Oldenburg, who was born in 1929, got himself noticed in New York City in the early Sixties with "happenings" that tried the patience of serious modern artists who, for all their iconoclastic posturing, carried on working in media - paint on rectangles of canvas, that sort of thing - used by just about every artist since the Renaissance. Earnest abstract expressionists must have found irksome the comic-book-style sculpture Oldenburg produced under the name of Ray Gun, his alter ego. The Ray Gun Manufacturing Company, a shop front on the Lower East Side, invited passers-by to come in and buy Oldenburg's painted plaster replicas of food and other consumer goodies (and nasties).
By the mid-Sixties, this Yale-educated, one-time Chicago journalist, son of a Swedish diplomat and friend of William Burroughs, was best known for his soft fabric and vinyl sculptures. These included a giant soft fan, a giant soft toothpaste tube and a giant soft bottle of tomato ketchup (with spilt soft ketchup), and culminated with a detumescent cornucopia of vinyl lavatory basins and soft musical instruments, the funniest being a soft drum kit that went on show in 1967.
This work was potty and subversive (to what seems a mild degree, from the perspective of 1996, when artists have lost the power to shock because everyone knows anything goes), but lacked the impact, solidity and scale Oldenburg was dreaming of in his lipsticks for Piccadilly Circus proposal.
Surely an enlightened city council would be keen to replace the Washington Monument, for example, with a pair of giant, moving scissors? Oldenburg tried this on, but for some reason the patriarchs of the federal capital didn't want to know.
Giant lipsticks might have stayed a daydream if, in 1976, Oldenburg hadn't met Coosje van Bruggen, a Dutch writer, artist and historian. He married her the following year. Since then, the dynamic Coosje has cajoled and bludgeoned 27 city authorities into erecting giant, brightly painted and decidedly solid Oldenburg sculptures. You can see drawings, models and film footage of these in the big Oldenburg show that opens next month at the Hayward Gallery - the first retrospective of the artist's work in Britain for more than 25 years.
The latest project is a giant handsaw with a red handle, that appears to be rasping its way through a futuristic new Japanese office development. "The Japanese don't laugh, or even smile, when they go past," says Oldenburg over a lunch table in The People's Palace, the Royal Festival Hall's riverside restaurant, next door to the Hayward Gallery. "Which is kind of great. You don't know what they're thinking, and, with my work, you can think what you like. Actually, there are many people who're not sure how to react to the giant sculptures. There are those who keep a straight and reverent face because they've been conditioned to think art has to be very serious."
Oldenburg himself, neat, groomed and polite, is clearly a past master in the art of keeping a straight face. You begin to see why, with a helping hand from Coosje, he has been able to talk his way into erecting such bizarre sculptures as a 45-foot-tall clothes peg in the centre of fusty Philadelphia, a 30-foot-long aluminium spoon with a giant red cherry in downtown Minneapolis, and a giant Swiss Army penknife floating in the old shipyards of the Venice Arsenale (though this last was, sadly, a purely temporary "intervention", as artists call them, in the city- on-water). They seem all so very reasonable, when explained by Claes Oldenburg.
Keep him talking, however, and the clever, complex and subversive character masked by his apparently unbreachable civility (none of the snotty-sleeved, up-your-bum style of the "we're gonna shock you, like, man" school, popular among would-be-subversive British artists of the Nineties) comes to light with a disarming smile and eyes brimming with good humour.
And there is something deliciously amusing in the idea of an artist who was at the forefront of the radical New York movements of the early Sixties, sitting down with city councillors to discuss where exactly in the central business district to place a giant, painted handsaw or clothes peg. "If they don't like the idea," says Oldenburg, "then I don't do it. I'm not prepared to discuss compromise. You either like what's on offer, or you don't."
Whether you do or don't, expect to find another 27 or so variations on the theme of giant pairs of brightly painted binoculars, clothes pegs and handsaws in city centres around the world over the next few years. Cities (Oldenburg only rarely works to private commission) are beginning to queue up for them as they once did for reproductions of Michelangelo's David. His work beats statues of feather-hatted generals, beloved only by feral pigeons, and old queens brandishing sceptres, that's for sure
'Claes Oldenburg: An Anthology' is at the Hayward Gallery, SE1, from 6 June to 18 AugustReuse content