Contemporary Art

Claes Oldenburg

United States 1929

Sculpture, Pop Art

Claes Oldenburg
Claes Oldenburg
United States
October 19, 2014
Ok, I know it's so damn corny to quote somebody just to describe yourself, let alone Confucius, but this quote says all about my relationship with Widewalls, so forgive me for doing this: Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life. Am I forgiven?

There’s this thing about rulers – their reign must end. No one lives forever, no one possesses an inspiration strong enough to defy time and change. However, when we talk about contemporary Pop Art sculpture, the throne has been reserved for Claes Oldenburg. For the past half a century, his reign has been undisputed, his imagination without limits. Singlehandedly ending the tradition of austere and non-representational sculptures of Abstract Expressionism, he introduced what is now commonly known as Pop Art sculpture. Both the pieces and his own ambition grew over time, but one thing hasn’t changed: he reversed all the traditional relationships between the viewers and objects by presenting seemingly everyday objects on a magnified scale. Suddenly, the audience was no longer dominating the relationship, as the absurdly oversized sculptures threatened to end their existence by devouring them in an instant. We indeed are small, and Oldenburg used his talents to show us the truth, applying his sharp insights on the popular American culture along the way.

Claes Oldenburg created the related works in public, and free of charge for public, with the aid of walker arts gallery
Claes Oldenburg – Miniature Soft Drum Set, 1969 (Left) / Typewriter Eraser (detail), 1970 (Right) – image courtesy of Gregg Shienbaum Fine Art gallery

Personal Life

The son of Gösta Oldenburg and his wife Sigrid Elisabeth née Lindforss, Claes was born in Stockholm, Sweden.[1] His father was a Swedish diplomat stationed in New York, who got appointed Consul General of Sweden to Chicago in 1936. His parents were already in the USA when they found out they were having a baby. Without knowing where her husband’s next appointment will be, Sigrid insisted that the child should be born in Sweden. Oldenburg first came to the United States when he was six months old, eventually becoming a naturalized citizen in 1953. He studied at the Yale University from 1946-1950, graduating with a degree in English and Art. After leaving Yale in 1950, he went to Chicago, where he was undecided about what to do and took a job with the City News Bureau of Chicago. He was doing that for a year and a half, but it seemed to him that it was a very unidealistic pursuit without any future in it. Since he didn’t want to go into reporting, he resolved to become a professional artist. Oldenburg started a self-educating procedure which lasted from 1951 to 1959, when he first showed his work. For about eight years there was darkness, and he worked relentlessly. During the first three years, he also attended the Art Institute of Chicago whenever he felt he was getting too far on his own. In 1956, the artist returned to New York and continued working on his drawings.[2] Regarding his personal life – Oldenburg had three major relationships in his life. His first wife (from 1960-1970), Patty Mucha, was a constant performer in his happenings and also performed with The Druids. In the period 1969-1977, Oldenburg was involved with Hannah Wilke, a feminist artist and a sculptor. He met his second wife, Coosje Van Bruggen, in 1970, when he had his first major retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, where Bruggen worked as a curator. They collaborated on many pieces before she passed away in 2009. Another eminent art figure came from the Oldenburg family – Claes’ brother Richard E. Oldenburg was director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York for more than twenty years and went on to become chairman of Sotheby’s America.

He would often sculpt ordinary things, like tools

Claes Oldenburg
Claes Oldenburg – Spitzhacke (Pickaxe), 1982 – image via


In the years after returning to New York, Oldenburg was mostly interested in the figure. He was never an Abstract painter. After giving it a try at school, he felt he was not inclined that way. His mind was set on something else – a subject matter and what may be called a naturalistic form. In 1958, when he finally found a large enough apartment on the Lower East Side, the artist reverted to figure painting, drawing and painting a lot of figures and nudes.[3] In 1961, he wrote I Am For…, widely considered to be a manifesto, even though the artists disagrees. Through it, Oldenburg asserted his radical artistic position, stating: “I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum. I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all, an art given the chance of having a starting point of zero. I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap & still comes out on top. I am for an art that imitates the human, that is comic, if necessary, or violent, or whatever is necessary. I am for all 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…”[4] Around that time he emerged as a Pop artist with his “soft” sculptures of quotidian objects. Asked about the lingering criticism towards the American society and its habits, the sculptor said that his procedure is entirely instinctive. Where others speak about contemporary (bad) objects and symbols, Oldenburg is only concerned with the living experience. Naturally, he has thoughts about America and the way of life, but it’s not what he really thinks about. When he starts to work, these types of opinions may start the piece, but by the time he gets to something that matters, they have become generalized into something else. Not limiting his pieces to only one dimension (like the critique), the artist states that art objects should be something unique, but also that every single work should go many ways, all at the same time.

His process is entirely instinctive

Claes Oldenburg and walker arts made the known computer mouse and other related sculptures free for public to enjoy
Claes Oldenburg – Sculpture In The Form Of A Bicycle Saddle, 1976 (Left) / Geometric Mouse Scale E Desktop, 2013 (Right) – image courtesy of Gregg Shienbaum Fine Art gallery

Exhibitions and Related Events

Oldenburg had his first solo show at the Judson Gallery in New York in 1959, which featured figurative drawings and papier-mâché sculptures. When the 60s began, he was already in the process of establishing himself through a series of performances and installations. Some of the first ones, such as The Street (1960), The Store (1961), and Ray Gun Theater (1962) contributed greatly to the emergence of the American Pop Art. While he was in Los Angeles, the artist shifted his focus towards subjects inspired by what he called The Home. The installation Bedroom Ensemble (1963) was quickly followed by performances Autobodys (1963), Gayety (Chicago, 1963), Stars (Washington D.C., 1963), Washes and Moveyhouse (New York, 1965), and Massage (Stockholm, 1966). In 1969, he exhibited his works at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and a year later, at the Tate Gallery in London. The Whitney Museum of American Art organized a retrospective of the drawings made by Oldenburg and Van Bruggen in 2002, and seven years later, another major exhibition took place there. Claes Oldenburg: Early Sculpture, Drawings, and Happenings Films, along with Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen: The Music Room, showed the Iconic examples of Oldenburg’s early sculpture – Giant BLT (Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato Sandwich) (1963), French Fries and Ketchup (1963), and Soft Toilet (1966).[5] The Music Room was actually a full room dedicated to a series of sculptures of musical instruments by the duo, including both hard and soft instruments of differing scales that ranged in date from 1992 to 2006. Among the objects included were variations on a viola, saxophone, clarinets, French horns, sheet music, and a metronome. Up to this date, Oldenburg remains as one of the most exhibited contemporary artists, whether he’s in solo shows, or participating in group exhibitions. Also, there are more than forty large-scale pieces installed around the world – from Norway, South Korea, Germany, The Netherlands, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom, Spain, France, to the USA. His works are admired by the entire world.

Since 1959, when he had his first solo show, Oldenburg had become one of the world’s most exhibited contemporary artists

Claes Oldenburg x Coosje van Bruggen
Claes Oldenburg x Coosje van Bruggen – Giant Pool Balls, 1977 – photo credits Rüdiger Wölk, Münster, via


Oldenburg made a major breakthrough in the world of sculpture, distancing himself from the aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism and its hard and vertical placed sculptures. His works may appear insignificant, but they are indeed expressive entities. He has also distanced himself from his Pop peers, like Warhol and Lichtenstein, by employing somewhat gentler cynicism. His innovative approach paved the way for the next generation. Oldenburg inspired some of the contemporary titans, such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. In the end, one’s contribution to the world art is not measured by the influence he makes in his own time, but rather can his style survive the test of imminent change and remain influential. This puts Oldenburg in the pantheon of the sculpture deities, along other masters like Brancusi and Michelangelo.

He is represented by Gregg Shienbaum Fine Art gallery.

Claes Oldenburg lives and works in New York.


  1. Anonymous. Claes Oldenburg, Wikipedia [August 26,2016]
  2. Hooton B. Oral history interview with Claes Oldenburg, 1965 Feb. 19, the Archives of American Art [August 26,2016]
  3. Rose B. Claes Oldenburg, Interview Magazine [August 26,2016]
  4. Anonymous. Claes Oldenburg: I am for an Art, artist statements [August 26,2016]
  5. Anonymous. Claes Oldenburg: Early Sculpture, Drawings, and Happenings Films, Whitney Museum of American Art [August 26,2016]

Featured image: Claes Oldenburg posing with one of his artworks – image copyright Keystone/Getty Images

YearExhibition TitleGallery/MuseumSolo/Group 
2014In the RoundThe Pace Gallery - 32 East 57th Street, New York City, NYGroup
2014The Crystal PalaceRachel Uffner Gallery, New York City, NYGroup
2014The Shaped Canvas, RevisitedLuxembourg & Dayan, New York City, NYGroup
2014Everything falls faster than an anvilPace London, LondonGroup
2014Four DecadesJohn Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco, CAGroup
2014Pop Art PrintsSmithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DCGroup
2014GroundedThe Pace Gallery - 534 West 25th Street, New York City, NYGroup
2013Claes Oldenburg: The SixtiesWalker Art Center, Minneapolis, MNSolo
2013Jim Dine and Claes Oldenburg: Transformations of the OrdinaryCantor Arts Center at Stanford University, Stanford, CAGroup
2013Holiday Pop-up ShopPaula Cooper Gallery, New York City, NYGroup
2013Pop Art DesignBarbican Art Gallery, LondonGroup
2013According To PlanBarbara Mathes Gallery, New York City, NYGroup
2013In Form Express & AdmirableCamberwell Space, LondonGroup
2013Line & FormMarc Straus, New York City, NYGroup
2013B.A.B.E - The Best Artists Books and EditorsImmanence, espace d'art contemporain, ParisGroup
2013Re-View: Onnasch CollectionHauser & Wirth, London (closed, 2013)Group
2013Pizza TimeMarlborough Broome St, New York City, NYGroup
2013News & Prints: Printmaking & the NewspaperInternational Print Center New York, New York City, NYGroup
2013American Pop Art:From the John and Kimiko Powers CollectionThe National Art Center Tokyo, TokyoGroup
2013EditionsMoody Gallery, Houston, TXGroup
2013Pop! Pop!! Pop!!! Selections from the Hara Museum CollectionHara Museum ARC, ShibukawaGroup
2013404 E 14thTibor de Nagy Gallery, New York City, NYGroup
2013Playing with Process: Explorations in Experimental PrintmakingMFAH - Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Houston, TXGroup
2013When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969 Venezia 2013Fondazione Prada, VeniceGroup
2013Sweet Dreams, Baby! Life Of Pop, London To WarholAlbright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NYGroup
2013Bookhouse - La Forma Del LibroMARCA - Museo delle Arti Catanzaro, CatanzaroGroup
2013The Pop Object: The Still Life Tradition in Pop ArtAcquavella Galleries, Inc., New York City, NYGroup
2013Pop Goes The Easel: Pop Art And Its ProgenyLyman Allyn Art Museum, New London, CTGroup
2013I'm dreaming about a realityGalerie Chantal Crousel, ParisGroup
2012Los Anos SesentaMuseo Guggenheim de Arte Moderno y Contemporáneo, BilbaoSolo
2012Claes Oldenburg. Arbeiten auf PapierNeue Nationalgalerie, BerlinSolo
2012Strange EggsThe Menil Collection, Houston, TXSolo
2012The SixtiesLudwig Museum im Deutschherrenhaus, KoblenzSolo
2012From Street to Mouse: 1959 - 1970Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig - MUMOK , ViennaSolo
2012Tools in MotionFort Collins Museum of Contemporary Art (FCMOCA), Fort Collins, COGroup
2012Sinister PopWhitney Museum of American Art, New York City, NYGroup
2012Family PortraitCarriage Trade, New York City, NYGroup
2012From Page to SpaceGalerija Murska Sobota, Murska SobotaGroup
2012With An Apple I will AstonishLarge Glass, LondonGroup
2012Another CastleEtablissement d´en face projects, BrusselsGroup
2012The New York Collection for StockholmGeorgia Museum of Art, Athens, GAGroup
2012Ghosts in the MachineNew Museum of Contemporary Art, New York City, NYGroup
2012American Prints IiiRussell Bowman Art Advisory, Chicago, ILGroup
2012The Small Utopia. Ars MultiplicataFondazione Prada, VeniceGroup
2012AccrochageGalerie Klaus Benden, CologneGroup
2012Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, Los Angeles, CAGroup
2012Thanks: 50th Anniversary ExhibitionCarl Solway Gallery, Cincinnati, OHGroup
2012Micro ManiaGagosian Gallery, ParisGroup
2012The Artists’ Postcard ShowSpike Island, BristolGroup
2012Spring (2012)IKON Ltd, Santa Monica, CAGroup
2012Rodin To Now: Modern SculpturePalm Springs Art Museum, Palm Springs, CAGroup
2012LandscapePace Prints, New York City, NYGroup
2012Happenings: New York, 1958–1963The Pace Gallery - 534 West 25th Street, New York City, NYGroup
2012New Dimensions: Prints and Multiples from the Anderson CollectionThe de Young Museum, San Francisco, CAGroup
2012Master Drawings New YorkBarbara Mathes Gallery, New York City, NYGroup
2012DrawnMargo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles, CA (closed, 2012)Group
2011Holiday EditionsPaula Cooper Gallery, New York City, NYGroup
201146 N. Los Robles: A History of the Pasadena Art MuseumPacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, CAGroup
2011The Private Collection of Robert RauschenbergnGagosian Gallery , New York City, NYGroup
2011Burning, Bright: A Short History of the Light BulbThe Pace Gallery - 545 West 22nd Street, New York City, NY (closed)Group
2011Art At The Origin: The Early 1960SThe Rose Art Museum, Waltham, MAGroup
2011Proof: The Rise of Printmaking in Southern CaliforniaNorton Simon Museum of Art, Pasadena, CAGroup
2011American Prints IIRussell Bowman Art Advisory, Chicago, ILGroup
2011These Are a Few of My Favorite ThingsSylvia White Gallery, Ventura, CAGroup
2011Off the Wall/Fora da ParedeMuseu Serralves - Museu de Arte Contemporânea, PortoGroup
2011Picturing Technology: Land and MachineMMoCA - The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Madison, WIGroup
2011FamilienbandeGalerie Thomas Modern, MunichGroup
2011Collectors ChoiceR. B. Stevenson Gallery, La Jolla, CAGroup
2011From Page to SpaceWeserburg | Museum für moderne Kunst, BremenGroup
2011The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to TodayKunsthaus Zürich, ZurichGroup
2011POP & AfterBeth Urdang Gallery, Boston, MAGroup
2011Object as Multiple: 1960-2000Stephen Wirtz Gallery, San Francisco, CAGroup
2010The Maginot LineDavid Castillo Gallery, Miami, FLGroup
2010PopularGalerie Thomas Modern, MunichGroup
2010Gran ReservaMuseo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende, SantiagoGroup
2010Art and AppetiteDavison Art Center, MiddletownGroup
2010Modern and Contemporary SculptureRichard Gray Gallery - New York, New York City, NYGroup
2010New Works: Prints, Drawings, CollagesMFA - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston, MAGroup
2010Thanks for Being With Us: Contemporary Art from the Douglas Nielsen CollectionTucson Museum of Art, Tucson, AZGroup
2010Ox-Bow CentennialCorbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago, ILGroup
2010Beauty is DiamondLaleh June Galerie, BaseGroup
2010Works from the Gallery CollectionCarl Solway Gallery, Cincinnati, OHGroup
2010Portrait of a CollectionAcquavella Galleries, Inc., New York City, NYGroup
2010KNOCK KNOCK: Who’s There? That Joke Isn’t Funny AnymoreFred Torres Collaborations, New York City, NYGroup
2010CrashGagosian Gallery, LondonGroup
2010Collecting BiennialsWhitney Museum of American Art, New York City, NYGroup
2010Modern Times: responding to chaosKettle's Yard, Cambridge, CambridgeshireGroup
2008Claes Oldenburg Drawings 1965-1973Craig F. Starr Gallery, New York City, NYSolo
2008The Store, and laterEl Sourdog Hex, Berlin (closed, 2009)Solo
2006Claes OldenburgHonor Fraser, Los Angeles, CASolo
2005Claes OldenburgZwirner & Wirth, New York City, NY (closed, 2009)Solo
2004Claes OldenburgSusan Inglett Gallery, New York City, NYSolo
2003Works from The Store, 1961Peter Freeman, Inc., New York City, NYSolo
2002Claes Oldenburg - Drawings: 1959 - 1963Paula Cooper Gallery, New York City, NYSolo
2000Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van BruggenA documentary exhibition on the statue - Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, EindhovenSolo
1998Props, Costumes and Designs for the Performance Il Corso del ColtelloMargo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles, CA (closed, 2012)Solo
1997Claes Oldenburg: Printed StuffMMoCA - The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Madison, WISolo
1996Claes Oldenburg - Eine AnthologieKunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, BonnSolo
1995Claes Oldenburg: An AnthologySolomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City, NYSolo
1993Claes Oldenburg : Multiples 1964-1990Musée d'Art moderne de Saint-Etienne, Saint-EtienneSolo
1987Claes Oldenburg: The haunted houseMuseen Haus Lange / Haus Esters, KrefeldSolo
1978Claes Oldenburg - Sculpture 1971-1977Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles, CA (closed, 2012)Solo
1978Claes Oldenburg: Mouse Museum and Ray Gun WingSaint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis, MOSolo
1977Claes Oldenburg. Teckningar, akvareller och grafikModerna Museet, StockholmSolo
1976The Soft ScrewMargo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles, CA (closed, 2012)Solo
1975The Alphabet in LAMargo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles, CA (closed, 2012)Solo
1973Object into MonumentThe Art Institute of Chicago, ChicagoSolo
1970New Work By Claes OldenburgSidney Janis Gallery, New York City, NY (closed, 1998)Solo
1967Claes Oldenburg Drawings: Projects for MonumentsKrannert Art Museum, Champaign, ILSolo
1966New Work by OldenburgSidney Janis Gallery, New York City, NY (closed, 1998)Solo