With the ending of World War II came a new and renewed sense of patriotism, as well as an overall economic boost, leading to the domestic industrialization of commodity production, an expanding consumer market, and a desire for material goods in America. Claes Oldenburg’s print, “Alphabet in the Form of a Good Humor Bar” is a direct response to the growing commercialization and materialism of the late 1960s. Through the form and style of his print, Oldenburg critiques consumerism and the media and brings to light how superficial American culture has become while simultaneously interweaving complex ideas from the Pop Art and Fluxus movements into his work….
In [his work,] Oldenburg creates an object reminiscent of childhood that’s playful and innocent, yet also sensual and carnal. Furthermore, the ice cream is quite enlarged and placed a little above the center on the page, creating the illusion that the viewer is looking up towards this monumental object. In addition, Oldenburg chose to leave unclean lines in his print. He deliberately left faint sketch marks around the shape of the ice cream bar. Stranger still, some of the letters in the ice cream bar are immaculately shaded and evenly colored, yet some are sloppily formed with blurry lines and barely filled in.
“Alphabet in the Form of a Good Humor Bar” quintessentially demonstrates Oldenburg’s style. It’s humorous and almost comic-like, yet has soft and rounded textures that make the work sensual and almost erotic. Oldenburg plays with this juxtaposition often, in order to be evocative and bring out the essence of the subjects he creates. In his 1961 poem “I Am for an Art…” Oldenburg states, “I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap & still comes out on top… 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… I am for the art that a kid licks, after peeling away the wrapper…” (Oldenburg, 1961)…. [Oldenburg] create[s] a very tactile and physical sensation for the viewer in order to evoke unconscious feelings the viewer may have towards the object that Oldenburg is portraying. The irony is that Oldenburg uses common and seemingly emotionless objects and reveals the underlying significance of those objects in the context of popular culture.
“Alphabet in the Form of a Good Humor Bar” is not the only study Oldenburg has done on Good Humor bars. In 1963 Oldenburg created “Soft Fur Good Humors,” a display of four huge ice cream bars made of fake fur and stuffed with fluff. The softness of the piece combined with the bright colors of the fake fur demonstrated the artificial nature of mass-produced food (Shanes, 2006). Oldenburg also created a series of proposal designs for a huge sculpture of a looming giant ice cream bar. Again, Oldenburg wants his audience to be reminded of the huge influence brands such as Good Humor have over the masses, and in turn, how tight of a grip commercialism has on America….
Moreover, Oldenburg’s choice to produce “Alphabet in the Form of a Good Humor Bar” as a lithographic print speaks to his commentary of the mass-production of every-day commodities. There were 250 prints in the series; this served to demonstrate the wise-spread commoditization of products in America through the representation of an iconic, recognizable, branded, product manufactured en mass. Furthermore, it is interesting that Oldenburg chose to title his print with a well-known brand name “Good Humor Bar” rather than a more generic label such as “Ice Cream Bar.”
Claes Oldenburg’s art is fun and playful, yet tinted with a darker message. Entrenched in the soft plastic, fake fur, and cartoon-like shapes of his pieces are grave reminders of the increasing trend of materialism in American culture. Oldenburg plays with this motif of superficiality—popular culture has become superficial through the commoditization of merchandise and brand names, and dialectically, we have become to superficial to realize the consequences of this cultural shift.
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