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b. 1929, Sweden

Claes Oldenburg Biography

A pioneer of American Pop Art, Swedish-born sculptor Claes Oldenburg is best known for his monumental public art installations and light-hearted 'soft sculptures' that mimic everyday objects and food items. A veteran of New York's art scene, Oldenburg has been making sculpture and staging performances since the late 1950s.

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Claes Oldenberg's Early Years

Claes Oldenberg spent his early life between Stockholm, Oslo, and Chicago, moving often to accommodate the work of his father, a Swedish diplomat. As a child, he developed an exceptional talent for drawing, inventing an imaginary country named Neubern, for which he designed all of its urban planning and facilities.

Oldenberg studied literature and art history at Yale University from 1946–1950. Returning to Chicago, the artist apprenticed as a reporter for local City News Bureau and studied intermittently at the Art Institute of Chicago between 1950 and 1954. In 1953, Oldenburg became a naturalised U.S. Citizen and established a studio for freelance magazine illustration. In 1954, he spent a pivotal summer at the Ox-Bow School in Saugatuck, Michigan, where he made oil paintings and ventured for the first time into performance.

New York and a Response to American Consumer Culture

Moving to New York in 1956, Oldenburg developed a fascination with the everyday objects and imagery of his urban surroundings: storefront windows, trash, graffiti, and advertising. Before Andy Warhol was making his iconic screen-prints, Oldenburg recognised the sculptural possibilities of quotidian objects. Claes Oldenburg's The Store (1961) responded to American consumer culture by transforming the artist's studio into a parody of neighbourhood shops, complete with plaster versions of familiar consumer objects.


In the early 1960s, Oldenburg staged a number of happenings, an early form of performance art heralded by Pop Artists and Conceptualists that were typically loosely structured, held in a gallery or installation environment, and involved spectator participation. Oldenburg's performances often featured enlarged versions of everyday objects made from cloth and paper as props, seeding a strong theatrical element in Claes Oldenburg's art that spans much of his career. In 1985, he staged Corso del Coltello: Knife Ship I (1985), which involved a giant replica of a Swiss army knife with oars set afloat in Venice's Arsenal.

Claes Oldenburg's Sculptures

Oldenburg's happenings also gave birth to his first 'soft sculptures', evolving from the props sewn by first wife, the artist and poet Patty Mucha. Early examples include Floor Burger, Floor Cone, and Floor Cake (all 1962), which featured in a 1962 rendition of The Store. Rendered from foam-rubber and covered in canvas and vinyl, these large sculptures of popular food items are emblematic of Oldenburg's early sculptural practice.

Oldenburg's sculptural oeuvre in the latter half of his career is defined by monument-sized public sculpture. These large-scale works began as fantasy proposals in a series of drawings and watercolours, including 'Proposed Colossal Monuments' (1965–1969). Ranging from a huge vacuum cleaner for the Battery in New York to a colossal windshield wiper for Chicago's Grant Park, the proposed projects imagined everyday items upscaled for public spaces.

In 1969, the first of Oldenburg's monumental projects was realised in the form of Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks, commissioned by students at Yale University as a protest against the Vietnam War. This was followed on a much larger scale by Claes Oldenburg's Clothespin (1976), a 45-foot high clothespeg installed in downtown Philadelphia.

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen

Following their marriage in 1977, Claes Oldenburg and his second wife and collaborator, Coosje van Bruggen, collaborated on a number of large-scale commissions until her passing in 2009. Oldenburg and van Bruggen worked together on large installations, including Spoonbridge and Cherry (1985–88) for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden; Soft Shuttlecock, which was installed at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York for a 1995 retrospective of Oldenburg's works; and Claes Oldenburg's ice cream homage, Dropped Cone (2001), planted atop a shopping centre in Cologne. The last collaboration of this matrimonial partnership to be realised is Dropped Bouquet (2021), shown for for the first time at Pace Gallery, New York in 2021.

Claes Oldenburg's Exhibitions

Living and working between New York, California, and the Loire Valley in France, Claes Oldenburg's artworks continue to be exhibited in galleries and art institutions worldwide. Claes Oldenburg's sculptures also remain a feature of public spaces across the globe. The artist continues to work on large-scale commissions.

Claes Oldenburg solo exhibitions include Claes Oldenburg: Shelf Life, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (2018); Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties, Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, Vienna (2012); Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen on the Roof, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2002); Claes Oldenburg: An Anthology, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (1995); Claes Oldenburg: The Mouse Museum and Ray Gun Wing, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (1977); Claes Oldenburg, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York (1969).

Claes Oldenburg group exhibitions include The Long Run, MoMA, New York (2017); From Picasso to Sol LeWitt: The Artist's Book Since 1950, Meermanno Museum, The Hague (2014); Street Art, Street Life: From 1950s to Now, Bronx Museum of Art, New York (2008); The American Century: Art & Culture 1950–2000, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1999); Four Rooms and a House Ball: Pop and the Everyday Object, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (1993); and Americans 1963, MoMA, New York (1963).

Michael Irwin | Ocula | 2021

Claes Oldenburg Recent Exhibitions

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