In a conference room in the Walker Art Center, curator Siri Engberg pulls out a picture of a toilet. It is perhaps the saddest toilet in the world: sewn from a sack of ill-fitting white vinyl, it slumps in on itself like a bouncy house with a slow leak. “It’s like this mopey cartoon character,” Engberg says, cooing at it like it’s a plush doll. And in a way, it is. The commode is one of 84-year-old pop artist Claes Oldenburg’s many “soft sculptures”: outsized, limp-noodle renditions of everyday stuff—electric fans, ice-cream cones—for which he became famous in the 1960s. This month, the Walker opens an exhaustive survey of the artist’s most fertile period, “Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties,” in which the hangdog totems, playful and droopy, may prove the most crowd-pleasing items.
Oldenburg spent much of the ’60s piecing together such whimsical facsimiles of household objects. His is an art of friendly gigantism; scale and form animate the inanimate, making surrealist mascots of humdrum items. Exhibit A: the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden’s centerpiece, Spoonbridge and Cherry—the brainchild of Oldenburg and his wife, Coosje van Bruggen.
“A lot of these objects have an anthropomorphic quality,” Engberg says. “It’s a huge part of Oldenburg’s work: the free association between the found object and the body.” And these associations aren’t always cartoon-innocent: Shoestring Potatoes Spilling from a Bag, another iconic sculpture (and the first Oldenburg piece the Walker ever acquired) was inspired by a woman’s legs in a mini skirt. “There’s a lot of sex in the work,” Engberg says matter-of-factly.
“The Sixties” will be the largest Oldenburg exhibition in history focusing on his early work, with some 300 pieces filling 14,000 square feet of gallery space. It will also include two rarely exhibited, walk-in environments: Mouse Museum, an absurdist, mouse-shaped mini-museum of obsessively collected dime-store items; and Ray Gun Wing, an equally absurdist, equally obsessive shrine to right angles, from toy guns to bent nails and plumbing pipes. Strolling through each, Engberg says, will be like “walking into Oldenburg’s brain.”
But it will also be like studying the Walker’s DNA. Few artists have been as central to the museum’s history as Oldenburg. The two share a decades-long relationship, beginning in the 1960s and culminating in 1988 with the installation of Spoonbridge. As an epilogue of sorts, “The Sixties” will pay tribute to the piece that has come to epitomize the Sculpture Garden, with early studies and maquettes of the colossal monument. That alone, Engberg says, should get people in the door.
So, come for the cherry, perhaps. But be sure to stay for the shoestring potatoes.