Claes Oldenburg, the Swedish-born American Pop known for his large-scale sculptures of ordinary objects, passed away on Monday. He was 93.
His death was confirmed by the Pace gallery in New York, which, along with the Paula Cooper Gallery, has long represented him.
Oldenburg was born in Stockholm in 1929 to Swedish parents. His father was a diplomat and therefore the Oldenburg family lived between New York and Chicago, where Claes Oldenburg grew up before studying literature and art history at Yale University.
In the 1950s, he returned to Chicago, where he completed his education by studying with Paul Wieghardt, a painter and pupil of Paul Klee at Germany’s famous Bauhaus art institute. In 1956 Oldenburg moved to New York and by the end of the decade he began to exhibit his early works.
Oldenburg began making the large sculptures for which he was worldwide famous in the late 1960s. The first was “Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks”: a giant lipstick mounted on a kind of caterpillar. It was exhibited on the Yale campus in 1969 during a student protest against the Vietnam War.
Oldenburg’s oeuvre is considered to be part of the Pop Art, the artistic movement that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s and that brought common and popular imagery into contemporary art.
In 2000, together with his wife, Coosje van Bruggen, he created “Needle, thread and knot” for the city of Milan. The monument was commissioned by the City of Milan for the renovation of the Milano Cadorna railway station.
The needle pushing the thread through the fabric, as described by the artists, is a metaphor for a train passing through a tunnel, but it may also be seen as a reference to the city’s crest, which features a snake coiling around a sword. The three colors of the thread (red, green, and yellow) are meant to reflect Milan’s underground lines, and the piece is also intended to pay homage to Milan’s impact on the fashion industry, according to the City of Milan.
In 2010 it was also set up as a Christmas tree, but due to the numerous complaints (imagine seeing Christmas decorations on a sculpture) the decorations were immediately removed. Gae Aulenti herself, the architect who designed the square, had protested to the mayor at the time.
With his sculptures, Oldenburg has always celebrated the ordinary and focused on the unexpected and the mundane at the same time. By looking at the world from a unique point of view, he has marked future generations of artists and, to some extent, the city of Milan.