The Daily Heller: Remembering Claes Oldenburg’s Apartment-sized Elevator

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Of all the people who fall under the umbrella of Pop artists, Claes Oldenburg, who died at 93 earlier this week, was my favorite for his ingenuity and humor. He was the most inspiring, too. His voluminous sculptures, and especially the “fluff” soft sculptures, took the hot air out of fine art and made critically playful pop artifacts that brought me happiness and joy. Although, like Warhol, Dine and Lichtenstein, he made monuments out of everyday objects, like props in the eerily witty movie “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” his art was nonetheless at human scale.

I did not know Mr. Oldenburg. I just phoned him out of the blue on a whim one day to ask if he’d consider contributing to The New York Times Op-Ed page (I was art director then, and using the Times name didn’t hurt). I was tongue-tied when he not only answered his phone but invited me and a colleague to spend the next morning with him on a sunny winter’s day in 1976, five years after he moved into the two old West Side connected factory loft buildings below.

Claes Oldenburg’s studio and archive, 1976. Photographer unknown.

Of all my experiences as a New York Times art director, this was the most memorable. I had rubbed shoulders with a few luminaries, usually because I was in the right place at the right time (or they were in the wrong place just in time for me), but this was a generous amount of his precious day visiting the artfully run down factory floors and rummaging through Oldenburg’s personal archives. These archives I remember the most.

I should note the reason I was there in the first place: I was on a mission to feature the work of famous fine artists in the Times. As it transpired, few if any were willing to do anything on commission for the small editorial sum we offered, but they, and especially Oldenburg, were happy to let me paw through flat files and select a bunch of existing sketches that I could use.

Now, the archive: We got there using an elevator that was larger than my apartment at the time (it had been used for heavy marine equipment). The room was dark with, I recall, two frosted large windows. Stacked throughout were dozens of flat files, and sitting on them were photos, magazine and newspaper clippings, as well as the scissors and glue pots he used for making collages, and if my mind is not playing tricks, they were all erotic collages.

I not only admired them and told him so, but I noticed some very familiar images in the piles. When I mentioned that they had come from publications that I had worked on, he immediately opened at least five more flat file drawers. Inside it was as though he had come to my home and taken all the tattered underground newspapers that I was saving. Apparently, he would visit a few newsstands and buy up all he could find. I had never seen the results of this collage fest at any exhibits, but then again I only knew a fraction of his work.

For the Times, we eventually decided upon sketches for his as-yet unconstructed clothespin and three-pronged plug. Whether it was for a story or displayed on their own, portfolio-style, I don’t recall. Before leaving Oldenburg bestowed on us some gifts. I took a Maus Museum poster and a very small-scale book of artifacts from his pop-up “Store” in the East Village. I hadn’t realized until seeing the Times this morning that he was 93. Quite an enviable life in art, I’d say.