Claes Oldenburg: is Bigger Really Better?


            Claes Oldenburg began his career as a performance artist in New York City in 1956. Inspired by artists like Allan Kaprow, Oldenburg would stage his own “Happenings” through the early sixties.[1] Oldenburg had a desire to redefine art, and he sought to deny the conventions of high art and its traditional materials.[2] In 1961, Oldenburg set up The Store, a storefront on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where Oldenburg would both sell and make his work. Oldenburg would create objects that looked to be mass-produced out of unusual materials, and would sell them at exorbitant prices.[3] He sought to “admit the commercial nature of art production by comparing it to ordinary production.”[4] Ironically, Oldenburg’s Pop Art is now sought after by both museums and collectors.[5]

Oldenburg’s Alphabet in the Shape of a Good Humor Bar has been depicted through various forms of media. In the Davison Art Center, we can see a print version that captures the Pop Art spirit of much of Oldenburg’s work. The print is made on a plain white paper in a vertically oriented rectangle. The image is primarily composed of shades of yellow and pink, and has the rough outline of an ice cream bar with a bite taken out of the upper left-hand corner. The ice cream bar is texturally composed of rounded, three-dimensional alphabet letters that look as if they have been forced into occupying the outline of the bar.

Rather than being placed in the center of the frame, the ice cream bar is placed towards the top of the print, emphasizing the monumentality of the object. This is significant because Oldenburg produced many colossal-scale sculptures that were placed in public areas. The print still gives a sense of the importance of the Good Humor Bar to the viewer by playing with our expectations that an object should be placed in the center of a print. The ice cream bar is so large that it breaks this convention.

While working in The Store, Oldenburg  “discovered an important constituent of his métier, namely the enormous enlargement of everyday objects of mass consumption whose size we invariably take for granted. Such enhancement not only cuts across normality but equally it comments upon the materialism of an age that assuredly puts a premium upon size and economic growth.”[6] Oldenburg examines the consumer culture of post-World War II America by turning mass-produced objects into high art. Whereas once religious images were the pinnacle of artistic expression, objects and goods hold the same value for Americans.

The monumentality of the Good Humor bar should be seen through the lens of Oldenburg’s original intention to place a “colossal” sculpture of a similar work at the end of Park Avenue in New York City.[7] Oldenburg’s sketch seems to indicate that the sculpture would be the size of the surrounding building, and be visible from miles away. The juxtaposition of an enormous melting ice cream bar and office building would certainly prove unsettling to anyone walking on the avenue. Hopefully, it would also make the viewer question what values they hold dear; the American desire for acquiring physical objects is brought into the open. In lieu of a monument to a religious figure, we would see a mass produced item.

The print actively tries to deceive the viewer: it appears as if the image has been drawn with a colored pencil. What looks like unintentional stray marks and lines that have been erased are in fact part of the print. The single drop that appears to have melted off of the ice cream bar emphasizes the haphazard and Id-like quality of the unrestrained stray lines. This creates enormous tension for the viewing, encouraging them to continuing looking at the print to see when the drip will fall.

This notion of juxtaposition seems to be fundamental to Oldenburg’s print as well. The deception of the artic medium makes the viewer question the notion of authenticity and originality. The reproducibility of the printmaking technique compared with the seemingly unique work makes the viewer question the value of art. Oldenburg calls attention to America’s consumer culture by pointing out the veneration of industry and mass production: if our everyday objects look the same, why shouldn’t our art?

The conflict between the original work of art and the homogeneity implied by the use of the alphabet and the titular Good Humor bar parallels the intellectual contradictions that characterize Pop Art. The viewer is forced to confront the seemingly polar opposite worlds of high art and consumer culture. Not only is a Good Humor bar a mass-produced item, but it is also something that disappears very quickly as it melts. This transient nature is at odds with the reference generally given to works of art.

Oldenburg is actively trying to set himself apart from the Western tradition of art. In his 1961 manifesto I Am for an Art.., Oldenburg tells the reader that he is “…for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.”[8] For the first time in history, artists are consciously aware of the theoretical implications of their work, and are acting as their own critics. Oldenburg’s desire to liberate art from rotting away in a museum can be seen in his large-scale public sculptures. By liberating his sculptures from the confines of a museum, Oldenburg also ensures that the viewer is not trying to place his work into the history of Western art.

Perhaps this desire to stand apart from traditional Western art stems from a longing to escape the legacy of World War II. The traditional European capitals of high art, like Paris, were destroyed or left in disrepair, and New York had to shoulder the weight of being the new creative capital of the world. American art movements had not had a great deal of influence in Europe, so New York artists took the chance to depart completely from any previous conventions.

With a self-conscious art movement, the artist is effectively removing the need for the art critic. The artist directly tells the viewer what the point of their work is. Rather than strive for an ideal of beauty as in Renaissance art, we see Oldenburg try to comment upon society. “I am for an art that grows up not knowing that it is art at all, an art given the chance of having a starting point of zero.”[9] While Oldenburg’s print is attractive in its color and composition, its true purpose is to present the viewer with an ideological message. With Europe in shambles, it seems reasonable that the old standards of artistic greatness would no longer hold weight for a disillusioned generation who saw the effects of two world wars. Through art, Oldenburg calls our attention to the false façade of America’s new consumer culture, critiquing its attempt to gloss over the horror of the previous decades.








[1] Paul Moorhouse and Dominic Sandbrook, Pop Art Portraits. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007. Print. 166.

[2] Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Three Conversations in 1985: Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, Robert Morris.” The Duchamp Effect 70 (1994): 33-54. JSTOR. Web. 25 Feb. 2014. 35.

[3] Eric Shanes, The Pop Art Tradition: Responding to Mass-Culture. New York: Parkstone, 2006. Print. 34.

[4] Buchloh, 36.

[5] Roberta Smith, “A Pop Absurdist Who’s a Happening All by Himself.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 05 Oct. 1995. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.

[6] Shanes, 34

[7] Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929) | Proposed Colossal Monument for Park Avenue, N.Y.C.–Good Humor Bar | Post-War & Contemporary Art Auction | 1960s, Drawings & Watercolors | Christie’s. Christie’s, Web. 25 Feb. 2014.

[8] Kristine Stiles, and Peter Selz. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings. Berkeley: University of California, 2012. Print. 385.

[9] Stiles, 385.

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