Whitehot Magazine

Toys For Thought: Claes Oldenburg’s Shelf Lives

Claes Oldenburg, Shelf Life Number 1, 2016-2017, mixed media, 19-15/16" x 28-3/4" x 12-3/16" (50.6 cm x 73 cm x 31 cm), No. 67643 © 2017 Claes Oldenburg, Photography by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy of Pace Gallery


I have moreover retained a lasting affection and a reasoned admiration for that strange statuary art which, with its lustrous neatness, its blinding flashes of color, its violence in gesture and decision of contour, represents so well childhood’s ideas about beauty.                           

-Charles Baudelaire, “A Philosophy of Toys”(1) 

The thing about playing is always the precariousness of the interplay of personal psychic reality and the experience of the control of actual objects. This is the precariousness of magic itself, magic that arises in intimacy….

-D. W. Winnicott, “Playing: A Theoretical Statement”(2)

Miniature is one of the refuges of greatness.                                              

-Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space(3)

…the marvelous is always beautiful, anything marvelous is beautiful, in fact only the marvelous is beautiful.                                                       

-André Breton, “The First Surrealist Manifesto”(4)

The final identity…includes all significant identifications, but it also alters them in order to make a unique and reasonably coherent whole of them.

-Erik H. Erikson, “The Problem of Ego Identity”(5)

Claus Oldenburg has always made toys, from his surrealized Ray Gun, 1960 to his gigantic Clothespin, 1976, which also has a surrealist quality, if less obviously than the Ray Gun, but also a phallic symbol and fetish object, an erect totem rather than a cocked gun, ready to shoot with spontaneous gusto. “I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality,”(6) André Breton famously wrote in 1924, in The First Surrealist Manifesto. In 1961 in a similar spirit Oldenburg wrote: “my art is a resolution of opposites: strives for a simultaneous presentation of contraries, opposites,” or, as Coosje van Bruggen put it, “a unity which encloses a number of contradictions.”(7) Oldenburg’s seemingly exhaustive list of opposites to be resolved is ambitiously surrealistic: “in subject the ordinary and the extraordinary, in form the aesthetic and the unaesthetic, solidity and bodylessness, pathos and indifference, mystery and commonplace, etc.”  He wants “to bring together everything—Dreams and waking; Memory, direct work; Painting, drawing; Writing, painting, drawing.“(8) “Tension is the motive of art but unity is the thing to be sought,” Oldenburg writes, “a form…where the two poles of tension meet, a place which has its own suggestive.”(9) 

Claes Oldenburg, Shelf Life Number 2, 2016-2017, mixed media, 19-15/16" x 28-3/4" x 12-3/16" (50.6 cm x 73 cm x 31 cm), No. 67644 © 2017 Claes Oldenburg, Photography by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy of Pace Gallery

Breton acknowledges a debt to Hegel’s dialectic, and Oldenburg’s is a dialectical art: opposites (thesis and antithesis) unite, their synthesis giving birth to a new form and experience of being, a “surreality,” that is, a “superreality,” perhaps a generally valid way of thinking of a work of art. Breton also acknowledged a debt to Freud—the distinction between dream and reality is derived from Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). Oldenburg’s is also a Freudian art—a psychoanalytically informed, more broadly psychologically minded art, as Oldenburg himself acknowledges.(10) Freud’s topographical model of the mind, with its distinction between wishful unconscious mentation (so-called primary process thinking) and realistic conscious mentation (so-called secondary process thinking), offers another pair of opposites to be surreally resolved.(11)  

Oldenburg’s surrealized objects are deeply thoughtful, for they are the products of both kinds of thinking, suggesting that they are simultaneously symbolic equations and symbolic representations, to use the psychoanalyst Hanna Segal’s distinction. In a symbolic equation “the symbol is so equated with the object symbolized that the two are felt to be identical.”(12) This is so-called “concrete thinking.” In “true symbolism or symbolic representation, the symbol represents the object but is not entirely equated with it.” Oldenburg’s sculptures are noteworthy for the variety of materials in which they are rendered--his boundless fascination with found materials suggests the premium he puts on concreteness—even as they represent, in whatever fantastic form, some object. “Symbols are needed not only in communication with the external world, but also in internal communication….when we speak of people being well in touch with their unconscious…we mean that they have actual communication with their unconscious phantasies.”(13) Oldenburg is clearly in unconscious communication with himself, for the stream of associations—“web of analogies,” he calls them(14)--generated by his objects, along with their strange (not to say estranging) form, surrealizes them, confirming they are fantasies, all the more so when they are fantastically large, as what he calls his “monumental-humanistic”(15) works are. 

All of Oldenburg’s objects are in effect what the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut calls selfobjects(16) or what Winncott calls “subjective objects,” “the object not yet repudiated as a not-me phenomenon.”(17)  Dali makes a similar point when, writing about “the surrealist concept of the object,” he quotes with approval Feuerbach’s statement that “primitively the concept of the object is no other than the concept of a second self; thus in childhood every object is conceived as a being acting freely and arbitrarily.”(18) “Fantasy and form meet best in primitive art,” Oldenburg writes,(19) and his toy-like sculpture—his “strange statuary,” to recall the Baudelaire epigraph—is primitive, for toys are primitive art, indeed, perhaps art at its most primitive. Communicating with himself, Oldenburg is in effect communicating with them—with primitive objects which he identifies with, projects himself into, so that they become selfobjects, unconscious fantasies he transforms into self-conscious art. 

Oldenburg seems to have been uncertain about his identity, as a number of remarks indicate,(20) suggesting that by “objectifying” himself in art he re-assures himself that he has an identity, indeed, gains an identity. It is a “romantic” way of having an identity, and Oldenburg acknowledges that he is a romantic: “For a romantic, I have been keeping myself very much in line,”(21) although his works seem “out of line,” that is, nonconformist.  Oldenburg belongs to the tradition of the romantic genius, in Baudelaire’s sense of the term:  “genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will—a childhood now equipped for self-expression with manhood’s capacities and a power of analysis which enables it to order the mass of raw material which it has involuntarily accumulated.”(22) His fascination with toys(23) confirms that he remains a child at heart, suggesting that for him making art is child’s play. His romantic fascination with New York, more broadly America, also has a childlike quality. New York is a play-land, indeed, a place where one can play without restraint, make art out of anything one finds in the streets, as Oldenburg has done. America is a place where one can make art out of anything one finds in the crowd culture, as the popular culture has been called (culture for the masses), as Oldenburg does when he makes art out of household objects. His all-American art is an ironical form of idol worship, a point made explicitly clear by his elevation of “lowbrow” art into “highbrow” art--his transformation of a fake little male (Mickey) mouse into a genuinely big geometric one (but they’re both “artificial” fantasies, that is dream figures) is the exemplary case. Ingeniously ridiculing one of the most popular, simple, comprehensible—instantly--icons of American popular culture by turning it into an abstract sculpture too complex to be understood by the crowd culture is irony at its most perverse.  Commenting on an article about THE NEW ROMANTICISM—his capital letters—Oldenburg writes: “A City Romanticism? An American Romanticism? Surrealists involved, of course. They were the last romantics.”(24) He clearly found romance in the American city, making him the last truly original surrealist.  

Claes Oldenburg, Shelf Life Number 6, 2016-2017, mixed media, 19-15/16" x 28-3/4" x 12-3/16" (50.6 cm x 73 cm x 31 cm), No. 67648 © 2017 Claes Oldenburg, Photography by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy of Pace Gallery

The question raised by the shelf lifes is what self Oldenburg is communicating with—what is their inner purpose, their psychological import? I suggest that each of the 15 shelf lifes represents a different take on his self, more pointedly and poignantly, an attempt to achieve and articulate a final identity. Each collection of works is a different take on a possible over-all coherence, for each is an attempt “to make a unique and reasonably coherent whole” of his “significant identifications,” to refer to the Erikson epigraph. On each shelf we see miniature versions of many of the monumental works of art with which Oldenburg consciously and unconsciously identifies with. Each in its own particular uncanny way epitomizes and proclaims his identity to the world and gives him a place in the pantheon of great artists. One might say that Oldenburg is trying out different possibilities of coherence—trying to establish harmony among seemingly disparate selfobjects. He succeeds nominally by grouping the different works together, but it is not always clear that they fit together, however much they all belong together because they were all made by Oldenburg.  

Are they simply assembled as showpieces, or are they convincingly integrated, expressively, aesthetically, and perhaps above all communicatively—do they stand mutely together or are they talking to each other unconsciously? Do they remain separate and distinct—stand alone, like trophies in a recreation room—or are they united in a common communicative, and with that existential cause? They may be installed in the same space, but the question is whether they are actors in a little theater of the absurd, speaking past each other, or actors on the stage of a theatrum mundi, proclaiming and embodying ambivalence about being. That is, are they little theater, as the smallness of the pieces suggests, or are they actors in a meta-theater, imbued with universal truth? Uniting them is an urgent task, for it is the task of old age, and Oldenburg is now 89. Haunting them is the fear that his art will remain on the shelf--unheeded by posterity—where many of them were placed to begin with. The issue of the staying power—dare one say immortality?-- of Oldenburg’s art haunts the shelf lifes: are they dead objects placed in a coffin open for viewing, that is, still(ed) lifes, or do they vibrate with inner life, that is, are they psychodynamically alive? Each seems to embody a lived experience, but staging them seems to turn them into personae playing a predictable role. I regard Oldenburg as one of the “beacons” of modern art, to refer to Baudelaire’s poem about the artist-beacons of traditional art: the shelf lifes are Oldenburg’s bid to remain one. 

Baudelaire raised the question whether modern art, which deals with the ephemeral culture of secular modern life, can last beyond the moment of its making, in contrast to traditional art, which endures because it is grounded in the eternal verities of religion. I suggest it is the anxiety implicit in Oldenburg’s art—what he calls the “tension [that] is the motive of art” is anxiety, when “the two poles of tension meet” the anxiety is discharged (Oldenburg acknowledges that he belongs to the “autoerotic, onanistic, narcissistic ‘school’ of painting”(25))—that will give it lasting value, make it of continuous interest, for it is a unique expression of our ongoing Age of Anxiety. Anxiety lurks behind—informs--its “simultaneousness” or “doubleness,” the doubleness that Baudelaire said is the sign of a true artist.(26) Will the two poles of tension meet, will unity be achieved and convincing, or do his works show that he remains stuck in the conflict between opposites, never clearly resolved? Struggling to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable--the mass-produced representational art of the people and the highly individualistic abstract art of the cultural elite, and the marketplace and the museum (Oldenburg’s “Store,” 1961, which sold the products [ironically hand-made by him] of his “Ray-Gun Mfg. Co.”, was both in one)—he bravely engaged and directly expressed the incurable anxiety at the psychic core of modern society, especially American society. 

The aesthetician Theodor Adorno held that late style is a zone of unresolved conflict, but Erikson suggests that it is a zone of possible harmony, at least if it is to be a healthy late style rather than a climactic statement of suffering—of a self torn between conflict and fragmentation, as the psychoanalyst Salman Akhtar put it. (Such pathological splitting and irreversible disintegration are typical of abstract expressionist late style, as Jackson Pollock’s Portrait and a Dream, painted in 1953, three years before his death, suggests.) Oldenburg’s late style, exemplified by the shelf lifes, takes Erikson’s healthy view:  in the shelf lifes the Many seem to magically become One. “Oldenburg’s solution to this lack of unity,” Van Bruggen writes, “is to relate the objects by emphasizing form, color, texture and proportion.”(27)  But the question is whether this changes their meaning: I will argue that it does not. The issue for Oldenburg is the meaning of each object; form, color, texture and proportion may give the object aesthetic meaning, but they are not inherent to its psychosocial—and personal-- meaning. In a sense, they are superficial, even defensive: they hide and distract from the depth of meaning implicit in the object—and above all in the “dreamy” relationship between the different objects. 

In short, the question raised by the shelf lifes is the nature of the meaning generated by the dramatic relationship of the objects—the drama they enact:  the shelf lifes are about their relationship to one another not simply about themselves.  Oldenburg has changed their relationship many times—moved them about the stage like an omnipotent but uncertain puppeteer. How bound, emotionally connected to each other, are the personalized objects?, he seems to be asking.  He is struggling to find their “right” relationship—maybe right their “difficult” relationship. Creating an aesthetically right relationship comes easily to him, compared to the difficulty of creating an emotionally right relationship. The shelf lifes are not simply “eyeclusters,” to use another of Oldenburg’s clever terms,(28) but rather what might be called experiments in meaning. Their desperation suggests their therapeutic purpose. It is what so-called experimental art at its best is about. Oldenburg’s toys are for anxious adults—anxious about their identity and character, that is, the nature of their selfhood(29)--not innocent children, although Freud pointed out that the children are not innocent angels but polymorphous perverse devils, which is what Oldenburg’s devilish toys seem to be. 

The shelf lifes are small, compact, and self-contained: 19 15/16” by 28 ¾” by 12 3/16,” a standard size for a certain commercial shelf.  One stores products on shelves until they are ready to be sold, but Oldenburg seems to prefer to keep them on shelves, not because he doesn’t want to sell them, but because off the shelf and sold they lose personal meaning by becoming public, indeed, public spectacles, as his monumental works are. The shelf lifes are private works, however many of the works signified by the objects in them are grandly public monuments—subversive insertions into public space. In shrunken, concentrated form, they become intimate, and with that emotionally charged, like bombs ready to explode at the slightest touch. Each shelf is a platform with a gray cross on a white ground as a backdrop. The symbolism is self-evident if unintentional: colorless gray, a compound of black and white, suggests the graying of life—old age—and the cross is at once a symbol of the crucifixion, that is, death (at the mercy of the crowd), and resurrection, that is, eternal life in heaven, granted by the grace of art. I am suggesting that Oldenburg’s shelves are oddly eschatological, perhaps because the objects in them seem like memento mori.  They are not souvenir-like copies of older original works, but re-originate them as mnemonic traces, conferring historical significance on them.  

Claes Oldenburg, Shelf Life Number 8, 2016-2017, mixed media, 19-15/16" x 28-3/4" x 12-3/16" (50.6 cm x 73 cm x 31 cm), No. 67650 © 2017 Claes Oldenburg, Photography by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy of Pace Gallery

A shelf is a kind of permanently opened box—a toy box, in Oldenburg’s case, or rather a doll house, with the toys relating to one another, and sometimes directly connecting to each other. In shelf life # 1 an array of strings attaches a plumpish cloth object—a toy rabbit--with a plaid pattern—a grid of yellow and white modules—and a black button for an eye to a torn grayish brown circular piece of flat cardboard. The relationship seems a bit of a stretch, as the stretched strings suggest, and forced, as the tightness—tautness--of the strings suggest. They reach from the white “head” of the cloth object to the plane of the cardboard object, twisting or swirling as they do—dervishing, one might say—suggesting the “twisted” character of their relationship. The string is a sort of simulated, attenuated gesture--a desperate however determined gesture, for although it bridges the distance between the objects they remain far apart and at odds. The string does not draw them closer, however much it unites them, but confirms their separateness. The string is the crucial element in the whole piece, indeed, states the issue of all the shelf lifes: the character and quality of the relationship between the objects.  Winnicott’s remarks about string, which he used in therapy with children—it became a toy with which they played--seem apt here: “String joins, just as it also helps in the wrapping up of objects and in the holding of unintegrated material. In this respect string has a symbolic meaning for everyone; an exaggeration of the use of string can easily belong to the beginnings of a sense of insecurity or the lack of communication….As a denial of separation, string becomes a thing in itself, something that has dangerous properties and must be mastered.”(30)

The dialectical “construction” is formally ingenious—an ironically brilliant union of opposites—a range of possible opposites, except that the opposites remain apart, hypothetically united but having no clear effect on each other, and thus in peculiarly tense, precarious, unstable, unresolved relationship. They don’t consolidate, but seem to hang out with each other, trying to make the best of being stuck in the same space.  Formally, there’s a diagonal thrust to the works—the ears of the yellow plaid and blue plaid rabbits veer to the left, two of the white bowling pins veer to the right (after cutting across other pins), and the wooden board with the cardboard construction veers to the left (it is tilted upward by the red plaid rabbit), and the strings crisscross each other diagonally—which confirms that the relationship between the objects is off-balance, not to say conflicted.  They are all Oldenburg’s toys, but it seems they are unable to play peacefully together. The instability of it all—the seeming randomness of their relationship--seems irremediable. The impulsive string bespeaks the intense anxiety of the cloth object and the cardboard object even as it proclaims their shotgun marriage—their forced intimacy. They are not drawn to each other, but compelled to connect, and the connection is a very tense, terse one. They fail to co-imply each: superficially attached to each other by the thinnest of connections, they remain fundamentally different from each other, and as such irreconcilable. 

But Oldenburg may be addressing the dubious Solomonic wisdom that divided abstraction into geometrical and non-geometrical (gestural, expressionistic) halves, as Alfred Barr called them, in an ironic effort to overcome it. His sculpture does overcome the separation of the object from the subject, and the elevation of the subject over the object, that began when “objects were discredited as an essential element within the picture” by Kandinsky. “Previously know[ing] realistic (representational) art,” he failed to recognize the haystack in a Monet painting, but was impressed—indeed, overwhelmed--by its quixotic handling and rapturous color, so that the “painting took on a fairy-tale power and splendor” and became abstract.(31) The effort to re-integrate abstraction and representation—art driven by “internal necessity” or feeling, and art driven by “external necessity” or perception, to use Kandinsky’s distinction—is the fundamental task of modern art, and Oldenburg accomplishes it with an unusual baroque flair, that is, with remarkable exuberance.

For all the formal complexity of Shelf Life #1, the fundamental issue—considering that Oldenburg is a romantic symbolist--is what the objects symbolize. Romantic symbolists are dreamers—Odilon Redon, the quintessential romantic symbolist, famous for his portfolio of lithographs In The Dream, 1879, made art “according to my dream”--and Oldenburg’s shelf lifes are made according to his dreams. (Breton regarded Redon as a surrealist en avant le lettre.) They’re dream pictures, for the “actors” in them are framed as though in a picture, the shelf being as much a frame(work) as a stage. They are dioramas—Oldenburg’s word.(32) A diorama is “a model representing a scene with three-dimensional figures either in miniature or as a large-scale museum exhibit.” “A miniature movie set used for special effects or animation” is also called a diorama. Seeing a resemblance between—freely associating--Mickey Mouse’s ears and the early movie camera used to make the first Mickey Mouse films Oldenburg came up with his abstract Geometric Mouse. Are the Shelf Lifes proposals—scenarios--for a comic abstract film? There is something comic about toys. The rabbits and bowling pins in Shelf Life #1 are examples of what Baudelaire called the “significative comic,” the yellow plaid rabbit and the geometric construction, forced to embrace by the string, are an example of the “absolute comic.” The former uses “a clearer language…easier for the man in the street to understand” –placed in the street, Oldenburg’s sculptures are easy for the man in the street to understand (at least at first glance), which is why they are pop(ular) art, more broadly, public art—while the latter suggests “a unity which calls for the intuition to grasp…and analyze”(33)—thus the abstract side of Oldenburg’s art, with its uncanny appeal. His works always have a double meaning—a public and private meaning—just as they always have a double form. Baudelaire suggests there is something “grotesque” about the absolute comic; taken together, the yellow plaid rabbit, geometric construction, and string seem to form a grotesque constellation.  

Rabbits are symbols of fertility, spawning in abundance.  They are “linked to that oldest of deities, the Earth Mother,”(34) suggesting Oldenburg’s rabbits are females—bunnies (rather than jack rabbits)--and the mothers of the little bowling pins, their male children, as their phallic shape suggests. The organic soft yellow plaid rabbit is having intercourse—“unconscious communication,” if you prefer—with the mechanical, hard-looking geometrical construction, implicitly masculine. Is the work a primal scene in symbolic—dream--disguise? A far-fetched interpretation, no doubt, but Oldenburg’s works lend themselves to such absurd interpretations, considering their absurdity, and the fact that they are unconscious fantasies. At the least, what we have is a family scene—the masculine board with its masculine construction, the females of the family, and their numerous children. 

Oldenburg is the hard macho board these soft bunnies surround: the mystery of femininity haunts Oldenburg’s work. Goethe famously said “the eternal feminine draws us on”; it certainly seems to draw Oldenburg on. Do the many priapic bowling pins represent the many times he had sexual intercourse with them? In his diaristic writing he notes the times he made love—his word—to Patty Mucha, his first wife.(35) Oldenburg has said that “the erotic or the sexual is the root of ‘art,’ its first impulse.”(36) Sex is alive and well in Shelf Life #1—in all the Shelf Lifes, I shall argue. Libido doesn’t rage in them the way it does in the Store Ray Guns, 1961, where it grotesquely distorts the object, but is more or less completely invested in or subsumed by the object. They may convey “irony at sex,” as Oldenburg suggests, but sex is conspicuously there.(37) “If form in nature analyzes down to geometry,” Oldenburg wrote, “content (or intent) analyzes down to erotic form.” (38) I suggest that the Shelf Lifes are a climactic—and successful—attempt to integrate or unite geometric form and erotic form. I suggest that what Van Bruggen calls Oldenburg’s emphasis on “form, color, texture and proportion” is a way of eroticizing the object. The aesthetic experience they afford is not “disinterested” and “transcendental” (life-remote), as Kant thought aesthetic experience should be, but makes the object sexually and sensuously interesting and inviting, as Freud said aesthetic experience does. As the psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg said, without a veil the female body is matter of fact; with an aesthetic veil it becomes alluring, seductive, sexually arousing. For Oldenburg, form, color, texture and proportion are cosmetic devices that make the object more exciting than it ordinarily is. They give it surplus erotic value, which makes it seem extraordinarily important. 

What we may have in Shelf Life #1 is what Freud called a family romance. A family romance is “a psychological complex…whereby the young child or adolescent fantasizes that they are really the children of higher social standing than their actual parents.” According to Freud, the child is “turning away from the father whom he knows today to the father in whom he believed in the earliest years of his childhood.” The hard masculine board tilted upward is at the center of the action—the strong father that supports and is surrounded by the mothers and his children. The problem with my interpretation is that Oldenburg’s father was a Swedish diplomat with high social standing—initially stationed in New York, he was appointed Consul General of Sweden to Chicago in 1936, which is where Oldenburg grew up (he was born in 1929)--suggesting that Oldenburg is consciously identifying with him as well as unconsciously fantasizing about him. But the work looks like a child’s fantasy, as the toys that compose it suggest.  It may seem that I am overdoing my interpretation of Oldenburg’s objects by emphasizing their personal or subjective meaning, seemingly at the expense of their social or objective meaning, but I subscribe to Freud’s view that, in the words of the psychoanalyst Michael Balint, “all sublimations, and especially the form of sublimation called art, are a kind of deception, are underhand ways of getting back to real personal objects.”(39)   

The sexual and family romance themes are reiterated in Shelf Life #2: the enlarged gray phallic pencil is a father figure, the banana peel—luridly red on the outside, luminously yellow on the inside—has a vaginal presence. They’re a royal couple. Their relationship seems precarious—they stand on their ends, barely balanced, as their tilted positions show. But their ends—brown in the case of the pencil, black in the case of the sexy banana peels—meet and touch, however hesitantly. It is worth noting that the black end is behind the brown end—get thee behind me, devilish woman, the masculine pencil seems to be saying, perhaps after their sexual affair. Eve’s rotten apple, eaten to the core, stands beside the phallic pencil. Like all of Oldenburg’s Shelf Lifes, Shelf Life #2 is overloaded with meanings—overdetermined, as the psychoanalysts would say. 

Claes Oldenburg, Shelf Life Number 9, 2016-2017, mixed media, 19-15/16" x 28-3/4" x 12-3/16" (50.6 cm x 73 cm x 31 cm), No. 67651 © 2017 Claes Oldenburg, Photography by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy of Pace Gallery

Of all the Shelf Lifes, Shelf Life #3 seems the most harmoniously integrated—unified, for all the variety of objects. Noteworthily, it was made by his daughter, confirming the personal significance of all the Shelf Lifes. Not that Oldenburg is absent: two large brown light switches, set in a black grid, at odds with each other—one is upright (tumescent?), the other on its side (detumescent?)—signify his presence, for they are “quotations” of earlier light switches made by him. They dominate the scene, a child’s fairytale-like vision of the New York skyline, made by his young daughter when she was leaving the city. The work is a trace of a memorable place. The building blocks—pieces of wood, variously colored (mostly blue and red, opposing primary colors, for Kandinsky all but impossible to unite)—are grouped in various ways, generally suggesting buildings. A colorful drawing by Oldenburg hovers in the background, tucked in behind a diagonal of the gray cross. It hovers like rainbow after a storm, suggesting that Oldenburg’s emotional storms—the conflicted consciousness implicit in his sculptures, the Sturm und Drang(40) of his expressionist drawings--have been stilled by his good relationship with his daughter. Shelf Life #3 is perhaps the most calm and collected of the Shelf Lifes, despite the disruptive presence of the epic light switches—paradoxically on a black ground--starkly contrasting with the lyrical toy city. 

Oldenburg is a so-called “appropriation artist,” transforming the real objects he appropriates into surreal marvels. They remain recognizable, but they are beside themselves with—radicalized by--emotion.  Duchamp is the officially first appropriation artist, but he fails to give the found objects he appropriates as art—he confers “the status of art” on them, as Breton said—affective significance, in contrast to Oldenburg, who gives his found objects an intense expressive charge. Indeed, Duchamp’s attempt to “enlist art in the service of the mind”—making him the first so-called conceptual artist (climactically in his “cool” mastery of chess)—is an attempt to deny that it is in the service of feeling, as romantics from Baudelaire to Kandinsky to Oldenburg have argued. Duchamp’s pseudo-intellectualization of art, involving elevating the cognitive at the expense of the emotive—indeed, his attempt to repress, even deny emotions--is psychotic in principle. A marvel arouses wonder and surprise, and what we are surprised by when we look at an Oldenburg sculpture is the power of the unconscious and of emotion. The so-called surprise of the new—the “sensation of the new” that Baudelaire celebrated—is the emotional gift of the irrepressible unconscious.

Oldenburg is a master of color—luscious, luminous, passionate red in Shelf Life #8—and of gray—the somber gray of the toy vacuum cleaners in Shelf Life #4 and of most of the objects in Shelf Life #5. He paints his sculptures, as the ancients did.(41) The row of six handbags—remarkable conflations of gesture and geometry, sexualized geometry one might say, because they clearly have “balls,” larger than those of the Ray Guns—are a tour de force of colors, dramatically related however radically different. A woman’s handbag with balls is bisexual. Rose red—voluptuous—color romantically flairs up in Shelf Life #7, where it is paired—at odds—with a brownish square, which re-appears in Shelf Life #9, a bouquet of white paper poppies dangling from it. In Shelf Life #7 the shattered half of a paper plate forms an array of tattered petals, from which a thin white flower triumphantly rises—life springing from death, growth from decay. In Shelf Life #8 a green plant flanks a huge floral form, a sort of composite of petals with a dark cherry at its core. The giant growth is centered above an array of the fruit of life, among them a piece of red pie with a cherry red ball of ice cream, and two flowers, also radiantly red. “Red, the color of fire and of blood, and regarded universally as the basic symbol of the life-principle, with its dazzling strength and power, nevertheless possesses their same symbolic ambivalence….Bright, dazzling, centrifugal red is diurnal, male, tonic, stimulating activity….Dark red is its complete opposite. It is nocturnal, female, secret and ultimately, centripetal and stands, not for manifestation, but for the mystery of life.”(42) The mystery of woman symbolizes the mystery of life. I suggest that Oldenburg’s red is sometimes male, sometimes female, and often a blend of both, evoking the primal bisexuality that has been associated with primary creativity. Like the primal objects in the still lifes of Juan Sanchez Cotan—the most remarkable of the Spanish bodegons—the red objects in Oldenburg’s still life seem like offerings on an altar, devilish objects made sacred by art, imbued with mystery by art. 

Shelf Lifes 10 through 15 seem more geometrical in import than gestural, however much many of the upright objects have a gestural flair, noteworthily the variety of curvilinear forms, among them the central form in Shelf Life #10, the freestanding swirling white curves in Shelf Life #11 and Shelf Life #12, and the upright spiraling forms that function as the “bookends” in Shelf Life #15. These works are tours de force of dynamic constructivism, harking back to early Russian constructivism, in my free association evocative of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, 1919-20, also a model (never realized, like, it appears, a number of Oldenburg’s “proposals”). The sky blue child’s kite in the center of Shelf Life 12 is a study in contraries: the vertical and horizontal bars that form the cross—its center is marked by a pink bow, a tender symbol of life and hope rather that despair and death by brutal crucifixion—and the cross and the blue cloth it supports, are simultaneously presented. The curvilinear construction to its right points to heaven, along with the string from which the kite hangs. Heaven seems to be on Oldenburg’s unconscious mind, as the burnt out match that soars upward, breaking the frame in Shelf Life #14, suggests. The spiraling drill and the spiraling construction that form the “bookends” in Shelf Life #15—the former reminding us that all functional objects have an abstract form, the latter reminding us that all abstract forms have an affinity with functional objects—also break the frame, if not going as far and high into the luminous beyond. Similarly, in Shelf Life #11, the upper curve of the white construction and the diagonal “branch” of the brownish construction next to it—one of the curvilinear planes of the white construction latches on to the brownish construction, as though in a sudden attempt to relate to it—meet and intersect, forming a tentative cross, beyond the upper limit of the shelf. Again, relationships are uncertain and sudden, sort of touch and go, even though their occurrence is a “transcendental” experience, that is, transcends boundaries—barriers.(43) Going beyond the limits of the shelf in an expressive surge, these “incidents” of boundary-breaking remind us of Oldenburg’s uncontainable—irrepressible—energy. Even as there is an abstract confluence of forms in the Shelf Lives, they remind us that Oldenburg is always interested in breaking boundaries. 

Shelf Life #6 seems somewhat more contained, but even here the two guardian penis-like brown totems stand half in, half outside the boundary of the shelf, marking it even as they defy it, indeed, suggest its openness. One of the three pieces of soft white bread (again an unconscious allusion to the three women in Oldenburg’s life?) leans over the edge on the left side of the work, and two branches extend from the ruined object extend beyond the edge on the right side. Even in Shelf Life #4, with its conspicuous contraries—the heap of flakey white fragments and the vacuum cleaner “figures” (seemingly having intercourse)—a flat white knife-like form extends beyond the edge, along with one of the figures above it. Similarly, in Shelf Life #6 the soft gray form on the left juts beyond the vertical edge and an angle of the wooden block in the foreground overlaps the lower horizontal edge.

There is an encyclopedic wealth of detail in Oldenburg’s Shelf Lifes. They freely associate, in ever changing configurations, even within single objects. Oldenburg’s Shelf Lifes may be cabinets of curiosities, little Edens of exotic objects, each with its own affective form, but they have a large than life presence by reason of their evocative power and changing relationships, aesthetic allure and symbolic significance. Oldenburg once wrote that he had “an acute sense of reality and an animistic empathy with objects.”(44) An animist believes that inanimate objects as well as natural phenomena and plants have souls, that is, psyches. To be empathic is to understand another person from their perspective. For the romantic Oldenburg inanimate objects, found or made, have souls, which is why he empathizes with them, treating them as though they are persons. His toys are certainly stately personages, each full of his own big soul. The Shelf Lifes are art microcosms of his macrocosmic mind, tours de force of his creative unconscious. WM


(1)Charles Baudelaire, “A Philosophy of Toys,” The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays (London and New York:  Phaidon, 1995), 199

(2)D. W. Winnicott, “Playing: A Theoretical Statement,” Playing and Reality (London: Tavistock and New York: Methuen, 1982), 47

(3)Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), 155    

(4)André Breton, “The First Surrealist Manifesto (1924),” Lucy R. Lippard, ed., Surrealists on Art (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970), 15 

(5)Erik H. Erikson, “The Problem of Ego Identity,” Identity and the Life Cycle (New York and London: Norton, 1980), 121

(6)Breton, 15

(7)Coosje van Bruggen, Claes Oldenburg: Mouse Museum/Ray Gun Wing (Cologne: Museum Ludwig, 1979; exhibition catalogue), 5. “Without contraries is no progression,” William Blake famously wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, suggesting that Oldenburg thinks (as I do) that art progresses by way of the “simultaneous presentation of contraries,” indeed, by discovering new unexpected contraries—the unpredictable yet inevitable absurdities that occur as history, personal and social, “progresses.”   

(8)Claes Oldenburg, Writing on the Side 1956-1969 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2013; published in conjunction with the exhibition of “Claes Oldenburg: The Street and the Store and Claes Oldenburg: Mouse Museum/Ray Gun Wing), 22. Hereafter Writing. Oldenburg’s italics; my semi-colons.

(9)Van Brugen, 49. For the psychoanalyst Michael Balint, Oldenburg’s “simultaneous presentation of contraries, opposites” is the gist of modern art. “’Modern art’ has made an immense contribution to human maturity by demonstrating that we need not repress the fact that in and around us…discordant features exist. Moreover, it has taught us not only that such discords can be resolved by artistic methods, but also that one can learn to tolerate such unresolved discords without pain and even that they can be enjoyed by the artist as well as by the general public. Of course, it means tolerating strain, sometimes even great strain….” “Notes on the Dissolution of Object-Representation in Modern Art,” Problems of Human Pleasure and Behaviour (London: Maresfield Library, 1987), 121 

(10)In Writing Oldenburg acknowledges reading “Freud, Stekel,” 5; notes “the value of psychotic art” or “insane art,” 24 (perhaps implying that he models his art on it); and, perhaps most tellingly, writes, “I would like to show that psychical and physical are one,” 26, suggesting that his works are “psychosomatic,” that is, embodied feelings. “The world is psychological,” he declares, 27. He “read(s) in psych book(s),” 50. He speaks of his work having “psychological form,” 54.  He clearly has read Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, as the following suggests: “My use of the dream is ‘aesthetic’—i.e., for purposes of art expression. I do not myself analyze it—leave that to others. I am interested in the image for its peculiar dreamish qualities. Freud would not find this a very significant approach.” He adds: “the dream symbol does not stand in direct relation to its significance in the ‘unconscious’ but through the link of its personal association,” 24. His works are profoundly personal—“personal obsessive image(s),” 26. It is worth noting that he “wrote out [his] dream(s),” 58. 

On the back cover of Writing on the Side, 1956-1969 there is a photograph of OIdenburg listening to a voice on the telephone next to his right ear—in communication with his unconscious, I venture to say—with a phallic finger pointing to his left ear (suggesting what he’s hearing). He stands in front of a door covered with graffiti, and the stenciled words, inscribed in bold black letters, “freuda vincit.” Freud’s name has been feminized, suggesting bisexuality, a basic, universal quality of the psyche. A skull on its side rests on the large EXIT sign above the door. Thus Eros and Thanatos, the life instinct and death instinct, creation and destruction—Oldenburg’s explicit themes.  The “erotic figure,” however satirized—reduced to a caricature (Writing, 27)—goes hand in hand with “Polish up your annihilations,” the advice he gives himself (Writing, 31). This attempt to reconcile absolute, totally incompatible opposites—to unite the contraries life, at its most intense in erotic experience, and death, self-evident in “the city wasteland” (Writing, 27)—suggests that what Oldenburg does, consciously and unconsciously, when he makes art, is to find annihilated ordinary objects, or to annihilate ordinary objects—often found objects that have been discarded or abandoned because they have become useless and meaningless--and polish them up by aestheticizing them, which eroticizes them, that is, puts a saving attractive face on them. It is a sort of alchemical transformation of the dross—dead lead--of the familiar world into the fool’s gold of living art.

(11)The distinction was made by Freud. “’Primary process’ is the developmentally earlier and ‘secondary process’ the developmentally later one. ‘Primary process’ is governed by the ‘pleasure-unpleasure principle’ and seeks immediate discharge of tension through hallucinatory ‘wish fulfillment’. Its cathectic energy is mobile and allows one object to be replaced by another (‘displacement’) and one idea to merge with others (‘condensation’). Constraints of negatives, time, and contradictions do not apply to it. ‘Secondary process,’ in contrast, has bound cathexis, verbal representations, loyalty to Aristotelian logic, and subservience to the ‘reality’ principle.’ ‘Primary process’ is dominant in the formation of dreams and symptoms.” Salman Akhtar, Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (London: Karnac, 2009), 230. 

It seems to me self-evident that when Oldenburg’s works are gestural or expressionistic, as in Fagend Study, 1968, they are primary process in principle, and when they are geometrical or constructivist, as in Fragment of an Ionic Column, 1968, they are secondary process in principle. The difference between the cartoon image of Mickey Mouse, a living, energetic organism, and Oldenburg’s Geometric Mouse, Scale A, 1/6, 1969, an abstract, inorganic, mechanistic construction, also reflects the difference between primary process and secondary process. In general, Oldenburg gives found objects—the commonplace familiar objects of popular culture—an expressionistic twist, making them unfamiliar and uncommon, and with that peculiarly strange and disruptive, ruptures in the social landscape and everyday life. They never quite “fit in”—comply to the social order—and as such are subliminally critical of it—mock it, poke it in the eye. Oldenburg strikes a balance between the opposites, although the result seems peculiarly unbalanced, that is, self-contradictory.  It is what makes his works marvelous and uncannily beautiful, to refer to the Breton epigraph. The distinction between primary process and secondary process is implicit in Oldenburg’s distinction between the “abstract fantastic and satiric real” (Writing, 27), that is, his works are abstract fantasies, as dreams are, and satirize real objects—present mock objects--as dreams can be said to do. 

(12)Hanna Segal, Dream, Phantasy and Art (London and New York: Tavistock and Routledge, 1991), 35

(13)Ibid., 42

(14)Writing, 20

(15)Ibid., 26

(16)"Kohut defined selfobjects as those persons or objects that are experienced as part of the self or that are used in the service of the self to provide a function of the self. The child’s rudimentary self merges with the selfobject, participates in its well-organized experience, and has its needs satisfied by the actions of the selfobject. The term selfobject only has meaning with regard to the experiencing person; it is not an objective person or a true object or a whole object." Michael St. Clair, Object Relations and Self Psychology, An Introduction (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2000; 3rd edition), 142

(17)Winnicott, “Creativity and Its Origins,” Playing and Reality, 80. One might say Oldenburg transforms not-me objects (found objects) into me-objects (art objects). A further investigation would analyze why he chose the found objects he chose to transform into art objects (tell-tale signs of himself and his feelings). 

(18)Salvador Dali, “The Object as Revealed in Surrealist Experiment,” Surrealists on Art, 87

(19)Writing, 27

(20)Uncertain about his identity, he writes (Writing, 23): “I realize I have no identity outside a few friends my own age. No academic record to speak of. No professors to sing my promise. No reputation ‘in the community’ or with persons ‘of standing.’ Not a single worthy knows about me. I am but nobody.” Apart from his brother Richard he seems to have had no selfobjects he could rely on. I suggest that his sculptures became substitute selfobjects.  The human ones don’t live up to them.  In general, he is concerned with the “definition of identity” (his italics). Writing, 17 

(21)Ibid., 23. He is not a modern “romantic mystic”—he lists many of them, 24—but rather a modern romantic symbolist, as the 1958 Notebook page reproduced in Writing, 25 makes clear. “Symbolist, erotic, psychologic” appear one above the other, below the opposites “lyric” and “satiric,” united by a co-implication sign. “Spring” and “summer” appear above “lyric,” “fall” and “winter” appear above “satiric,” suggesting that the page is a summary statement of Oldenburg’s hierarchy of values.  

(22)Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life,” The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, 8

(23)There are numerous references to toys in van Bruggen. “Toys and advertisements are used by Oldenburg as starting points for his work because they are models of existing objects,” she writes, 22. Moreover, in toys the world of grown-ups is reduced to micro-scale and therefore can be grasped more easily. The difference between a toy piece and Oldenburg’s object is one of form, material and range of meaning.” But toys are not models of existing objects, for they are transparently different, formally and materially. They are simulacra rather than models, with a distinctive character and appeal of their own. Oldenburg’s toy-like “Ball with face—‘Rover the Pup’, 1962 was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale about toys,” 30. Airplane, 1962, utilizes an “inflatable toy plane,” 36. Van Bruggen notes that “the eyes” of one visitor to the Mouse Museum “glittered at the sight of rubber daggers he played with as a child,” 42. Clearly the sight of the dagger put the visitor in a regressive state of mind. Van Bruggen’s observation reminds me of Baudelaire’s assertion that “the child sees everything in a state of newness,” that is, the “sensation of the new” that the modern work of art aims at is readymade and automatic in the child, suggesting that the adult artist has to utilize his inner child to have it—to create something new. “Nothing more resembles what we call inspiration than the delight with which a child absorbs form and color.” The artist’s idealized gaze is rooted in “the fixed and animally ecstatic gaze of a child confronted with something new, whatever it be.” (Baudelaire, 8.)  I can’t help thinking that Oldenburg must agree with Kandinsky’s assertion that “there is an unconscious, enormous power in children that expresses itself…and places the work of children on the same level as (and often much higher than!) the work of adults.” Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, ed. Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), 251 

“Toy Riot,” the initial title of a 1963 happening, was “taken from an advertisement for a toy shop sale. The image of toys traveling back and forth across a counter suggests the subtitle: ‘Farce for Objects’,” 49, reminding one of the satiric streak in Oldenburg’s art. In 1964 he came up with the idea of making a “Doll House,” that is, a house for toys, 53. The shelf lifes are in effect doll houses, that is, houses—and display cases--for Oldenburg’s “strange statuary art,” to recall Baudelaire’s term for a toy. One might say that Oldenburg’s abstractly real and really abstract toys—sculptural dolls--are fairy tale characters, the monumental ones being tall tales. One might also say that their strangely distorted form makes them “patterns” that “have not yet been classified by a Linnaeus of human bondage,” to use the words R. D. Laing used to describe Knots, that is, a structure of contradictory messages. I would call them aesthetic Gordian knots, but they can be cut by Oldenburg’s own words.  A work of art is a “Pattern + image of emotion” for Oldenburg (Writing, 17); their fusion is always absurd. 

(24)Ibid., 81

(25)Writing, 23. He adds: “Point is, this extends to images too—the self-absorption. Seymour, who condemns, f. ex., Pollock as a ‘masturbator,’ doesn’t realize this.” On 22 he writes: “I went around loudly saying ‘Abstract Expressionism is dead!’ How crazy one could be!”

(26)Baudelaire concludes his essay “On the Essence of Laughter” with the words: “an artist is only an artist on condition that he is a double man and that there is not one single phenomenon of his double nature of which he is ignorant.” The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, 165

(27)Van Bruggen, 3

(28)Ibid., 15

(29)The first toys are what the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott calls transitional objects. He argues that works of art are also transitional objects. Winnicott, “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena,” Playing and Reality, 1-25. Transitional objects exist in “the intermediate area between the subjective and that which is objectively perceived.” (3) “The intermediate area of experiencing…exists as a resting-place for the individual engaged in the perpetual human task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet interrelated.” (2) Winnicott’s distinction between True Self, known through the “spontaneous gesture” and the “personalized idea”—Oldenburg’s spontaneity is self-evident, and he personalizes the found object (the fundamental creative task of Surrealism)—and False Self also seems relevant to an understanding of Oldenburg’s art. The found objects, and especially the socially ubiquitous objects “found” in the pseudo-personal (not to say impersonal and anonymous) popular culture, signify the social compliance of the False Self. Oldenburg’s transformation of them (his raw material) into marvelous art objects (art works that are “marvels to behold”) makes them emblems of the True Self--his True Self. Transforming objects symbolic of the False social Self into objects symbolic of the True Self—art objects that transcend popular objects in the process of transforming them--Oldenburg shows he understands the basic task of romantic art: to turn the insincere into the sincere, the inauthentic into the authentic, the impersonal into the personal, the unfeeling into the heartfelt.  

(30)Ibid., 19   

(31)Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, eds. Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), 363

(32)Writing, 20

(33)Baudelaire, “On the Essence of Laughter,” The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, 157

(34)Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, Dictionary of Symbols (London and New York: Penguin, 1996), 472

(35)Writing, 51, 52

(36)Quoted in Lawrence Alloway, American Pop Art (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1974; exhibition catalogue), 101

(37)Writing, 27

(38)Quoted in Jonathan Fineberg, Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000; 2nd edition), 197. “In using signs, you make metaphors for sexual subjects,” he writes (Writing, 22). 

(39)Michael Balint, Thrills and Regressions (London: Maresfield Library, 1987), 115-116

(40)Writing, 15. ”I use “expressionism,” generally, to cover form and feeling and reality,” Oldenburg writes. Writing, 26

(41)”I want to paint my sculptures,” he wrote. Writing, 20

(42)Chevalier and Gheerbrant, 72

(43)Oldenburg seems to want his works to afford a transcendental experience—transcend ordinary experience of reality as they transcend ordinary objects by artistically transforming them. “Vision of color on horizontal as passage to transcendence,” he writes (Writing, 12). He seems to have experienced “transcendence on 2nd Ave.” (Writing, 22)

(44)Writing, 26. It is worth noting that the Shelf Lifes were inspired by “an informal gathering of objects on the table” (Writing, 15), suggesting that Oldenburg saw the unconscious form in the consciously informal as well as the unconscious subject in the consciously known object, which is one way of understanding creative insight.  

(45)Writing, 20

Uncited quotations are from Wikipedia. 


Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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