NEW YORK – Pop artist Claes Oldenburg, creator of the iconic Twin Cities sculpture “Spoonbridge and Cherry” and who transformed the mundane into the monumental also through his oversized sculptures of a baseball bat, clothes peg and other items, died at age 93.
Oldenburg died Monday morning in Manhattan, according to his daughter, Maartje Oldenburg. He had been in poor health since falling and breaking his hip a month ago.
The iconic giant spoon and crimson red cherry from “Spoonbridge and Cherry” has been the literal “topper” of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden since it opened in 1988. The sculpture, designed by Oldenburg and his wife Coosje van Bruggen, is a 1,200 – crush a stainless steel cherry on top of a gigantic silver spoon; the water springs from the stem of the cherry tree and flows into a small asymmetrical basin in the garden.
Art collector Frederick R. Weisman funded the work with a gift of $500,000. Oldenburg and Bruggen received the commission in 1985 from former Walker Art Center director Martin Friedman. The pop art sculpture uses everyday life images for inspiration. Indeed, the cherry and the spoon seem to have been taken straight out of a comic strip or a newspaper cartoon. In Oldenburg’s famous art statement “I am for”, written in 1961, he explains that he believes in art which “…is political-erotic-mystical, which does more than sit on your ass in a museum”.
During the couple’s research on what they could do for the new Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, they made several visits to the Twin Cities. The idea for the spoon came from a visit to the corporate campus of General Mills, which had Betty Crocker spoons; the cherry was van Bruggen’s idea, with the idea of the cherry as the finishing touch, or literally putting “a cherry on top”.
The spoon, however, is not just a spoon; it reminded van Bruggen of the extremely particular culinary etiquette of Louis XIV at Versailles. He didn’t like forks, so guests ate with a spoon and dull knives. Van Bruggen came up with the idea of a pond under the cherry tree. The spoon also conjures up other images, such as the bow of a Viking ship (which is also echoed in the ship at the current stage of the Vikings), ice skating, and even a duck emerging from the water (as they often do this to the actual sculpture).
Approximately every 10 years, the cherry tree receives a new coat of paint. He visited New York in 2009 and again in 2021. His subsequent departures and returns draw crowds to the garden, as visitors watch a construction worker enter the cherry and fly through the air at the interior. The cherry most recently returned on a snowy day in February, and its relocation brought to mind the “Spoonbridge and Cherry” snow Ballwhich was once available in the Walker’s gift shop.
Swedish-born Oldenburg was inspired by the sculptor’s abiding interest in form, the Dadaist’s revolutionary notion of bringing ready-made objects into the realm of art, and the ironic fascination and pop artist’s outlaw for lowbrow culture – reimagining ordinary objects in fantastical contexts.
“I want your senses to become very attentive to their surroundings,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1963.
“When I’m served a plate of food, I see shapes and forms, and sometimes I don’t know whether to eat the food or look at it,” he said. In May 2009, a 1976 Oldenburg sculpture, “Typewriter Eraser”, sold for a record $2.2 million at a post-war and contemporary art auction in New York.
Early in his career he was a key developer of vinyl “soft sculpture” – an alternative way to transform ordinary objects – and also helped invent the quintessential 1960s art event, the “Happening”. .
Among his most famous large sculptures are “Clothespin”, a 45ft steel clothespin installed near Philadelphia City Hall in 1976, and “Batcolumn”, a 100ft lattice steel baseball bat installed the following year in front of a federal office. building in Chicago.
“It’s always a matter of interpretation, but I tend to consider all of my work to be completely pure,” Oldenburg told the Chicago Tribune in 1977, shortly before “Batcolumn” was signed. “That’s the adventure: taking a very impure object and seeing it as pure. That’s the pleasure.”
The placement of these sculptures showed how his monument-sized objects – while still causing much controversy – took their place in front of public and corporate buildings as the establishment ironically defended once-foreign art. .
Many of Oldenburg’s later works were produced in collaboration with his second wife, Coosje van Bruggen, a Dutch-born art historian, artist and critic whom he married in 1977. The previous year she had helped install his 41-foot “Trowel I”. on the grounds of the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands.
Van Bruggen died in January 2009.
Oldenburg’s first wife, Pat, also an artist, helped him during their marriage in the 1960s, sewing his soft sculptures.
Oldenburg’s first burst of publicity came in the early 1960s, when a type of performance art called the Happening began to appear in Manhattan’s artier neighborhoods.
A 1962 New York Times article described it as “far-off entertainment more sophisticated than twisting, more psychological than a seance, and twice as infuriating as a game of charades”.
An Oldenburg concoction, quoted in the 1965 book “Happenings” by Michael Kirby, juxtaposed a man in flippers quietly reciting Shakespeare, a trombonist playing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”, a young woman laden with tools climbing on a ladder, a man shoveling sand from a cot, and other oddities, all in a six-minute segment.
“There is no story and the events apparently make no sense,” Oldenburg told The Times. “But there is a disorganized pattern that acquires definition over the course of a performance.” He said the sessions – unscripted but loosely planned in advance – should be a “cathartic experience for us as well as the audience”.
Oldenburg sculpture was also becoming known during this period, particularly those in which objects such as a telephone or an electric mixer were rendered in soft, bendable vinyl. “The phone is a very sexy shape,” Oldenburg told the Los Angeles Times.
One of his first large-scale works was “Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks”, which juxtaposed large lipstick on caterpillars resembling those that propel army tanks. The original – with its suggestion of “make love (lipstick) not war (tanks)” – was commissioned by students and professors and installed at Yale University in 1969.
The original version deteriorated and was replaced by a steel, aluminum, and fiberglass version at another location on the Yale campus in 1974.
Oldenburg’s 45-foot steel “Clothespin” was installed in 1976 outside Philadelphia City Hall. It evokes Constantin Brancusi’s 1908 “The Kiss”, a semi-abstract depiction of an almost identical man and woman kissing eyeball to eyeball. “Clothespin” looks like the ordinary household object, but its two halves face each other in the same way as Brancusi’s lovers.
Chicago’s “Batcolumn” was funded by the federal government under a program to include a budget for artwork whenever a major federal building was constructed. It took place not far from the famous Picasso sculpture in Chicago, inaugurated in 1967.
“Batcolumn,” Oldenburg told the Tribune, “tries to be as non-decorative as possible – simple, structural, and direct. That, I think, is also part of Chicago: a very factual, realistic object. The last thing, though , was to have it against the sky, that’s what it was made for.”
He had considered making it red, but “the color would just have taken the focus away from the linear effect. Now the more buildings they destroy here, the better.”
Not all Chicagoans were happy. Around the same time as the sympathetic Tribune interview, another Tribune writer, architecture critic Paul Gapp, decried the trend towards “silly public sculpture” and called Oldenburg a “veteran of man and poseur who has long since convinced the art establishment that he was to be taken seriously.”
Other monumental Oldenburg projects include: “Crusoe Umbrella,” for the Civic Center in Des Moines, Iowa, completed in 1979; “Flashlight”, 1981, University of Las Vegas; and “Tumbling Tacks”, Oslo, 2009.
Oldenburg was born in 1929 in Stockholm, Sweden, the son of a diplomat. But young Claes (pronounced klahs) spent much of his childhood in Chicago, where his father served as Swedish consul general for many years. Oldenburg eventually became an American citizen.
As a young man, he studied at Yale and the Art Institute of Chicago and worked for a time at the City News Bureau in Chicago. He settled in New York in the late 1950s, but also occasionally lived in France and California.
This report includes biographical material written by former AP staffer Polly Anderson. Alicia Eler of the Star Tribune also contributed to this report.