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The Sanitizing of a Junk-Art Genius

Claes Oldenburg gets an exhibit—and gets boring

Let this be fair warning: You will not see Claes Oldenburg’s The Store, that most recklessly zany of all Pop Art creations, in the exhibition currently at the Museum of Modern Art entitled “Claes Oldenburg: The Street and The Store.” This is not exactly through any fault of Ann Temkin, the curator in charge. True, Temkin might have tried a little harder to evoke the hipster exuberance of a piece of downtown installation art that lived and died just over half-a-century ago. But nobody will ever be able to reconstruct the jam-packed storefront, with a big glass window on East Second Street, where for a few weeks in December 1961 Oldenburg heaped together in blithe, helter-skelter fashion his comically ad hoc versions of all the stuff you could then buy in an old-fashioned five-and-dime. There was even an element of melancholy mixed in with Oldenburg’s celebratory spirits, some sense that all this casual kidding around had to come with an expiration date. Oldenburg’s intention had always been to sell items individually, and by the time The Store closed, his pies, dresses, and assorted pieces of pop Americana, much of it made of roughly painted shapes formed of muslin soaked in plaster, were already moving into the sanitized white spaces of private collections and museums. And there it has remained.

I was in grade school in the Midwest when The Store premiered in New York. Needless to say I also missed its predecessor, The Street, a gathering of near-abstract renderings of figures and signs, mostly done in painted wood and cardboard, that strikes me as infinitely less interesting. I have no intention of waxing nostalgic about things I never knew. But what does seem clear—from Robert McElroy’s wonderfully scruffy photographs of the Second Street installation and from the writing of Sidney Tillim, a gifted young critic at the time—is that the high spirits that animated The Store and the rest of Oldenburg’s early work are being suffocated by what passes for high seriousness among many curators and scholars of modern art. In Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties—published to accompany an earlier version of this show, mounted in Vienna, and doubling as the MoMA catalogue—Temkin offers what you might call a structuralist analysis of Oldenburg’s clippings of magazine photographs of toast, a cigarette, a toilet, a telephone, and other contemporary buyables, lavishing on this unabashedly dumb-ass material the taxonomic gravitas of a scholar decoding a lost Eurasian language. In the same volume, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, an art historian whose word is holy writ in some academic circles, argues with furrow-browed sobriety for Oldenburg’s “contribution to the utopian vision of a new subject-object relationship” in a discussion of two later works, Mouse Museum and Ray Gun Wing, collections of quirky low-tech objects Oldenburg has either bought or found and then proceeded to present in orderly displays (they are also currently on view at MoMA).

We’ve all watched Warhol’s ascent from light comedian to sage of the age, so I suppose the sobering-up of Oldenburg’s wonderfully inebriated early work should not come as a surprise. It’s a pity, though, to see something that was originally conceived, at least so I believe, in a spirit of goofy fun reconfigured to fit with the worst aridities of contemporary art history. I do not, by the way, doubt for a moment that Oldenburg—who is now 84—is perfectly happy to be witnessing his own deification. No matter that in the 1960s he described his intention with The Store quite simply:  “to create the environment of a store, by painting and placing (hanging, projecting, lying) objects after the spirit and in the form of popular objects of merchandise, such as may be seen in stores and store-windows of the city.” In Arts magazine, Sidney Tillim responded to the messy enchantments of The Store, dubbing it “a combination of neighborhood free enterprise and Sears and Roebuck.” Tillim was clearly enjoying himself. “The wedding gown on a cadaverous mannikin,” he reported, “was more lumpish than lumpen, undecided as to how serious it should be as sculpture. The pastries were especially attractive, and the air-mail letter I craved as I might a bit of eighteenth-century porcelain which I saw here in its demotic transformation.” The fun of The Store, with its casually and even sloppily painted forms, was in Oldenburg’s reluctance to be overly serious about what he was doing.1

In McElroy’s photographs, The Store becomes part of the downtown winter streetscape, a funky fantasia. Oldenburg practically begged visitors to do a double-take with this store that was reimagined by an artist in a space that was itself a store, except that there was something a little “off” about every piece of merchandise, as if the most ordinary objects had been refracted through a funhouse mirror. The trouble with the subsequent history of The Store is that all too many people are determined to resolve the irresolution that was the key to the work’s edgy charm. Mere weeks after the original show had closed on Second Street in 1961, a single item turned up in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, where Tillim found it was “psychologically violated by the setting.” What was already seeping out of the work then is totally gone today.

In MoMA’s spiffily antiseptic environment, Oldenburg’s cheerfully deracinated bits of art-slob Americana are now presented as if each and every one of them had been prepped for the intellectual equivalent of exploratory surgery—or else for a big payday in one of the blue-chip auction houses. Although the exhibition includes digital videos of vintage films of performance pieces Oldenburg was working on in the early 1960s—as well as a slideshow of some of McElroy’s photographs of those performances—I do think it would have made sense to include at least one of McElroy’s tremendously evocative photographs of The Store as wall murals right in the middle of the show. I can imagine a number of reasons why Temkin would not want to do that, but what it really comes down to is that Oldenburg is now regarded as an old master, and old masters don’t sell their stuff out of disheveled storefronts on East Second Street. This is a new variation on the old story of the comic who wrecks his talent by insisting on going legit.

  1. Tillim was excited that The Store “managed to mix crudity with nostalgia in a way that exposed both Oldenburg’s hostility for the ‘low’ subjects he was using (to bludgeon the aesthetes) and his romanticism of the primitive-banal.”