For more than fifty years Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929) has surprised, humored, and disoriented audiences with his unconventional use of media and scale to depict ordinary objects. Claes Oldenburg: Strange Eggs showcases—in their first complete exhibition anywhere—a remarkable group of cutouts by the Swedish-born American artist. These works, amalgams of commercial advertisements and newspaper and magazine images, are some of Oldenburg’s earliest preserved pieces and represent a pivotal moment of experimentation in his career.
Completed over the course of two years after Oldenburg moved to New York City from Chicago in 1956, the exhibition’s eighteen artworks feature self-contained forms that the artist made by seamlessly melding fragments cut from magazines and newspapers gathered near his apartment on the Lower East Side. While the arrangements and many of the components are unidentifiable, within them some original references remain: a piece of pie, the hind legs of a horse, a tree branch, the creased skin of a clenched fist, the texture of concrete. The process of combining art and everyday life would later define Oldenburg’s work.
Born in 1929 in Stockholm, Sweden, Oldenburg grew up in Chicago, where his father was Consul General of Sweden. After studying literature and art history at Yale University and later taking classes at the Art Institute of Chicago, Oldenburg moved to New York and eventually became one of a group of artists challenging Abstract Expressionism by returning to “realism,” working with found objects and figurative images. As an innovator of New York’s nascent Pop Art movement, he orchestrated happenings (anti-narrative, theatrical pieces staged in offbeat places) in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The Menil has long celebrated Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s deliberate and imaginative approach to making art. In 2009, the Menil Drawing Institute organized the exhibition, Drawings On Site: Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, in cooperation with the artists. The show centered on Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s highly interactive and multitiered creative process, showcasing visualizations of both feasible and unfeasible large-scale sculptures. Claes Oldenburg: Strange Eggs, curated by Michelle White, curator at the Menil Collection, offers a similarly rare glimpse into the artist’s early investigational works that were harbingers of the colossal objects to come.
This exhibition is generously supported by Leslie and Shannon Sasser, Janie C. Lee and David B. Warren, Phillips de Pury & Company, and the City of Houston.
Photos: Paul Hester