Fine Arts & Exhibits: For Claes Oldenburg, a Departure From His Own Tradition

“When I was a kid, I had my own country that I made up,” he said in a recent interview. The fantasy helped him work through the uncertainty of World War II, he said. “It was a way for me to react to the world and be myself in a strange world.”

Mr. Oldenburg’s latest exhibition, “Shelf Life,” is on view until Nov. 11 at Pace Gallery’s 24th Street branch in Chelsea. The relatively small works are made of cardboard, plaster, steel and wood. They depict assemblages of objects — some familiar to Oldenburg fans, like a saw, a basketball hoop and a paintbrush — on gray shelves made to look just like the storage units Mr. Oldenburg has in his studio.

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Claes Oldenburg’s “Spoonbridge and Cherry” in the Walker Art Center’s sculpture garden in Minneapolis. Credit Ben Garvin for The New York Times

His longtime dealer, Arne Glimcher, the founder of Pace, noted that this was a significant departure for the artist. “Previously, the work was about a single image,” Mr. Glimcher said.

Mr. Oldenburg sat down in his New York studio, accompanied by Mr. Glimcher, to talk about making art and where his ideas come from. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

It’s been awhile since we saw new Oldenburgs, correct?

MR. GLIMCHER Except for the paintbrush in Philadelphia, this is his first new body of work in six years.

MR. OLDENBURG Is that right?

A.G. Yes, you’ve been focusing on the big public projects.

C.O. What’s wrong with that?

A.G. Nothing!

A lot of people know you from large pieces like “Spoonbridge and Cherry” in Minneapolis. How do you feel about them?

C.O. Public things take two or three years, they’re made out of heavy stuff, which is also very costly. That’s what the big projects are: working in architecture. You need someone who backs it and who trusts you, and whom you trust. You need to be more than yourself. For example, I had Coosje van Bruggen, my late wife, and she was very smart, and very good and kind, and we worked together on them.

How long do the two of you go back?

C.O. The beginning of the ’60s. After a couple of years in New York, I started to go into something different than painting.

Why?

C.O. Everything changed. You could paint a very beautiful picture of somebody and nobody would care. Everybody was doing something different. It was explosive, and it was the beginning of a new period of art. You could do almost anything.

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Claes Oldenburg, “Shelf Life Number 8.” Credit Claes Oldenburg; Photo: Kerry Ryan McFate, via Pace Gallery

A.G. There were very few revolutions in sculpture, and Claes’s soft sculptures made up one of the great revolutions. It was the antithesis of what sculpture previously was about. Sculpture was hard.

But you didn’t start with soft sculptures, right?

C.O. I came to New York in ’56, and I didn’t have very much money. I started to buy Life magazines, and I started to cut things out of the magazines, and that was my first American statement, these collages. They’re kind of scary, some of them, and they’re definitely hard to interpret.

Perhaps your work has a darker undercurrent than some realize?

C.O. Oh yes, I totally agree with you. That was a period when I made a lot of dirty work. I did a lot of erotic drawings.

A.G. The Museum of Modern Art just recently bought the biggest, most explicit, erotic drawing actually.

That brings up the fact that you once depicted the human figure, but not for decades. Why not?

C.O. People have become objects. I think there’s a point at which you choose between a person and things. And I chose things. And you can express just as many things about persons by using things.

Did the softness of bodies somehow transfer to sculpture?

C.O. Yes. I spent a lot of time painting human beings, especially nudes. And you might say that’s a source of the interest in soft things.

The works in “Shelf Life” are relatively small. How long does it take to make them?

C.O. It takes as long as it takes. I would say you put things together in maybe a week or two, and then pull them apart for a week, and then you find another idea that sneaks in and so on.

But do you work most days?

C.O. Of course. I try to anyway. Some days are wonderful, and some days are awful. That’s how things go. This group of things was started earlier this year. Part of the reason it’s on a small scale was because I wasn’t exactly sure where I was going at that point.

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Claes Oldenburg, “Shelf Life Number 6,” which depicts an assemblage of objects. Credit Claes Oldenburg; Photo: Kerry Ryan McFate, via Pace Gallery

A.G. Each of these shelves is a store of ideas. There’s a kind of nostalgia — in the best sense — about these works. The history of your whole visual vocabulary is here.

C.O. Yeah. I haven’t been showing that kind of work. This will be the first time.

A.G. Claes, you said something touching to me: “You have to decide at some point what you’re going to keep and what you’re going to throw away,” and obviously these are things that you kept.

Is there something that inspires that decision?

C.O. I want to be working all the time. Why suddenly I should go into this? I haven’t quite figured that out yet.

I sort of like the scale of this work, because I can handle the scale at my age. I like small things. That’s a fact. I like big things, but I also like small things.

What small things have your attention now?

C.O. I have a fly on this table; he’s here all the time. I don’t know where he’s gone now.

A real fly? Oh — I think I just saw him buzzing around.

C.O. I don’t think I’ve seen anything much more interesting than that in some time.

You know, when I grew up in Chicago, there were so many flies you could hardly see anything. The world was all flies. But now they’re just not like that anymore. There are maybe one or two or three flies that take a liking to you. I hate to see people go and smash them.

So will we see a sculpture of a fly?

C.O. I haven’t done anything on the subject of flies. It’s the sort of thing that could interest me. Anything could interest me, actually.

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