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Claes Oldenburg's sculpture inflates everyday objects to impossible sizes. A giant clothespin, a giant spoon with a giant cherry on it, a giant typewriter eraser. His latest work is about to be unveiled in Philadelphia, a giant paintbrush.
At first, Oldenburg's work was the target of ridicule. Now, it's placed prominently in cities the world over and mostly embraced, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE: Workmen with giant construction cranes block traffic in the center of Philadelphia for hours while they install Claes Oldenburg's paint torch, a towering 50-foot tall paintbrush, next to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION WORK)
ROSE: The 82-year-old sculptor is on hand to make sure they do the job right.
CLAES OLDENBURG: There it goes. It's free. Now, they've got to rotate it a certain way so that they get it in just the right position to move it over, which is going to be very, very tricky.
ROSE: Eventually, the sculpture will stick out over the sidewalk at an angle where the brush will be visible for blocks in either direction.
In an interview later in his studio in New York, Oldenburg explains that a lot of thought went into that angle.
OLDENBURG: When you have an angle like this, you put some action into the form, so what you're seeing here is the brush having been face down, dipped into the blotch of paint and is about to put that paint on the canvas, which of course, is the sky. So it has that movement, that gesture, which is very important to the life of the sculpture.
ROSE: Claes Oldenburg has brought dozens of sculptures to life around the world, from the giant clothespin next to Philadelphia City Hall to a giant shuttlecock in Kansas City to a giant set of binoculars in Los Angeles.
Oldenburg grew up in Chicago. He moved to New York in the 1950s with the idea of making art that would matter outside of museums. He started sketching plans for colossal outdoor sculptures in the mid-1960s, when it was far from clear that they would ever be built.
BARBARA HASKELL: The first ones were then very astounding.
ROSE: Barbara Haskell is a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
HASKELL: The idea that there was a common object that somehow was in a public space was, you know, unheard of at the time, so it generated a huge controversy and enthusiasm in equal parts.
ROSE: Huge controversy certainly greeted Oldenburg's first big outdoor sculpture, a giant tube of lipstick he installed at Yale University in 1969.
OLDENBURG: It always starts that way. The newspapers would give a bad review and you'd hear a lot of people on the radio complaining and so on, and then that wore off. And then what happened in many cases is that the piece would become a sort of symbol or an icon of a place and its approval rating would go up and then people got very fond of it. And that's the status of most of them now.
ROSE: Perhaps none of Oldenburg's pieces encountered as much resistance as the free stamp, the giant rubber stamp, the kind you might find on a bureaucrat's desk, with the word, free, on the bottom. It was originally commissioned in 1982 by the Standard Oil Company of Ohio for a site in front of its new skyscraper in downtown Cleveland. But then BP bought the company and stamped the project, cancelled.
Steven Litt is the art critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
STEVEN LITT: I don't think they ever came to the microphone and said, you know, we hate this thing because it ridicules our company and suggests that all office work is pushing a rubber stamp on documents that go past your desk. But it certainly made them seem like they didn't get the humor of this piece.
ROSE: The free stamp spent three years in storage before production resumed and it was finally installed a few blocks away in 1991. Litt says it's never been fully embraced, like say, Oldenburg's iconic spoon bridge and cherry in Minneapolis, but he says the free stamp still has the power to provoke.
LITT: The idea of putting freedom on a rubber stamp maybe implies that we take our liberties for granted in the United States. And I think that's quite a profound idea and really something worth thinking about and debating.
ROSE: Provoking discussion is a big part of what Oldenburg's oversized sculptures are intended to do. Oldenburg says that's why he and his longtime artistic partner and wife, Coosje van Bruggen, who died two years ago, made frequent public appearances to talk about their work.
OLDENBURG: We always gave a lecture in connection with the work if we did it in, say, Des Moines or Dallas or San Francisco and so on. We liked the idea that the sculptures are not all in, say, New York or someplace, that they are scattered around the cities of America and also in Europe. But, of course, you can't - there's a lot of people you are never going to reach, but we have reached, I think, quite a few people in all parts of the country.
ROSE: Claes Oldenburg may reach a few more people tomorrow night when he officially unveils his newest conversation starter in Philadelphia.
Joel Rose, NPR News.
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