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Visual artist Claes Oldenburg, one of Pop Art’s most playful forces, has died aged 93. His death was confirmed to NPR on Monday in a statement from Paula Cooper, whose gallery represented him. “It was thrilling to work with Claes, whose weird take on things was delightful and could completely change the mood,” Cooper wrote.
Oldenburg’s enduring fascination was with rendering prosaic objects – a lipstick, say, or a rubber stamp, or a hamburger, or a cherry perched on the end of a spoon – on a giant scale, and then to put this work of art in public spaces. Like he said All things Considered in 2011, ” “We like the idea that the sculptures are not all, say, in New York or elsewhere – that they are scattered throughout cities in America and Europe. … There are many people you will never reach. But we reached, I think, quite a few people, in all parts of the country.”
Claes Oldenburg was born on January 28, 1929 in Stockholm, Sweden; his father was a diplomat, and the family eventually ended up in Chicago, where the elder Oldenburg served as consul general from 1936. Oldenburg studied literature and art history at Yale, then attended the Art Institute of Chicago in the early 1950s.
In 1956 he moved to New York and was quickly drawn into the emerging conceptual and performance art scenes. His first exhibition in New York, at the Judson Gallery in 1959, consisted of materials found everyday, including paper and string; two years later, he opened a show called The shop in a downtown storefront, which evoked neighborhood stores and featured plaster pieces that simulated everyday grocery shopping.
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Soon after, however, his interests shifted to focus on the large-scale single works that became his signature. For much of his career, his work was done in collaboration with his wife, Coosje van Bruggen, whom he married in 1977 and died in 2009.
Oldenburg has been honored with solo exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Tate Gallery in London, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, among others, while his joint work and that of his wife have been celebrated in exhibitions at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Arguably, however, Oldenburg’s most enduring and literally most accessible works are those he created (either alone or with van Bruggen) for public spaces, of a giant rubber stamp bearing the word ” FREE” in Cleveland at the “Binoculars Building” in Los Angeles at The Giant Clothespin in Philadelphia.