Claes Oldenburg with Floor Cone (1962) in front of Dwan Gallery, Los Angeles, 1963. Oldenburg van Bruggen Studio. © Claes Oldenburg.

 

"Pastry and art are two forms of pleasure. If you combine them, you get two times the pleasure," Claes Oldenburg said at today's press preview for his two-part show, "Claes Oldenburg: The Street and the Store" and "Claes Oldenburg: Mouse Museum/Ray Gun Wing," at New York's Museum of Modern Art (Apr. 14-Aug. 5). The statement carries much of the same simplicity and appeal that runs throughout the artist's work.

The show reaches back to Oldenburg's New York beginnings with the seminal works The Store (1961) and The Street (1960), on view on the sixth floor, and Mouse Museum (1965-1977) and Ray Gun Wing (1969-1977), both installed in the museum's atrium.

These pieces highlight the experiential and performative aspects of the artist's work. Oldenburg said today, "I've always had an interest in theater. I always thought New York was a place of theater. There was so much theater to setting these things to life. That's very important to me."

In a palette of gray, brown and black, The Street captures downtown New York in all of its glory as a center of filth, creativity and the alchemical transformation of raw materials. On display are various monoprints with dripping, graffitilike doodles, and sculptures made of cardboard, newsprint, wood, wire, string and burlap. Oldenburg said of the materials, "I saw their potential. Plaster cost practically nothing. Chicken wire was cheap. You put those things together, and you've got yourself a show."

As the visitor moves through the sixth-floor gallery, The Street gives way to the more colorful objects that comprise The Store, which highlights the everyday with small sculptures. They are made of muslin soaked in plaster that is placed over wire, then sloshed with colorful dripping paint and enamel: replicas of pastries, sundaes, hamburgers, men's hats and high-heel shoes. The display of these objects moves beyond the discrete objects of The Street and into a mode of installation. The Store is a complete environment rather than objects inspired by his surroundings. Of the progression between the two works, Oldenburg said, "From The Street, The Store was like coming up and looking sideways at color and objects, and fragments of objects."

If The Store was an artistic reflection of the everyday, then the purpose of The Mouse Museum is to elevate the everyday to the status of art object. The Mouse Museum is a black, square, room-size wooden structure with two round additions that create a Mickey Mouse-like silhouette when the piece is viewed from above, which is facilitated by its placement in the atrium. Under dim lighting inside are hundreds of readymade knickknacks and handmade art objects displayed behind Plexiglas. Examples range from a ball-point pen in the shape of a leg and a pile small white gloves whose openings have been sewn closed to a nondescript landscape painting with its dollar store price tag still tacked on. They are united only by the fact that they were placed there at the discretion of the artist, who plays the role of curator. Every item in the sister structure, The Ray Gun Wing, takes the form of a right angle. There are toy guns; bits of found wood; stones; and small, abstract, collagelike sculptures.

Oldenburg began working in New York during a period dominated by Abstract Expressionist painting. Though Ab Ex-like drips and wild paint application can be seen in much of his early work, he explained today that "Abstract Expressionism had gotten so far away from reality—what was missing was a relation to the surroundings." Oldenburg's ability to capture the everyday world around him in honest yet fantastic modes has given his work lasting vitality.