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Remembering sculptor Claes Oldenburg, who made monumental everyday objects


This is FRESH AIR. The artist Claes Oldenburg once said, I am for art that embroils itself in everyday crap and still comes out on top. Oldenburg died yesterday. He was 93. He and his wife and partner, Coosje van Bruggen, designed a series of what they called colossal monuments - large public sculptures in the shapes of everyday objects.

Chicago has an Oldenburg baseball bat - Miami, a fruit bowl. Cleveland has a giant stamp - and Las Vegas, a flashlight. Philadelphia, where we produce our show, has a 45-foot-high clothespin that's across the street from City Hall. It's easily my favorite public sculpture in the city. When I pass by, I feel as if it's winking at me, acknowledging that life and art are sometimes absurd.

Oldenburg's monuments have been controversial, but as art critic Robert Hughes once wrote, no living artist combines the roles of magician and clown with as much skill as Oldenburg. Oldenburg was born in Sweden but grew up in Chicago. I spoke with him in 1992.


GROSS: Although you've been doing these sculptures for years, they've never ceased becoming controversial. Why do you think people get upset when an ordinary object is used as the subject of art?

CLAES OLDENBURG: Well, I don't know if that's what upsets people. But, of course, the tradition in public sculpture is to create something hierarchical which is up on a pedestal. And people are perhaps surprised when that tradition is turned on its head. And you get instead a very simple object that most people probably don't feel belongs on a pedestal. But in modern times, it seems that such an object is more appropriate than, say, an equestrian statue. But people get angry for many reasons. And very often a public sculpture, because it gets a lot of attention, is used by people to promote their own causes. And politicians will use it to make a case of some sort which would call attention to themselves. I think it's very good that people do discuss and raise controversies over all the sculptures. Coosje and I feel that it wouldn't be right somehow to put up something that everybody would agree on, that we have a responsibility as artists to practice the same approach that we do in private, which is to say to create something that has a bit of an edge that lies a little bit ahead of the general consciousness or try to do that. So when that's transferred into public art, it does make people sometimes surprised, though they do get used to it.

GROSS: I'm interested in the roots of how you started doing these oversized, now colossal sculptures of ordinary objects. You started doing this kind of work in much smaller versions, I believe, as in the early 1960s. What was on your mind then that let you in that direction?

OLDENBURG: Well, the first large-scale work was in 1969, which was the lipstick for Yale University. Before that, I'd been doing fantastic drawings of real sites, such as the clothespin I mentioned, where - they were called proposed colossal monuments. Another one was the Good Humor Bar as a substitute for the Pan Am building on Park Avenue. And there were many situations like that that were proposed where the existing building had something in common with something much smaller. Like, a Pan Am definitely has the shape of a Good Humor bar. And the substitution was made in the media of drawing and as convincingly as possible. But in '69, these drawings were well-known to the students of architecture at Yale University. And when Herbert Marcuse, the socialist philosopher, came to lecture, they purposely asked him what would happen to society if some of these structures were built. And Marcuse replied that if that happened, then capitalist society would be at an end.

GROSS: (Laughter).

OLDENBURG: So this stimulated the students to commission a sculpture on a large scale, a real version of these fantastic proposals. And so I got the commission to do a sculpture for the center of Yale University. And this was, of course, all done surreptitiously, and the authorities weren't asked. So the sculpture was prepared in secret and brought into Banneker Plaza, which is the war memorial at the center of the university. This was in the late '60s, and the mood, of course, was very combative, and the students were very involved. And it was a very exciting moment. And the authorities sort of decided to let it happen because they thought if they stepped in and prevented it, much worse things could occur. So the sculpture did get put up, and that was the large - the first large-scale project.

GROSS: What is it about ordinary objects that you take such pleasure in?

OLDENBURG: Well, I've always been very interested in deriving my art from my surroundings, from my daily experiences. So my daily experiences are not very adventurous or dramatic. They tend to revolve around very simple things, just as most people's. There came a moment when I saw these things as potential sculptures - razor blades, toothbrushes, soaps, whatever. I thought they have a certain character and identity and formal quality in themselves, which could be used as sculpture. And this was something which just came naturally. It also is important to me that I can touch all these things in a small scale and I can feel the object completely, say, in a small scale before I proceed to making a large version of it. So it has very personal origins, which later became involved with the general practices of pop art and so on. But this interest in smaller objects had a personal origin.

GROSS: My interview with artist Claes Oldenburg was recorded in 1992. He died yesterday at the age of 93. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about a military surgeon who spent World War I reconstructing the faces of soldiers and sailors who had suffered horrific facial injuries at a time when plastic surgery was in its infancy. Our guest will be Lindsey Fitzharris, who chronicles the work of Dr. Harold Gillies in her new book, "The Facemaker." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering today from Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joe Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. And we all want to thank Joel Wolfram for doing such excellent work on our show these past few months. It's always a pleasure to work with him. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE BRUBECK'S "TAKE FIVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.