Claes Oldenburg and Me – Misunderstood Artists

Recently, while driving South on Broad Street in Philadelphia, my dear friend and I spotted one of Claes Oldenburg’s impressive, whimsical sculptures.  While the subject of his piece was fairly obvious, my friend thought it looked like something else.

It’s no secret that the works of artists are frequently misinterpreted by the common rabble.  Even someone as vastly cultured as myself can look at a Rothko painting and exclaim that it looks like a big block of color with another block of color in it too.

This might be about man's inhumanity to man, or maybe it's about the artist's love of delicious strawberry shortcake...or maybe not.. (Rothko white over red - Image from etc.cmu.edu/projects/atl/rothko.htm)

I might look at a Robert Motherwell painting and see nothing more than a big black rectangle.  (On a side note, I’d like to take a brief moment to thank my parents for footing the bill for that undergrad degree which included quite a few art history courses – without their support, I might have gone through life thinking that Robert Motherwell was a British soccer player).

This is a painting by Robert Motherwell, or maybe it's a lithograph. I don't need to tell you what this is about - it's obvious. (Image by elogedelart.canalblog.com/archives/2009/06/20/14146298.html)

Oldenburg though, is not someone whose work is usually subject to such blatant misinterpretation.  He’s renowned for taking everyday objects and looking at them differently.  His sculptures include subjects such as a giant clothespin (Also in Philadelphia), a soft fabric version of a toilet and as we saw on Broad Street, a giant paintbrush with a healthy dollop of red paint on the pavement beneath it.  The tip of the paintbrush is way up in the air, a celebratory salute to Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts .  Technically, the sculpture is on a section of Cherry Street which is closed to traffic, but it juts out onto Broad Street (For the record, it’s Broad Street, putting sculptures on it and adding a few extra signs doesn’t change the name to the Avenue of the Arts – sorry).

My friend, like most people, had no idea about this whole Avenue of the Arts nonsense.  When I pointed out the giant paintbrush, she took one glance and said it looked more like an elf’s foot.  Almost immediately, we began to speculate about the state of the rest of the elf.  We settled on him being awkwardly splayed out dead on Cherry Street, in full rigor mortis, a giant cartoon butcher knife stuck in his chest and a chalk outline around his profile.  The elf in my mind would bear something of a resemblance to Sonic the Hedgehog, but more elfin and dead.  The street would be cordoned off with crime scene tape as throngs of morbid curious onlookers milled around just up-wind.

You can see where we let our imaginations get the better of us. The giant, dead elf just out of sight on Cherry Street - it looked a little more convincing from the other direction (Photo by the author)

While I don’t think that artists in general enjoy having their hard work misunderstood by stooges like us, I like to believe that Mr. Oldenburg would humor us a little bit.  Although, now that I’m a massively successful blogger working in words rather than oil or marble, I believe I’ve earned the right to identify with the frustration of the misunderstood artist.

Take comfort Claes, at least someone saw your work.  If there was a “like” button for your paintbrush, I’d hit it.

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2 responses

  1. Well said. I used to live in Cleveland where they have the notorious “FREE” rubber stamp sculpture. I thought it was hilarious (and appropriate in it’s original setting in front of the BP America building). But the outcry was amazing and it still is an object of ridicule.

    • It’s always nice to connect with people who also live or lived in (or near) cities which are the brunt of so many bad jokes. Philly gets beat up on pretty well, but Cleveland really gets bullied. Then again, the entire state of New Jersey gets whooped on too. Perhaps a move to Hawaii is in order for me. Glad you liked the piece. Stay tuned for a visit to my blog from a beloved mythical character in the next few days.

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