Claes (Thure) Oldenburg was born in 1929, in Stockholm. His family emigrated to Chicago in 1936. From 1946 until 1950, Oldenburg studied art and English literature at Yale University, New Haven, and then worked as a journalist for the City News Bureau of Chicago. For two years he took up his studies again at the Art Institute, Chicago, with Paul Weighardt. He opened a studio for magazine illustrations and painting and, with satirical drawings, dedicated his first exhibition to the intersection of journalistic and art work in 1953.
During the same year, Oldenburg became a citizen of the United States. He moved to New York in 1956 and soon came into contact with the art scenes of Fluxus and Happenings, working with George Brecht, Allan Kaprow, George Segal, and Robert Whitman. Oldenburg became one of the most important members of this circle and in the late 1950s and early 1960s participated in numerous Actions. His interest in art that transcended the different media manifested itself in his first New York exhibitions. There he showed large-format figures and objects as well as drawn everyday utensils, collaged or done in paper-mâché. Oldenburg followed this concept with the exhibition The Street, shown at the Judson Gallery (1960), where he embodied his impressions of urban misery in figures and object fragments of cardboard and cloth. His own studio exhibition The Store (1961) again turned its gaze on everyday affairs, garbage, and commerce. It showed Oldenburg’s radical engagement with U.S.-society, its everyday culture, and its culture of consumption, a focus that also linked his work to Pop Art. The Bedroom Ensemble from 1963, an oversize bedroom interior transferring public street life into domestic space, veiled with coverings and paintings, is part of the approach. Similar to the studio exhibitions and museum drafts by Oldenburg, it creates larger contextual links across spatial boundaries.
Towards the end of the 1960s, first projects in exterior spaces emerged, providing new formal possibilities. Still situated on the boundaries of Object and Action art (Placid Civic Monument, 1967), they led to Oldenburg’s installation of his famous, monumental Giant Objects in different cities. In 1969, he put up his Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks on the campus of Yale University.
»Objects may be changed in many ways. One possibility is to buy commodities as if you were in a store, or to free other things, wherever they may be found, from their context. I have been able to do this with my toilette made from newspaper. But also the choice of a different scale transforms the objects in unforeseen ways. Moreover, there is the possibility to let objects start a journey through their own soul in order to make them more expressive. The spectrum of possibilities to modify and create sense is endless. Sometimes it is enough to leave objects to themselves, sometimes however, more intensive intervention is necessary in order to achieve something« (Oldenburg, in: Kunstforum 134, 1996). Oldenburg’s interventions into the life of everyday objects which, since the 1970s, he has realized together with his wife, Dutch curator and artist Coosje van Bruggen, have created new contexts of meaning. They have also confronted the viewer with defamiliarized qualities of the object in a modified architectonic or urban space of reference (Giant Pool Balls, 1977; Spitzhacke, Documenta 7; Tools of the Trade, 1989). Consequently, the artist couple Oldenburg/van Bruggen has, aside from its own projects, also pursued joint projects with architects. After the Chiat/Day building in Los Angeles, an »experimental« theater performance, Corso del Coltello, was staged in the Arsenal in Venice, again in collaboration with Frank O. Gehry. The project is situated between the disciplines, between architecture, literature, object art, and painting. And from there, Oldenburg’s Knife Ship, the monumental Swiss knife mutated into a ship – it is linked to the building of the old Venice shipyard – started its journey of exhibitions through Europe and the U.S.
Since the 1960s, Oldenburg’s works and projects have been shown at numerous exhibitions. Oldenburg participated in the Documenta (4 — 7) as well as in the Venice Biennale (1964 — 72). His œuvre was honored with retrospectives at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Oldenburg’s large works, such as the Mouse-Museum / Ray Gun Wing, were shown, among other locations, at the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, in 1979. In 1983, the monumental sculpture of a toothbrush was installed at the Museum Haus Esters in Krefeld.
Claes Oldenburg lives and works in New York.
Claes Oldenburg, eine Anthologie: Ausst.-Kat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, u.a., hg. v. Guggenheim Museum, Bonn 1995
Claes Oldenburg, Multiples 1964 — 1990: Ausst.-Kat. Portikus, Frankfurt/M., Lenbachhaus München u.a., hg. v. M. Hentschel, Frankfurt/M. 1992
Claes Oldenburg – Nur ein anderer Raum: Ausst.-Kat. Museum für Moderne Kunst, hg. v. Coosje van Bruggen, Frankfurt/M. 1991
Claes Oldenburg, Coosje van Bruggen – A bottle of notes and some voyages: Ausst.-Kat. Wilhelm-Lehmbruck-Museum, Duisburg 1989