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Cupid's Span, San Francisco, California.
Cupid's Span, San Francisco, California.

Claes Oldenburg: Giant Thing Artist

More than any other highbrow artist, Claes Oldenburg (1929-2022) embraced the Roadside "big is best" vernacular. Between 1969 and 2011 he built -- or had built -- dozens of giant outdoor versions of ordinary things, such as a paintbrush, a clothespin, a 3-way electrical plug. These were not flimsy, temporary installations; Oldenburg designed his works to last for centuries, mostly out of colorfully-painted industrial steel. Around twenty of his sculptures stand in the U.S., typically in big-city parks and on art museum lawns. Philadelphia and San Francisco have more than their share of monumental Oldenburgs.

Binoculars, Venice, California.
Binoculars, Venice, California.

Gushing critics praised his work as "brash" and "spirited art" that "attacked sterility" (Although unschooled armchair critics could say the same about any Muffler Man). The Sweden-born Oldenburg, who never gushed about anything, called them "Large-Scale Projects."

Collaborating with his wife Coosje van Bruggen (1942-2009), Oldenburg hit his stride in the 1980s and '90s with works such as "Spoonbridge and Cherry" (1988, Minneapolis), "Free Stamp" (1991, Cleveland), and "Typewriter Eraser, Scale X" (1999, Las Vegas).

Oldenburg somehow managed to please both those enraptured by high art and those who love detour-worthy photo-ops. It was a niche that he occupied alone and, given the fickle nature of art criticism, it's unlikely that any new disciple would enjoy similar genteel status.

We, however, will always warmly welcome anyone who aspires to beautify the landscape with a giant chest of drawers or a potato.

Roadside Selection of Claes Oldenburg (and Coosje van Bruggen )

Free stamp, Cleveland, Ohio.
Free stamp, Cleveland, Ohio.

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