Claes Oldenburg

“I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.”

A prominent Pop artist, Claes Oldenburg’s signature sculptures depict everyday objects such as French fries, telephones, and hot water bottles made from soft materials like latex and canvas. Oldenburg's large-scale public installations amassed great popularity over time, many of which were created in collaboration with curator Coosjie Van Bruggen, whom he later married.


Born in Stockholm in 1929, the artist’s family moved to Chicago in 1936. Much of Oldenburg’s early life was spent in the United States, Sweden, and Norway, a result of moves his father made as a Swedish consular official. He studied Literature and Art History at Yale University and later took fine art classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1953 he opened a studio, doing freelance illustrating for magazines. 


In 1956 Oldenburg moved to New York City, where he became fascinated with the elements of street life: store windows, graffiti, advertisements, and trash. An awareness of the sculptural possibilities of these objects led to a shift in interest from painting to sculpture. In 1961 he opened The Store, a collection of painted plaster copies of food, clothing, jewelry, and other items.


Through the '60s he presented a series of happenings, one-time experimental presentations involving sound, movement, objects, and people. For some of these happenings, Oldenburg crafted giant objects made of cloth stuffed with paper or rags. In 1962 he exhibited a version of his store in which there were huge canvas-covered foam-rubber sculptures of an ice-cream cone, a hamburger, and a slice of cake.


These interests led to the work for which Oldenburg is best known: soft sculptures. Like other artists of the Pop movement, he chose the banal products of consumer life as his subjects. He was careful to choose objects with close human associations, such as bathtubs, typewriter erasers, light switches, and electric fans. In addition, his use of soft, yielding vinyl gave the objects human, often sexual overtones. Oldenburg’s Giant Soft Fan was installed in the U.S. Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal, and his work was also exhibited at Expo 70 in Ōsaka, Japan.


In 1977, Oldenburg married Coosje van Bruggen, his second wife. The couple collaborated on commissions, and from 1981 onwards her signature also appeared on their work. They worked with architect Frank Gehry on the Main Street Project (1975–84) in Venice, Calif., and Camp Good Times (1984–85) in the Santa Monica Mountains. With van Bruggen, Oldenburg created such large-scale sculptures as Spoonbridge and Cherry (1985–88) for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, as well as a soft sculpture of an oversized shuttlecock specially for a 1995 retrospective of his work at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.


Oldenburg has had solo exhibitions at the Moderna Museet Stockholm; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the Tate Gallery, London, and retrospectives at the Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.