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This giant Claes Oldenburg sculpture was built for Dallas, but many North Texans haven't seen it

Claes Oldeburg and Coosje van Bruggen's "Stake Hitch" 1984 Dallas Museum of Art
Dallas Museum of Art
Claes Oldeburg and Coosje van Bruggen's "Stake Hitch," 1984, Dallas Museum of Art

The late sculptor Claes Oldenburg created a monumental installation, "Stake Hitch," for the central hall in the Dallas Museum of Art for its 1984 opening.

You probably haven't seen it because the huge, 5,500-pound sculpture was removed by the Dallas Museum of Art 20 years ago to make room for more touring exhibitions.

It once was a hallmark of the Dallas Arts District, a signature achievement for the DMA: It was called "Stake Hitch," a site-specific, sculptural installation by the late Claes Oldenburg: a steel, resin-and foam giant that dominated the museum's central, barrel-vaulted hall when it opened in 1984. "Stake Hitch" was "deinstalled" in 2002 and has been in storage ever since.

But Oldenburg's death last week sparked renewed interest in a sculptor who was one of the most popular Pop artists in the world.

A Stake in the Arts — the 1984 documentary produced, written and directed by Blaine Dunlap for KERA — is actually about the entire beginnings of the Dallas Arts District: the appointment of Harry Parker III in 1977 as the Dallas Museum of Art's new director, the city bond issue getting passed that would pay for the district, the development of the Edward Larabee Barnes-designed DMA as the first venue to go up — even as commercial developers pounced on nearby vacant land that had recently been deemed almost worthless. (One revealing visual is of an architectural model in the office of developer Harlan Crow — a model that bears almost no relationship to what the district became, with far more greenery, pedestrian access and wider spacing between office towers).

But as the documentary narration by Graci Ragsdale says, "If a great city needed a great art museum, then the new art museum needed a great centerpiece for its great gallery."

Pop artist Claes Oldenburg was known for his 'soft sculptures' and his gargantuan reproductions of everyday, mass-produced items (clothespin, umbrella, typewriter eraser). Such giant works seemed best suited to command such a vast hall.

So Oldenburg was commissioned in 1981 with collaborator Coosje van Bruggen to produce the hall's signature piece. Although Oldenburg could be reserved, even dour, in person, his artworks often have a degree of humor in the way common items are made grandiose: a pencil becomes the Eiffel Tower. Inflated beyond all function, Oldenburg's sculptures can make the viewer feel like a minor character in a sci-fi film about giants.

In the documentary, Oldenburg says his original idea was for a nail that would link the DMA's vast ceiling to the floor. According to the DMA's website, in choosing a roped stake recalling the ones used for tents, Oldenburg wanted "a certain feeling of the outdoors and of country experience to be conveyed by the work in a rough way, to contrast with the refinement of the museum. . . 'Maybe there's a steer up there on the roof,' he quipped."

Harry Parker III, Dallas Museum of Art director, and artist Claes Oldenburg
from KERA documentary, "Dallas: A Stake in Arts"
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DMA director Harry Parker III and artist Claes Oldenburg during the planning for "Stake Hitch"

The knotted 'rope' is made of three, re-surfaced air-conditioning ducts, wrapped with foam rubber and blown fiberglass — giving it one of the more bristly textures in any Oldenburg sculpture. Also, little known even while "Stake Hitch" was on display is the fact that the giant spike does indeed 'penetrate' the floor, going down into the loading dock area beneath it (accessible only to museum staff). It made the stake seem much heavier, more massive than its cast aluminum "box" actually was. But that 'through the floor' design made its later removal tricky.

In an artists' statement on their website, Oldenburg and van Bruggen say that in June 2001, John Lane, the new director of the DMA, "announced his plan to remove the Stake Hitch, which he considered an obstacle to 'an active program of temporary exhibitions.'" Oldenburg and van Bruggen "refused alternative sites for the sculpture." Van Bruggen stated, "The Stake Hitch was made for one site only and has no value elsewhere."

A 1990 federal law making it difficult to remove site-specific works relates only to projects done after that date. So, the artists' website says, "despite its status as an icon of the Museum and one of the 'Top Ten Treasures' in the permanent collection prominently featured in the guide to the Museum, and its identification as an icon of Dallas, the sculpture was removed on August 22. . . . Museum officials have promised that the 'Stake Hitch' would be re-installed for a year during the decade after its removal. At this moment in time, six years later [2007], no plans have been announced for its re-installation."

All of which means the KERA documentary may be your best chance to see not only Oldenburg's finished sculpture but its creation, its sub-floor "point" and the massive, industrial effort it took to install the artwork.

Got a tip? Email Jerome Weeks at jweeks@kera.org. You can follow him on Twitter @dazeandweex.

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Jerome Weeks is the Art&Seek producer-reporter for KERA. A professional critic for more than two decades, he was the book columnist for The Dallas Morning News for ten years and the paper’s theater critic for ten years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines.