LOWRY HILL — Whenever TV people come to town for an NFL game or a Republican National Convention, they always send a camera over to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.
Claes Oldenburg gave us an icon with “Spoonbridge and Cherry,” built in 1988 with his late wife, Coosje van Bruggen. For the rest of the country, its image is visual shorthand for Minneapolis.
The Walker Art Center, though, established a relationship with Oldenburg decades before that cheery Pop Art monument was selected as the then-new garden’s focal point. The museum purchased a stuffed-canvas sculpture of french fries spilling from a paper bag the year Oldenburg made it, 1966, in the middle of a critical decade for the Chicago-raised artist, a period examined in a traveling exhibition that arrived at the Walker in September.
The artist’s so-called “soft sculptures” of painted canvas or vinyl stuffed like pillows first appeared in the ’60s. He made the regular, everyday stuff of American consumer culture his subject, played with scale and proportion and laid the artistic groundwork for his later work with monumental sculptures of clothespins, matchbooks, rubber stamps and cherries perched on spoons.
When the decade opened, Oldenburg was in New York City working on “The Street,” a series of grungy sculptures made out of stuff you might expect to find piled on the sidewalk: newspaper, cardboard, brown burlap and bits of string. They are of street signs, a bicycle rider, bodies stretched out and distorted like a pedestrian’s shadow on pavement.
Many of the sculptures are flat, nearly two-dimensional, and the charcoal-black outlines Oldenburg gives them add to the feeling they are cartoon drawings loosed from a comic strip’s panels.
“The Street” brought urban grit into a gallery, but in 1961, when he opened “The Store,” Oldenburg rented an actual Lower East Side storefront to sell his wares: hundreds of sculptures of consumer goods and deli-counter fare. There were men’s shirts and suit coats done in goopy painted plaster, fabric sculptures of toy boats, a plate of french fries and ketchup executed in shiny vinyl.
They were all labeled for sale, all patently un-wearable, un-sailable and inedible. The sculptures are pop, but they’re slapdash and sloppy looking, oddly out of scale — not at all like an Andy Warhol print.
They have personality, like the schlubby “Floor Cake,” a slice the size and shape of an old sofa. The flaccid “Floor Cone” just looks dirty.
Excerpts from Oldenburg’s notebooks on display show the artist collected magazine advertisements, filling pages with Madison Avenue’s idealized versions of food, clothing and appliances. If the ads aim to prick some subconscious desire in the consumer’s mind, it seems like Oldenburg is attempting to reverse-engineer the process, as if he thought the glossy, manicured images might reveal something about the American psyche.
For a glimpse, possibly, of Oldenburg’s psyche, step inside “Mouse Museum.” The gallery within the gallery is a freestanding structure in the shape of “Geometric Mouse,” a recurring Oldenburg motif — essentially a cartoon head that looks like a cross between Mickey Mouse and Mr. Yuk.
Inside the darkened space, illuminated glass cases are filled with small objects: sex toys, plastic models of food and a few small sculptures, but mostly lots and lots of bric-a-brac. It’s a collection mainly built of disposable, mass-produced objects presented as art, an inversion of Oldenburg’s concept for “The Store.”
Some may leave the show with a renewed appreciation for another Oldenburg piece that’s long been a part of the Walker’s collection, though it doesn’t get anywhere near the attention lavished its cousin out in the sculpture garden. That’s “Three-Way Plug — Scale A, Soft, Brown,” a cumbersomely titled soft sculpture that for years hung above the Walker’s old lobby space and, after the Herzog & de Meuron remodel, found a new home in the Cargill Lounge.
As the title indicates, Oldenburg produced a number of variations on the three-way plug sculpture, and this one is covered in a loose skin of brown vinyl, an ugly material that looks like it was ripped from the bucket seats of some 1970s American sedan. It resembles a giant deflated udder.
The piece was made in 1975, and it shares many of the elements found in Oldenburg’s ’60s work: humor, sexual innuendo, hints of the uncanny in the everyday. It will never be beloved like “Spoonbridge and Cherry,” but in it you can see where Oldenburg has come from and where he’s going.
Above: “Floor Cake,” a 1962 soft sculpture by Claes Oldenburg. (Submitted image)
Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties
When: Through Jan. 12
Where: Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Ave.
Info: 375-7600, walkerart.org