Claes Oldenburg Coosje van Bruggen: Sculpture by the Way

25 october 2006 - 25 february 2007


Curated by Ida Gianelli and Marcella Beccaria


The collaboration between Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen is based on an encounter between two strong and distinct identities. Through their dialogue, articulated in a continuous exchange of words and images, the artists have redefined the concept of sculpture, dynamically addressing the complexity of the contemporary world. Claes Oldenburg Coosje van Bruggen: Sculpture by the Way documents the unique nature of the artists’ creative path.


The exhibition concentrates on the past twenty years, starting with Il Corso del Coltello (The Course of the Knife) (room 18).



A performance produced in Venice in 1985, Il Corso del Coltello and its related works were an important turning point for the artists, opening up their exploration to a dialogue with architecture, literature, and theater. Developed with the collaboration of architect Frank O. Gehry, the performance focused on the image of a Swiss army knife, chosen as a symbol for a new architectural method of cutting and slicing, suitable for

intervening in the historic context of Venice. In the plot of the performance, the Swiss army knife, transformed into a giant prop, the Knife Ship, became the fulcrum for the actions of the three main characters: Dr. Coltello, Georgia Sandbag, and Frankie P. Toronto. Played respectively by Oldenburg, van Bruggen, and Gehry, the characters brought together reality and fiction, past and present. As Dr. Coltello, Oldenburg impersonated an amateur painter, unlicensed souvenir vendor, explorer, and inventor. The personification of Art, Dr. Coltello wore a costume shaped like a Swiss army knife equipped with blades. Georgia Sandbag, the van Bruggen character, was a former travel agent turned writer, on the model of George Sand. The personification of Literature, Sandbag carried a small bundle on her back and wore a blue overcoat embellished with many labels attesting to her numerous voyages. Frankie P. Toronto was the pseudonym Gehry chose for himself, and as a barber who dreams of being an architect, he represented Architecture. Made up of a tympanum and a series of columns, his costume was inspired by the temples of ancient Greece. In addition to enlarged versions of the characters’ costumes, the selection in the exhibition includes drawings related to the performance and other props, such as Architectural Fragments and Houseball, a sort of portable house, designed to accompany Georgia Sandbag. Naturally open to direct encounters with the public, the art of Oldenburg and van Bruggen is developed in the privacy of their studio-home, where several projects are simultaneously under development, and where the artists expand their own intuitions in sketches and three-dimensional studies.With the intention of revealing the unique nature of their method, the exhibition presents studies from the artists’ private collection, including some works that have rarely been seen by the public (room 19). The selection consists of studies made by Claes Oldenburg between 1960 and 1977, along with some of those made together with van Bruggen, up to 2005. In their totality, they can be understood as an overview of ideas in continuous development, ready to be transformed. The studies also reveal the artists’ predilection for the recovery of the intrinsic nature of materials, which they describe as “the magic of an earlier life” that survives in each object. As in an organic evolution, the dimensions of each study, even when minimal, can become monumental, then taking on the proportions of large-scale projects for urban spaces. Every large-scale project implies a careful study of the context by the artists. So far, Oldenburg and van Bruggen have created over forty large-scale projects, in Europe, America, and Asia. The exhibition includes drawings related to large-scale projects, along with presentation and fabrication models (rooms 20 and 21). The selection covers the most recent works, such as Big Sweep, 2006, the project created for the Denver Art Museum in Colorado. The models on display include: Sculpture in the Form of a Match Cover – Model, a 1987 cardboard version of the large-scale project later created for Barcelona, in 1992; Model for Dropped Cone, 2000, a sculpture in the form of an overturned ice-cream cone, for the roof of a shopping mall in Cologne; and the recent Cupid’s Span – Fabrication Model, 2002. The large-scale version of the latter piece, sixty-four feet tall and almost one hundred-fifty feet long, is now installed near the Golden Gate Bridge, in San Francisco, California. Collar and Bow 1:16, 2005, is the model for a large sculpture, currently in progress, conceived for the outdoor space of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the new auditorium designed by Frank. O. Gehry in Los Angeles. Scattered Pyramid of Pears and Peaches -Balzac/Pétanque, Model, 2001, is related to the sculpture that is now part of the collection of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. This work developed as a reference to the figure of the famous French writer, who was notoriously greedy for fruit. Associated with the game of boules, the form of a pyramid of pears and peaches becomes dynamic and potentially subject to disintegration. As in the case of other works by Oldenburg and van Bruggen, the chosen iconography, including the napkin and knife, manifests the close relationship that ties their work to the history of art and finds precedents in paintings by Chardin, Manet, Courbet, Cézanne, and Picasso. The related drawing documents the possible location of the work in Tours, France, Balzac’s native city.


Despite functioning as prototypes, each of the models is also an autonomous work, in which the artists develop their sculptural research. In some cases, one model can be combined with another, in an exchange that results in a new work. This is the case with Project for the Walls of a Dining Room: Broken Plate of Scrambled Eggs, with Fabrication Model of the Dropped Bowl Fountain, 1987, which is in Castello di Rivoli’s collection (room 22). The work takes the form of a room that has come unhinged from its floor, as if struck by an unexpected telluric upheaval. The two small domestic incidents that occur within it become a metaphor for a sudden creative impetus. In a single, organic installation, the work includes projects that were developed subsequently. In fact, it incorporates the image of a broken plate with scrambled eggs, initially conceived as a project for the walls of a dining room, with the model of a bowl from which orange peels protrude. The latter model relates to a large-scale project for a fountain created in 1990 by Oldenburg and van Bruggen for the city of Miami. Including simulated jets of water, the model develops the dynamic idea of a shattered bowl, a metaphorical response to the architectural complexity of Miami and an allusion to the heterogeneous ethnic composition of the local population.

Concepts related to shattering and disintegration frequently recur in Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s work. The European Desktop and From the Entropic Library develop these issues in different ways, but both delve into therelationship with theater and European culture, an examination that began with The Course of the Knife. In Model for The European Desktop, 1989-1990, (room 29), two large desks hold objects that no longer pertain to contemporary life, such as a stamp pad, a quill, an ink bottle, a blotter, and a postal scale. The handwritten texts also appear as an element from the past and include fragments taken from Leonardo da Vinci and passages of a prose poem composed by Coosje van Bruggen. Almost like a battlefield, the surface of the desks seems subjected to disruptive forces. Inspired by the reading of a newspaper, the work has as its subject the idea of a war over national boundaries, “a battle that ultimately vanishes into willful amnesia.” The artists relate the use of gray and green tones in the work to convey the impressions aroused by visits to funerary statues in cemeteries in Milan and Genoa.


One of the major works the artists have created for the museum to date, From the Entropic Library (room 32) was initially shown in Paris, in the exhibition Magiciens de la Terre, in 1989. In the artists’ own words, the work “expresses the inevitable fragility of technology and human culture in the face of the processes of nature.” It presents a series of books, perhaps abandoned by their owner, scattered with fragments of the light bulb that should have allowed them to be read. Created on an architectural scale, the books resemble monuments eroded by time, destined to lose their meaning and thus assigned to oblivion. On the base of the piece, alongside ink stains, isolated words such as smashingly,beautiful, and futility, are scattered. Erudite quotations, or fragments of casual conversations, they seem to have fallen from phrases that can no longer be connected to their original meaning. The hybrid outline of the two bookends that hold up the row of books results from the image of an elephant head joined with an outboard motor, an element present in a earlier study from 1965.


The vitality of certain intuitions and the ability to combine images into new, unusual relationships are characteristic of the collaboration between Oldenburg and van Bruggen. For this reason the exhibition path does not follow a rigid chronological order, but invites viewers to observe at close range the two artists’ continuous creative dynamism. The group of drawings collected under the title Solitude for Two constitutes yet another close-up view of their poetic universe (room 30). A collection of drawings on the pages of notebooks or sketchbooks from the mid-1980s, Solitude for Two reveals the centrality of the exchange of words and images in the artists’ method. Seen as a whole, the drawings document early ideas for projects, acting at the same time as a sort of visual diary of Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s daily life. Resonances, from J.V., 2000, (room 31) emerges from the artists’ interest in seventeenth-century Dutch painting and refers specifically to two paintings by Johannes Vermeer: A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal and A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal. Both paintings, which are in the collection of the National Gallery in London, are interpreted by the artists as successive moments of a single event, the subject of which is the love between a man and a woman. Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s work appears as a possible outcome of the story, and it stages the moment immediately following the amorous act. Like the paintings by which it is inspired, the work reproposes a Dutch domestic environment, including a viola da gamba, an envelope, a pearl earring, and Cupid’s arrow and bow. Compared to Vermeer’s canvases, however, the scene laid out by the artists is characterized by the disorder resulting from the ardor of passion. The scene is completed by the presence of an empty chair, an element also present in Vermeer’s paintings. In Resonances, it assumes the form of the Zig-zag chair, an icon of Dutch modernism, designed by Gerrit Rietveld in 1934. Another temporal shift is provided by the presence of a drawing depicting a bow and arrow embedded in the ground. “A painting within the painting,” it refers to the recent large-scale projects created by the artists for the city of San Francisco. The world of musical instruments, with their forms and meanings, is a theme that has engaged Oldenburg and van Bruggen in recent years. Some of the sculptures created within this context are brought together to form The Music Room (room 28), preceded by the dynamic presence of Leaning Clarinet, 2006 (room 27). The Music Room includes clarinets, Stradivarius violins, horns, and trumpets. Unwound, tied, or even sliced by the artists, each instrument is reconfigured in a new harmony, subjected to the laws of gravity, or endowed with emotional qualities not unlike those of human beings. The forms and colors that the artists employ seem to make tangible the sounds that potentially could be emitted, proposing an exchange between the senses of touch, hearing, and sight. If the presence of musical instruments further probes the complexity of the relationship between the work of the artists and art history, also in Dropped Flower, 2006, there are also many illustrious references that could be cited (room 33). However this work, especially created for the exhibition, appears first of all like an explosion of sensuality, and it reveals the artists’ interest in “organic” sculpture. The work has the form of a flower that has just been picked, but apparently forgotten. It seems to be shown at the moment it has touched the ground, when the tension of the air still ruffles its petals, but the force of gravity already seems about to take possession over its shape. To describe this microcosm of events, the artists have chosen a poppy, one of the most humble flowers, transformed into large dimensions. Traditionally associated with oblivion, Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s poppy seems ready to cast a spell through the vibrations of its glorious color. As the artists state, Dropped Flower can be seen through the words of Baudelaire, as one of “those mysterious flowers whose profound color imperiously seizes the eye.”


Marcella Beccaria


The exhibition has been made possible with the support of Fondazione CRT.

The exhibition includes selected documentaries on the artists.