He's just an old softy at heart

Typewriters, telephones, even toy aeroplanes - Claes Oldenburg has a way of making the stuff of urban life look good enough to eat.
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The Independent Culture
Claes Oldenburg's Soft Typewriter is a writer's nightmare: literary ineffectiveness given object form. A self-evidently unworkable proposition, its keys are white buttons sewn to an ingeniously typewriter-shaped cushion upholstered in shiny black PVC. Fashioned with calculated perversity from a material more commonly associated with the clinging mini-dress or the thigh-length boot, Oldenburg's mock-typewriter is a fetish object. Its inutility is sexy, making it a thing to be touched for itself. Its keys might be blank but the absence of qwertyuiop, asdfghjkl and zxcvbnm sends out a signal none the less. This is a ma- chine for producing not text, but more inarticulate sounds, thrummings, crumplings, soft squeaky caresses. A small, sensual redemption has taken place.

Two years before he created his soft version of one, Oldenburg sat at a real typewriter and hammered out a manifesto for his art. "I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself." The Hayward Gallery's Oldenburg retrospective which, like Oldenburg, peaks early, opens with several galleries filled with marvellous demonstrations of what he meant.

"I am for art that is smoked, like a cigarette, smells, like a pair of shoes. I am for an art that flaps like a flag, or helps blow noses, like a handkerchief. I am for an art that is put on and taken off, like a pair of pants, which develops holes, like socks, which is eaten, like a piece of pie, or abandoned, with great contempt, like a piece of shit." Hence the writhing, coiling drawings that mime the effects of smoke curling upwards from an ashtray, hence the carefully battered plaster sculptures replicating bad second-hand-shop clothes, wrinkled jackets or shirt-and- tie combinations of exemplary awfulness; hence the red baseball cap and the deliquescent sports shoes; hence the pieces of delectably garish yellow pie, dripping with bright, bright enamel-paint custard. The young Oldenburg's brilliant, breathless art is a joyous affirmation, its spirit is that of Molly Bloom's inner monologue at the end of Joyce's Ulysses - "yes yes yes yes I said yes" - and, although there will doubtless be those who continue to mistake Oldenburg's simplicity for banality, this retrospective confirms him as one of the finest American artists of our century.

Two Cheeseburgers with Everything, 1962, is one of the masterpieces of what would later be christened Pop Art. It is a bright, synthetic replica of bright, synthetic food which, through the artist's subtle alchemy, has kept its crudeness but miraculously shed its tawdriness. Ket- chup and melted cheese, lovingly re-created in painted plaster, top each burger on its bed of lettuce in its sesame bun. Fast food has become slow art and, because you cannot actually eat it, it has become something else altogether - the quarter-pounder transfigured into a dream of plenty, like a Rubens landscape, overspilling with its own abundance.

Nothing was too coarse, too blunt, too dumb, too low or too messy to qualify as subject matter for Oldenburg in the 1960s. New York was both his milieu and his subject matter, and what excited him most about the city was the shamelessness with which it appealed to human appetites. He responded to it with his own restless, appetitive enthusiasm, and his art - drawing on anything that caught his eye- was his way of gorging himself on its sights and its sounds and its life.

The young Oldenburg's art was not, as it is so often wrongly taken to be, merely an affirmation of junk food and junk culture. It was a broader and deeper celebration. Oldenburg's vulgarity is still invigorating and enlivening, like the vulgarity of great comedy. It is, like that of Renoir or the Shakespeare who dreamt up Falstaff, a classic vulgarity - a means of subversively suggesting we abandon all our qualms and worries and moral and intellectual reservations, and allow ourselves, at least sometimes, to take sheer and simple pleasure in the blunt, sweet stupidity of life. Oldenburg's subject matter may well be ephemeral and trivial, but his art is not.

Like many 20th-century artists, Oldenburg in his youth was fascinated by the flotsam and jetsam of the city, by the infinite capacity of the metropolis to throw up huge quantities of poignant junk. He was the artist as student of the city's margins - like Degas, responding to Baudelaire's call for "a painter of modern life"; like Braque; like Picasso; like Schwitters; like Oldenburg's own greatest American contemporary Andy Warhol. Whereas everything Warhol did was designed to induce a sense of boredom, of separateness from the world of which we are a part, Oldenburg was always in search of communion. There is an oral urgency to his art, dramatising his desire to ingest the world he loves.

Food fascinated Oldenburg to the extent that al- most all his early sculptures, whatever their ostensible subject matter, somehow evoke or suggest it. One of the tendencies of his art is to homogenise the different objects which it seizes on because everything he touches comes to look as if it is made of a comestible substance. His earliest sculptures have a drippy, melting quality, so that whether Oldenburg is modelling a battleship, or a toy aeroplane, or a cash register, the result always looks as though it has been made out of ice-cream. Oldenburg went on to create yet more ambitious culinary mises-en-scene, assembling entire artificial butchers' stalls or ice-cream counters. The effect here is one of sanctification. Displays of food have been turned into altar pieces. Later, Oldenburg would dream yet more gargantuan, unrealisable delicatessen dreams, imaging civic monuments in the shape of huge ice-cream cones or pats of melted butter. His fantasy has always been a city you could plunge into so completely that you could eat it.

Softness is another means of redemption for him. His soft sculpture sets out to humanise the urban world by making things that are so much sharper, harder and more durable than us - pay telephones, electric plugs, light switches - suddenly collapse into yielding, organic, perishable forms. This is not the dream of a world you can eat but the dream of a world that can eat, or at least absorb, you. Softening the city is also a way of dreaming it to be a safer, nicer place to live in, and the artist acknowledges there is something childish about this. Soft Manhattan is a city converted into a cuddly toy, a thing you could take to bed with you. It even has the battered bald texture of a beloved teddy bear.

Oldenburg's hatred of the hard, the upright and the monumental seems to imply a general distrust of the phallic, the masculine and perhaps the military. His contribution to student unrest in America in the late 1960s was a giant lipstick which mechanically detumesced on the campus at Yale one day in 1969. Soft Baseball Bats is another Oldenburg conceit with pacifist undertones. America's favourite assault weapon, after the gun, has been comically robbed of its ability to wound. Being beaten with one would be more like some surreal form of massage. Soft Drum Kit is a beautiful, limp epiphany, a gentle confiscation of tautness from drumskin and drumstick. Unlike most artists (unlike most men), Oldenburg loves limpness. Flaccidity, in his world, is all.

If tumescence is a blight or disease in Oldenburg's imaginative scheme of things, perhaps that is because it is too serious and too urgent a state to suit his benevolent, relaxed, humane sensibility. Most of Oldenburg's dreams are of returning to the world of the child. His earliest, drippiest works remember infancy, when the mouth is where we put everything. His soft sculptures remember a world of toys and the playpen. His well-known enlargements of everyday objects like buttons, clothes pegs or billiard balls are also dreams of regression; the act of making small things enormous reveals the artist's desire to become, again, very small himself.

"I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum," Oldenburg once said. "I am for art that coils and grunts like a wrestler... I am for art you can sit on. I am for art you can pick your nose with or stub your toe on." Fame and money have made that impossible now, and the Oldenburgs assembled at the Hayward are, indeed, sitting on their asses in a museum. "Do not touch the exhibits," say the signs. It may be true, as some feel, that to place Oldenburgs on plinths is to muffle and distort them. To venerate his work is certainly to miss its point. But how much like old-fashioned high art so many of Oldenburg's best works now seem, and one of the great compensations for their museumification is that it enables us to see this fact more clearly.

The dripped and painted plaster pieces have often been compared with Jackson Pollock's, but their an- cestry goes back further. The flickering outlines of Oldenburg's early sculptures carry echoes of Giacometti - indeed, Oldenburg's rowdy, vital, colourful art carries an implicit reproof to Giacometti's existential miserablisme and meagreness of invention. Oldenburg's art is full of responses to, and memories of, other art. The meringue contours of his plaster sculpture, its surface spiked with small stalagmites and stalactites, recall the fantastical grottoes of Mannerist gardens like the Boboli or Tivoli. If his generosity and fondness for the ample form recalls the Baroque (what is an Oldenburg giant soft fan but a Rubens nude for the 20th century?) then his love of rugged things and ragged shapes recalls the Rococo. He evidently loves the 18th-century Ven- etian pictures of Guardi, that connoisseur of torn sailcloth and raggedy washing hung out to dry. Oldenburg is not a destroyer of tradition but an inheritor.

All of which may explain why the works in which Oldenburg has apparently come closest to realising his fantasies - the gargantuan public sculptures to which he has devoted so much of the last two decades - are his most disappointing. The grander his schemes have been and the more assistants have been employed in their creation, the less of Oldenburg himself there has been in them, and the more tedious they have seemed. This is because his greatness as an artist lies as much in his formal mastery as in his sensibility. The handling of the cheeseburger, the draughtsmanship of the soft baseball bats - these count for far more than perhaps even Oldenburg has ever quite realised. Like all the great modern artists, he has much of the Old Master about him.

n To 18 Aug, Hayward Gallery, SBC, London SE1