Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties
October 30, 2012 – February 17, 2013
Themes | The Street and Flags
The Old Dump Flag, 1960
22.2 x 27.3 x 7 cm
Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen
“I’m for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap & still comes out on top.”
—Claes Oldenburg (1)
At the end of the 1950s, after a decade dominated by Abstract Expressionism and its process-oriented, abstract artworks, a group of artists began to rally for a return to real-life imagery. While many of these artists, such as Andy Warhol (1928–1987), were drawn to media and advertising imagery, Oldenburg, a Swedish artist, was fascinated by the objects that surrounded him on the Lower East Side, the neighborhood in New York that he called home.
In 1960, Oldenburg created an environment titled The Street. The Street filled an entire gallery with sculptural objects made of cardboard, wrapping paper, scraps of newspaper and fabric, bottles, and other debris. The objects were covered in expressionistic, painted lines and marks that were reminiscent of graffiti. Some objects were hung from the ceiling. Others were placed underfoot; crumpled paper littered the floor as if it were trash thrown on the street. Visitors to the gallery walked among the objects that depicted the urban life Oldenburg had observed on the Lower East Side: cars, an airplane, passersby, signs, a barking dog, a display window, a shoeshine man, a bicyclist, a man with a walking stick, and a number of figures armed with ray guns (a motif Oldenburg employed throughout his career). Oldenburg’s work addressed themes of the newly rampant post-war capitalism: work, money, the economy, poverty, alcoholism, isolation, and lack of communication. (2)
The envrionment was the setting for a performance called Snapshots from the City (1960), in which Oldenburg dressed in scraps of paper and fabric, affixed to his body like bandages, and crouched on the floor with a liquor bottle in his hand. Patty Muschinski (later Patty Mucha, b. 1935), his wife at the time, dressed as, in Oldenburg’s words, a “street chick”––a character type depicted in the installation itself––and together they performed a ritual dance as the lights flashed on and off. To those present, the performance seemed to capture Oldenburg’s overall description of the installation: “First it is clear to me now that it is a nightmare, my personal nightmare.” (3)
In summer 1960, Oldenburg left behind the commotion of the city for Provincetown, Massachusetts, a beach community of artists and writers. There he produced the series Provincetown Flags (1960), inspired by the symbol of Oldenburg’s adopted nation, the American flag, and made of driftwood. In April 1960, he wrote, “I will present my world view in a series of ‘grand symbols’ first the street, then perhaps the garden, or the beach etc. etc.” (4) The primitive, simple materials he used for this series stand in contrast to the urban detritus of The Street and seem to evoke, instead, an unspoiled, folksy quality.
1. Jörg Wolfert, Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties exhibition brochure, translated by Cynthia Hall (Vienna: Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, 2012), p. 4.
2. See Hochdörfer, Achim, and Barbara Schröder, eds, Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties (Munich: Delmonico Books, 2012), p. 31.
4. Ibid., p. 38
Show students a picture of the American flag and ask them to think about what they associate with the image. Write these associations on the board.
Then, show students Oldenburg’s The Old Dump Flag, 1960 and ask them to divide into groups of two to compare the real American flag with Oldenburg’s version. Ask them to compare the images in terms of proportions, materials, color, movement, shape, and so on. How is the shape of Oldenburg’s flag different from that of the real flag?
Tell students that Oldenburg made many flags in 1960, from materials such as driftwood and cardboard. The Old Dump Flag, is made of wood. How do the materials he used affect students’ associations with the image?
Oldenburg created these flags not long after finishing a project called The Street, in which the artis created sculptures of the sights he took in while living in New York, such as cars, signs, and display windows. He wrote: “I will present my world view in a series of ‘grand symbols’ first the street, then perhaps the garden, or the beach etc. etc.” (1) In what way does The Old Dump Flag, act as a “grand symbol?” What, if anything, do students think this artwork could be symbolic of? Which subjects would students focus on if they were to create “grand symbols” of their own community? Brainstorm a list of possibilities. Then, as a class, discuss which symbols might be most representative of your community, and why.
Oldenburg used a number of modest materials in his works from 1959 and 1960, including wood, cardboard, paper, and used cartons. Using these materials, he employed basic techniques such as tearing, crumpling, cutting, and spray painting. Together, look at some of the objects Oldenburg made using these materials and techniques, such as Flag to Fold in the Pocket (1960). What do students think of his materials and techniques? How do these affect the students’ associations with the subject matter?
For this activity, first collect recyclable cardboard and paper items such as milk cartons, cereal boxes, and newspapers. Next, ask students to brainstorm all the ways in which they can alter these materials without using tools, such as scissors. Develop a list of verbs, such as “fold,” “tear,” “crumple,” “flatten,” and “twist.” Then, tell students to create an artwork using only these materials and techniques, and no other tools.
Once finished, ask students if, during the art-making process, they discovered any new words to add to their list of verbs. Ask them if they would rather have used a tool for this activity. If so, which tools would be most useful, and why? What are the advantages of using only their hands?
Finally, offer students the opportunity to apply black paint, ink, or crayon to their sculptures. Oldenburg used only the color black in his early installations. How do the sculptures transform when pigment is added?
Extension of Paper Actions: Performance
For this activity, students will use the objects from the first activity to create a performance. Talk to students about how a performance is different from a typical theatrical performance: theatrical performances present illusions of events, while performance art presents actual events as art.
Ask students to form groups of three. In these groups, students should examine each other’s objects and brainstorm their possible uses in a performance. The objects could be used as props, as costumes, or as parts of the backdrop or scenery. Most importantly, the students should brainstorm ways in which the objects can be used to facilitate audience participation.
After each group has performed, ask students to reflect on how the objects were incorporated, how the audience participated, and how these performances were different from a typical theater performance.
Capitalism: an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profitEnvironment art: Refers to art which involves the creation or manipulation of a large or enclosed space, many effectively surrounding its audience.Expressionism: a movement in the arts during the early part of the twentieth century that emphasized subjective expression of the artist’s inner experiencesPerformance art: Art in which works in any of a variety of media are executed premeditated before a live audience. Although this might appear to be theater, theatrical performances present illusions of events, while performance art presents actual events as art.
For more on Oldenburg:
Whitney Museum of American Art, For Kids: Claes Oldenburg
Claes Oldenburg’s official website
For more on Pop art:
Museum of Modern Art, Art Terms: Pop art (and related works)
For more on Happenings:
"What Happened at Those Happenings?," Carole Kino, New York Times, February 2, 2012
Hochdörfer, Achim, and Barbara Schröder, eds. Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties. Munich: Delmonico Books, 2012.
Jörg Wolfert, Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties exhibition brochure, translated by Cynthia Hall (Vienna: Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, 2012).
Oldenburg, Claes. Claes Oldenburg. London: The Arts Council of Great Britain, 1970.
Oldenburg, Claes, and Coosje van Bruggen. Large-Scale Projects. New York: The Monacelli Press, 1994.
Van Bruggen, Coosje. Claes Oldenburg: Mouse Museum/Ray Gun Wing. Cologne: Museum Ludwig, 1979.