After All These Years: Political, Erotical and Mystical Claes Oldenburg

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos Claes Oldenburg’s Clothespin, 15th and Market Streets, in 1979

At first, the idea of a 51-foot paintbrush in front of an art school/museum seemed unoriginal, little more than a logo for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Had Claes Oldenburg, after more than thirty five years and in his fourth major work in Philadelphia, sold out?

We expected Oldenburg to be more the outsider here, more outrageous. We wanted the old Oldenburg, the one whose work spilled out originality, as he recently described to The Wall Street Journal. That sculptor once proposed replacing the Washington Monument with a giant pair of upended scissors. That artist imagined a giant toilet float for the Thames in London and a working windshield wiper threatening the Chicago waterfront.

Philadelphia's might-have-been screw monument. Illustration by Kirk Finkel based on Wikipedia Creative Commons photograph by Spikebrennan and "Cemetery in the Shape of a Colossal Screw," in “Oldenburg Draws Seven New Wonders of the World,” Horizon (Spring 1972).

Oldenburg, we always heard, originally proposed a screw monument for 15th and Market Streets, something he only imagined for São Paulo, Brazil. Could Rizzo-era Philadelphia, a city barely willing to accept a clothespin, allow a 45 foot-tall screw across from City Hall tower? Not on your life.

Someday, we may learn the full story about Philly’s first Oldenburg proposal, but we do know he had in the wings a less offensive idea: a clothespin. And in 1976 Philadelphia dedicated the first of Philadelphia’s major Oldenburg works: Clothespin, Split Button, Giant Three-Way Plug and now Paint Torch. These span Oldenburg’s entire, at times envelope-pushing, career.

In the early 1960s, in his New York studio, Oldenburg pushed the envelope plenty. His Pop Art manifesto staked out new artistic territory: “I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.” Would Oldenburg be willing and able to push the envelope on the streets of Philadelphia? What we seem to have across from City Hall and at the museum is something less than the “political-erotical-mystical” art we were promised.

But looks can be deceiving. As it turns out, Paint Torch floats above its site and gently commands Broad Street with scale, color and texture. It deploys a Pixar-tight caricature quality reminiscent of a helium parade balloon. Its form renders precious—in the best sense of the word—details of the Academy’s Furness façade, as well as those of City Hall a block to the south. By comparison, Clothespin is upright, uptight even. Clothespin’s rough, Cor-Ten steel surface does no favors for its promise of play, although the stainless steel spring does invite our imaginations. (Are they the arms of two figures in an embrace? Do they say “76”? Or is it merely a spring?)

In 2011, as in ’76, we find Oldenburg likes to play with our reading of these details. Looking at the top of Paint Torch, we see the brush pushing against something. There’s no canvas above Broad Street—only the outside world. What is this giant brushstroke? It looks like a tongue sticking out.

Could this be a lesson for art students to move beyond their teachers, as Oldenburg did? Could it be that Oldenburg, in the fullness of time, is getting back at Philadelphia? Or is it just an innocent dab of paint?

We are glad to see that Oldenburg has made something here that is, after all, “political-erotical-mystical.” The sculptor didn’t sell out. What he did, it seems, is to perfect the subtle, sometimes necessary art of tweaking one’s host.