Claes Oldenburg The Store history of sculpture

Consumer article in the Art World as print version (PDF with illus. and fn. 2.500 KB)


The Consumer Article in the Art World: On the Para-Economy of American Pop Art

in: Shopping. A Century of Art and Consumer Culture, ed. by Max Hollein and Christoph Grunenberg, exhibition catalogue Tate Liverpool, Ostfildern-Ruit 2002, p. 148-53.

Chapter II

‘I find it quite natural’, said Claes Oldenburg, ‘to work under the conditions of American technical civilisation. I know every effect, every result of the technical working processes and I believe I can control them.’ However prosaic it may sound, Oldenburg at the same time believed obstinately in the old dream of a reconciliation between art and life. He wished to attain it through the reconciliation of human being and thing. ‘This elevation of sensibility above bourgeois values will (hopefully) destroy the notion of art and give the object back its power. Then the magic inherent in the universe will be restored and people will live in sympathetic religious exchange with the objects surrounding them. They will not feel so different from these objects, and the animate/inanimate schism will be mended.’ Oldenburg criticised the alienation of everyday life in general just as much as the specific alienation of art from everyday life. In exchange he offered a ‘shapeless’ universalism, which placed everything in a relationship with everything else, his ideal picture of an ‘erotical-political-mystical’ art, as he described it.

In 1961 he opened a shop, The Store, in his workshop in New York’s Lower East Side, in the wider context of which the ‘Lingerie Counter’ also came into being. The shop was not only the point of sale, but also the place of production. Its stock covered the whole spectrum of everyday needs, just like the items in the over-filled shops in the neighbourhood, from foodstuffs through clothes and shoes to writing materials. Everything was made from the same material – plaster-covered muslin – and painted in strong colours, as if in an Expressionist style. Oldenburg’s portrayal of reality worked on several levels. First of all it related to the everyday object itself, but of greater importance to him, however, was the ‘imitation’ of the different fields of activity, which allowed him to become one with the pastry-cook, tailor, bridal wear designer, butcher, sign-writer and shoe-maker. As salesman it also fell to him to distribute what had been produced. The ‘political’ dimension, on which he set his sights, consequently lay in a return to the non-alienated craftsman’s existence of a pre-capitalist economy in the midst of an American society based on the division of labour. In the art world of The Store there was not a single thing that he could not potentially have been able to produce and sell – though at the price of the transference of the things into art, of the individual articles into non-consumable and dysfunctional statues, of the shop as a whole into an ‘environment’.

As has already been mentioned, all objects were made from the same material, whether it was a question of an envelope, a sausage or a gym shoe. The surfaces were also exactly the same; everything exhibited the same fissured surface, smoothed by the glossy paint; everything appeared slightly deformed, melted on and lumpy. Some of the objects depicted Oldenburg in relief. They shared part of an unspecified background, in front of which they presented themselves and appeared as if broken off from a larger, imaginary context. The continuum, which began to evolve between the things, did not originate from the objects themselves – what have gym shoes and sausages in common after all – but from the unchanging three-dimensional treatment. It transformed the variance of the objects and materials into a cosmos ‘of the same flesh’. The Store was, as Oldenburg said, a ‘super texture super-collage’, a far-reaching and encroaching, pulsating organism.

Oldenburg’s osmotic world of goods loosened the relationship between signs and the designated, in their uniform shapelessness, the individual things were suddenly several things at once. The notices and drawings about The Store contain lists of form-analogies, which immediately allow the order that they purport to create, to collapse. According to Oldenburg the following ‘equate with each other’: ‘Hair and Bacon; Earrings, Airplane Wheels, Brassiere and Breasts; Obelisk and Ironing Board; Frankfurter in Bun, Airplane and rolled Newspaper; Hat, Lips, Banana Split and Gun; etc.’ The ‘de-formation’ of individual objects and the dissolving of their utilisation connections open up novel connection possibilities for totally disparate things. ‘The erotic or the sexual is the root of “art”, its first impulse’, said Oldenburg. ‘Today sexuality is more directed, or here where I am in America at this time, toward substitutes, for example, clothing rather than the person, fetishistic stuff, and this gives the object an intensity and this is what I try to project.’ The desire of the mythical sculptor Pygmalion was directed towards his marble sculpture of a young woman; Aphrodite took pity on him, animated her and gave her to Pygmalion as his wife.

Oldenburg’s desire is directed towards ice-cream cones and microphones, towards swimwear and pieces of roast meat. The ‘bride’, also on sale in The Store, was neither more physical nor more desirable than the gym shoe, the same sexual energy being present in everything. Thus, not only did Oldenburg bring about the collapse of the capitalist system in terms of the division of labour but also the pointed fetishisation of the world of goods, which for marketing purposes enhances saleability. His occupation of the object world was as complete as it was consistent in its intensity. ‘Store: 1. Eros. 2. Stomach. 3. Memory. Enter my Store’, is how he invites us in Store Days.

Oldenburg approached his goal of the convergence of art and life by allowing their energies to merge into one another. His ‘animism’, which gives life to things, follows in the tradition of sculpture, which since time immemorial has worked with the dialectic of inanimate material and living, ‘animated’ effect. He coupled this energy, along with the desire structure of the fetishism of goods, to his ‘erotical-political- mystical’ art. Oldenburg’s Store neutralised the tradition of plastic art in that he retained it and at the same time liquidated it. The ‘anthropomorphising’ of the world of things continued the tradition of plastic art, which for centuries had dedicated itself almost exclusively to the human figure. At the same time it was released from this thematic fixation, which, from the point of view of a living world shaped by things, had begun to become outmoded.

Chapter I
Punkt Konsumgut in der Kunstwelt Chapter II
Pfeil Konsumgut in der Kunstwelt Chapter III
Chapter IV
Consumer article in the Art World as print version (PDF with illus. and fn. 2.500 KB)