Oldenburg’s Lower East Side

In December 1961, Claes Oldenburg opened an enticing exhibition space called The Store in a Lower East Side storefront at 107 East Second Street. The district was a few years away from being christened The East Village, but The Store was certainly one of the landmarks of this enduring bohemian realm.

I stumbled across The Store when I was eleven years old, and was transfixed by its various wonders. It was the Pop Art pioneer’s studio, which he called the Ray Gun Manufacturing Company. As the MoMA website notes, “A fully elaborated manifestation of the project that he had begun months earlier, The Store conflated two disparate types of commerce: the sale of cheap merchandise and the sale of serious art.”

What appealed to my kid’s fancy was all the great everyday junk displayed as art (just as I did at home). “Oldenburg packed more than one hundred objects into the modestly sized room, setting previously exhibited reliefs alongside new, primarily freestanding sculptures. Everything was available for purchase, with prices starting at $21.79 up to $499.99.” After The Store closed, on January 31, 1962, the space became an early wellspring of art performance that Oldenburg called Ray Gun Theater.

ray+gun+museumIn 1965, Oldenburg moved his studio to a loft on Fourteenth Street in Manhattan, where he established a private museum of objects from his collection that he titled “museum of popular art, n.y.c.”  In 1972, he made the collection/event public at Documenta, in Kassel, Germany, and called it the Mouse Museum, housed in a rectilinear Mickey Mouse head with rounded ears and shoe-horn tongue. It included 385 objects selected from his collection of more than a thousand items. The Ray Gun Wing extension followed in 1977, featuring 258 “ray gun” specimens, including brightly colored toy guns as well as found ersatz ray gun objects. The structure was a right-angled form of a pistol (blueprint above).

ray+gunIn the late 1970s, I was invited to visit Oldenburg’s next studio, a large industrial building (with an elevator larger than my then apartment) near the Holland Tunnel. He ushered me into a large, high ceiling room that contained many of the Mouse Museum remnants and more, including drawers filled with pages from thousands of mainstream and underground newspapers. He guided me through his collection and generously gave me, among other things, the poster from the original Documenta exhibition.

tumblr_lth9w5hFFU1qe0nlvo1_500I’ve often related the experience as though it were a dream since the Mouse Museum seemed to disappear without a trace. In April 2013, however, MoMA opened a recreation of the environment — on view through August 5 (read more here) — which is testament to the origins of Oldenburg’s inflatable sculptures. It is also evidence that the post-modern fixation with commercial nostalgia started long ago on the Lower East Side.

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