions

Display case 3 of Ray Gun Wing, 1965–77
26 numbered guns
Paper, rubber, plastic, wax, syrup, chocolate and foil,
wood, metal, and candy
Various dimensions

Display case 6 of Ray Gun Wing, 1965–77
Paper, rubber, plastic, bone, wire, soap, wax, cloth,
wood, metal, tar, stone, and various other materials
Various dimensions

There is something about this practice of recognizing a form and collecting it in its many variations. For  nearly 20 years I have explored  my own theme and variation based on Parcheesi, a board game I remember from my childhood, but I don’t recall ever playing. I have found the form of four corners and a center, and the ladder-like steps that connect the parts, as the underlying forms in the tiles, mandalas, mosaics and textiles of many cultures. I feel compelled to study this form and to create it in endless variations. I see it in messes and shadows and in twigs scattered on the ground. When my show opens in Kalamazoo next February, there will be a wall of drawings, 22 rows by 10 columns, under beautiful natural light, so that the transparency created by their wax-dipped quality can be appreciated. I am including a sample grid here:

co game

GAME BOARDS, 31 x 41.5, Mixed media and beeswax on kitakata paper

I highly recommend this refreshing look at an artist in his developing early years. Oldenburg might just inspire you when walking down the streets to find a ray gun laying in waiting.

Claes Oldenburg: The Street and The Store

Claes Oldenburg: Mouse Museum/Ray Gun Wing  

on view at MoMA, April 14–August 5, 2013  

About barbaraellmann

painter, New York, NY

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