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Farewell to a vision of monumental whimsy: Claes Oldenburg passes away at 93 



A giant overturned ice cream cone suspended over the steely corner of a chrome-and-glass building in Germany\’s Cologne; a colossal hamburger, pickle perched demurely on top, made of canvas and foam and cardboard, courting controversy in Ontario, Canada; a mammoth installation of a spoon with a jumbo cherry poised on its tip in Minneapolis, USA… it was the everyday object made monumental that allowed pop artist Claes Oldenburg to elude their definitions.

The Swedish-born American sculptor, best known for his public art installations featuring large-scale replicas of mundane objects, passed away on July 18 this week at the age of 93. He died of complications from a fall, at his home in Manhattan.

Born in Stockholm on January 28, 1929, Oldenburg had gone on to study literature and art history at Yale University and later took classes at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. For most of his life as an artist, Oldenburg lived and worked in New York City, but his footprint spanned across the world. Many of his works were made in collaboration with his wife, Coosje van Bruggen, who died in 2009; they had been married for 32 years.

Oldenburg was well-known for redefining the boundaries of pop art, a movement he became associated with in the 1960s. Critics write that: “His brash, often humorous, approach to art was at great odds with the prevailing sensibility that, by its nature, art dealt with ‘profound’ expressions or ideas… Oldenburg’s spirited art found first a niche then a great popularity that endures to this day.”


He initially began producing sculptures containing simply rendered figures, letters, and signs, inspired by the Lower East Side neighborhood of NYC where he resided. These were made from materials such as cardboard, burlap, and newspapers. In 1961, Oldenburg shifted his method, creating sculptures from chicken wire covered with plaster-soaked canvas and enamel paint, depicting those aforementioned quotidian items — articles of clothing and food items.

Many of Oldenburg’s large sculptures of mundanities also elicited ridicule before being accepted.


Oldenburg’s ‘soft sculptures’ are a body of work he began developing in 1962. It was around this time that he created Floor Cone, Floor Burger, and Floor Cake, seen at the The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York.

“By translating the medium of sculpture from hard to soft, Oldenburg collapsed solid surfaces into limp, deflated objects that were subject to gravity and chance,” explains the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, adding, “Noted for their exaggerated scale, bold colors, and daring playfulness, these soft sculptures stand out as a provocative mix of the ubiquitous and the unruly.” Clothespins, light switches, and food began to be intensified by Oldenburg through abstraction, characterised by dramatically outsized scale and the soft forms chosen, like fabric or latex.


Back at a time when the audience was still accustomed to the austere, non-representational forms of Abstract Expressionism, Oldenburg’s “unconventionally squishy, re-arrangable sculpture” challenged the hard, vertical orientation of prevalent sculpture. These so-called soft sculptures are now, in fact, often hailed as the first sculptural expressions in pop art.


Oldenburg brought absurdity and cynicism to his art, veering into surrealist territory.

“I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum,” Oldenburg is himself known to have said.

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