Claes Oldenburg’s Alphabet in the Form of a Good Humor Bar

An excerpt from my essay:

The Good Humor truck, driving through postwar American neighborhoods and trailing children in images worthy of Norman Rockwell, was familiar to all and beloved—as noted in an affectionate article in the Chicago Tribune in 2001, “the Good Humor man himself took his place right next to baseball and apple pie as a cultural icon.”[1]  Embodying everyday American consumption in two senses—food and money—the Good Humor bar, an ice cream treat sold from the truck, was evidently an object and cultural icon of great interest to Oldenburg.  In his 1960s series of Proposed Colossal Monuments, Oldenburg included the Proposed Colossal Monument for Park Avenue, New York: Good Humor Bar (1965), a conceptual drawing of a giant replica of an upside-down chocolate-covered ice cream bar with a bite taken out of the lower right corner to allow traffic to pass through.[2] In Alphabet in the Form of a Good Humor Bar, an offset lithograph reproduction of an original colored pencil drawing printed in four colors on Zerkall Velin heavy white wove paper, Oldenburg twists this icon by contouring the bar’s exterior with puffy, flesh-tone pink letters, adding a melting bluish-white center visible from where a bite of the bar has been removed by the A in the top-left corner.[3]  A small, bluish drip is visible at the bottom, and the alphabet bar is held up by a popsicle stick.  The image appears alternately pleasant—the colors are light and almost childish and the strokes of the colored pencil appear warm and soft—and grotesque, with the form and coloration of the letters resembling an organ of the human body, either the brain or the intestines, as suggested in Alicia Ostriker’s poem “A Morning In The Museum.”[4]  The color is off-putting and not normally associated with food, and the letters are distorted, ill-formed, and not entirely decipherable.  At 757 by 508 millimeters (29.02 by 20 inches), the Good Humor bar of the print is scaled-up, larger-than-life, dominating the frame.  It is centered horizontally on the page and vertically set slightly above center, surrounded by blank white space, lending it the same colossal, monumental, looming quality that marked the Proposed Colossal Monuments and granting monolithic weight and grandeur to a seemingly insignificant piece of cultural ephemera.

Oldenburg uses the medium of print to assert the commodification of art and to play with conceptions of reality in an industrial era.  The piece is defined by contradictions.  The process of lithography and printmaking was seen as a commercial medium for mass-production, appropriate for the subject matter—and indeed, many prints were made—but the image is also very self-consciously a work of art.  At first glance, it appears to be just a colored pencil drawing, as Oldenburg intentionally included light sketch marks around the edge of the bar, making it seem unfinished, unprofessional, a picture rather than a product.  This tension between the image as an original, unique work and as a mass-produced reproduction is complicated by the edition number scrawled in the lower left-hand corner (72/250 for the print included in Wesleyan University’s collection at the Davison Art Center) and the artist’s signature and year in the lower right-hand corner (CO70), both written in real pencil on top of the print reproducing a pencil drawing.  All of this suggests an inherent instability in modern truth and reality and a complex dialectical relationship between art and commerce.

The iconography of the image is also striking.  With the use of the alphabet, Oldenburg seems to be devising a new vocabulary for modern interaction with the world, mediated by brand names and fetishized consumer objects.  Instead of words, the primary producer of American cultural content has become the image.  Crucially, however, the alphabet here is incomplete—the letters E, F, N, and V are missing.  Thus, the work can be seen as a critique of consumer culture, as it is lacking essential components of the formation of meaning.  The dripping and melting that can be seen in the bar also hints at further degradation of meaning and the unsustainability of consumerism.

[1] Sirott, Bob. “Ice cream remembered with Good Humor.” Chicago Tribune 2 Sept. 2001. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

[2] “ Oldenburg and van Bruggen on the Roof.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

[3]Alphabet in the Form of a Good Humor Bar, Claes Oldenburg, 1970.” Davison Art Center Collection Search. Davison Art Center, Wesleyan University. 23 Jan. 2014. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

[4] Ostriker, Alicia. “A Morning In The Museum.” Prairie Schooner 79.4 (2005): 24-28. Project MUSE. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.

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