One of the Last Pop Art Greats Claes Oldenburg Dies

Claes Oldenburg is no longer among us. The Swedish-American sculptor died on July 18, 2022 at the age of 93. But the memory will live on. In spite of his Swedish background, what Odenburg did throughout his career was pay tribute to all things American, mainly through his oversized sculptures.

Elitism and snobbery is not a new phenomenon among artists, art connoisseurs and art aficionados. Some may call it being sophisticated, others, artsy.

What pop artists were able to do is blur the line between art and non-art. Claes Oldenburg was one of them.

What Was the Pop Art Movement?

In 2001, one of the most famous writers of our time, prolific storyteller Neil Gaiman published one of his most famous works: The American Gods. The fantasy novel is a peculiar blend of old and new mythology and Americana. In the book, there is a clash between the Old Gods and the New, with The New American Gods being antropomorphic manifestations of various aspects of modern life, with an emphasis on modern technology, the Internet, and mass media. Arguably, it was the pop art movement that breathed life into the fictional deities. 

The pop art movement has been an inspiration ever since its inception and it has had a lasting effect on all the manifestations of art. Photorealism, which evolved from pop art, relied on the same source of motivation: everyday consumer objects and their place in our lives.

Much like postmodernist authors, members of the pop movement aptly recognized the transformative power of the familiar and drew inspiration from America’s rich and colorful popular culture at the time, movies and music, but also advertising and commercial products, which paved the way for large-scale consumerism. No longer was commercial product design reduced to its practical, mundane application of selling goods and services. The pop art movement immortalized these banal consumer products and gave them new life and a new layer of meaning. 

Back when pop art was beginning to take its form, the people of America were irresistibly drawn to advertising and art and culture were heavily influenced by the emerging pop music, movies and media. 

We may not even realize it, because we’ve grown accustomed to it all, but pop art has had a deeply transformative impact on the world as we know it. It would reshape future trends, and this is well-illustrated by NFT art, a ubiquitous term for NFT collectibles, many of which can be perceived as a digitized form of pop art, but in a way that is true to our modern-day philosophy, which is inextricably linked to technology.

Pop art history would not have been the same without Oldenburg’s unique take on the American way of life at the time and his electrifying contribution to the pop art movement on the whole, both in the US and internationally.

In addition to Oldenburg, the list of pop artists features Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and Jasper Jones.

Who Was Claes Oldenburg?

Swedish-born American sculptor Oldenburg was always at the ready to spice up his works with a touch of humor or, rather, good-humored satire. Today, his eccentric works, which started as mischievous avant-garde, are an integral part of the American landscape. They now perform a one-of-a-kind function with a tasteful dash of witty irony: providing a local color and old-fashioned instead of serving a purely artistic purpose. The artist helped define the pop art landscape (quite literally), which would not have been the same without him. Oldenburg became best known for his soft and dramatically outsized sculptures representing everyday objects. 

What Inspired Oldenburg to Create His Signature Works?

As someone with an international background, it made perfect sense that Oldenburg was one of the art world’s movers and shakers who helped reshape it.

Born on January 28, 1929 in Stockholm and son of a Swedish diplomat, he had the privilege of growing up between Sweden, Norway and the U.S. During his years at Yale University, Oldenburg was passionate about writing, but then shifted to art when he started attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Oldenburg started out as a painter, but later became passionate about sculpting. 

It was not until 1956 that he moved to New York, where he would spend the rest of his life. It was there that he discovered that inspiration was literally around every corner. True to his famous quote: “I am for an art of things lost or thrown away on the way home from school.”, he sought to create art out of the ordinary because he saw the potential.

Aside from vibrant street art, there were flashy neon signs, advertisements (Mad Men comes to mind), store windows, and in a city that big that kept getting bigger, heaps and heaps of trash. It would take a few years before Claes Oldenburg would launch his show, dubbed The Store, in 1960-1961. For the purposes of this exhibition, he rented an actual store. The collection on display at the Store included painted plaster copies of food, clothing, jewelry, and other items.

In 1962, Oldenburg created “happenings”, which combined sound, movement, objects, and people. Some of these creations also featured giant objects made of cloth stuffed with paper or rags. That same year, the Store hosted a new exhibition: gargantuan sculptures of an ice-cream cone, a hamburger, and a slice of cake. These sculpture were canvas-covered and made of foam and rubber, which opened a new chapter in the artist’s career: soft sculptures, which would go on to define his life’s work. But he didn’t pick just any consumer items as his subjects. All of his subjects were products of consumer life that people found relatable.

The use of vinyl gave them a humanlike quality, with sexual overtones. His later works would be incorporated in various art-in-architecture programs nationwide and worldwide. The artist helped redefine the panorama of American cities: monumental sculptures that were unorthodox to a delightfully comic effect. Oldenburg’s second wife Coosje van Bruggen, whom he married in 1977, would become his closest collaborator. Together, the power couple would go on to create extraordinary commissions, up until Van Bruggen’s death from breast cancer in 2009. In 2011, Oldenburg’s project Paint Torch was installed in Philadelphia, as the artist’s first solo creation in over 30 years. His final works consisted of photographs of street scenery and mixed-media sculptures. It is safe to say that the legacy of Oldenburg, a parodist of American abundance who played along and left monumental tributes across the country, will live on.