Interview with Claes Oldenburg on his bitter-sweet new project: “The objects of today are not interesting”

Claes Oldenburg on his love of things, the loss of his wife and whether to accept a commission for Abu Dhabi


Claes Oldenburg is famous for making the hard soft, and the small colossal. In Madrid for the exhibition “Claes Oldenburg & Coosje van Bruggen: the European Desktop” (until 26 April) at the public space of Ivory Press Art + Books (founded by Lady Elena Ochoa Foster), in association with New York’s PaceWildenstein gallery, the septuagenarian artist describes the show as a homage to his late wife Coosje van Bruggen, who died in January 2009. They began their creative partnership in 1978, together producing more than 25 large-scale works, including Dropped Cone, 2001, in Cologne, Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, 1999, in Washington, DC, and Big Sweep, 2006, in Denver. In 1990 they created “The European Desktop”, part of a series of theatrical installations that grew out of Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s performance with the architect Frank Gehry for the 1985 Venice Biennale. Oldenburg is currently planning his next big exhibition which opens in October 2011 at the Museum of Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig in Vienna.

The Art Newspaper: “The European Desktop” is a play on battles over national boundaries and the displacement of European cultures. Is that how you think about Europe?

Claes Oldenburg: Europe seems more like one country with different parts, in the same way as America is full of diverse places. In Europe it is also easy to go from one country to another. The idea that it is all one is kind of interesting to me—mostly the idea that everybody is not just trapped inside their own country. But I haven’t lived in Europe enough to have a clear concept of it. I was more involved in Europe when Coosje was alive. She was the one who missed Europe.

TAN: You are working on two large-scale projects in the US: one in Philadelphia and another in Indianapolis, both of which you started with Coosje.

CO: I now have provisional ideas for Philadelphia. It will be a giant paintbrush and it will be installed next to a small museum of art. It will be my second piece in Philadelphia [Clothespin, 1976, stands in front of its City Hall]. In Indianapolis the ideas are still coming and going. Indianapolis [Art Museum] is very active on commissions and this project will be for its sculpture park. You never know though if someone will call on the telephone to ask about another commission. Coosje always said: “Do not forget to say no. It is very important.” I keep her in mind in every decision I take, all the time. She is still omnipresent.

TAN: Do you think you will accept other new projects?

CO: I will see what happens; sometimes I feel extremely disorientated. I am not so sure what direction “our work” will go now.

TAN: Do you still divide your time between the Loire Valley, New York and Los Angeles?

CO: We are selling the château. Coosje wanted to sell it even before she died. So we—I—am not spending any time there and I do not want to go back to Los Angeles because it is where Coosje died. I do not feel happy at the moment [there]. I have a very large studio of five floors in New York. It is more than enough.

TAN: Do you have assistants helping you?

CO: Not at the moment. If I do a large work I usually do it in a factory and that becomes my new studio. I am constantly drawing on my own in the studio. My drawing is about searching and when I find the project, my drawing is about defining a subject and making it clear. There is always something to do with the drawing process.

TAN: What is happening to your project for the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi?

CO: Frank is an old friend but I am becoming very selective in terms of new commissions. I thought Abu Dhabi would not be part of my career, but after discussions here in Madrid I am vacillating. It seems every artist now goes to Abu Dhabi but it is too difficult for me to travel; I am getting old. Frank is the same age and he goes all the time. He has shown me many of the models. I think the building there is getting very interesting.

TAN: Your sculptures are like buildings, at least in scale.

CO: That’s true. Frank’s buildings are different; they are so individual. He works very much like a sculptor and I work in a certain way like an architect. The difference is that, as Frank always says, the architect has to work with the inside as well as the outside. And as an artist you’re always only thinking of the outside.

In my mind my sculptures are always colossal monuments, but most of them only exists as drawings.

TAN: Have you always been interested in architecture?

CO: I grew up in Chicago, a city full of inventive architecture. The skyscraper was born in Chicago. I became aware of architecture there and Frank Lloyd Wright, whom I always liked, was very much part of that. Now it has too many tall buildings. They should stop building skyscrapers. I love to see the sky.

TAN: You have given ordinary objects a new meaning through playing with their scale.

CO: In order to see something new you have to make it large enough. It has to be big like a building and that leads again to architecture, so you also have buildings with the shape of objects. My sculptures are a monument to a moment in time and place and I am glad if they become symbols of a whole district or a statement of the revitalisation of an area. But real architecture is too difficult and I would rather just stay in the imagination.

TAN: The objects in your work tend to be old. How do you feel about contemporary things?

CO: The objects I use normally come from my childhood or before I was an artist. Telephones that do not look that way any more, typewriters that nobody uses any more, razors that no one has ever seen and things of that sort because that gives you the advantage right away. You have an object that is non-functional, that is different from its function. And only in this way can you achieve something that is kind of mysterious and abstract—both essential qualities of art. So that is why my objects are from early times. The objects of today are not interesting to me anymore. Everything has a very simple form. I am always looking, but I cannot see anything.

TAN: Is it true to say that your soft sculptures refer to the subconscious?

CO: It was not a matter of wanting to make a surrealist image. The origin of it was my desire to transform objects and the best way was by making them “soft” so they can be pushed around and changed. It was a practical way of achieving metamorphosis. It is like skin: taking something that is hard and making the outside like a soft skin. Changes and transformation into something different that did not exist was appealing. But I do not like forms to get too much out of control. When you make something “soft” you have both: the original form and something that can also become anything.

TAN: The word “metamorphosis” sounds Kafkaesque.

CO: [Kafka’s] is a humour that I feel close to. It also has to do with experimenting with the imagination. I think in terms of surprises. A day can be full of surprises. You never know what is going to come the next day, how you are going to wake up and what you are going to think about.