NEW YORK - Given how much fairs have come to dominate the art scene—there are a few every month these days—do we even need stand-alone art galleries anymore? That was a question some were asking when longtime dealer Nicole Klagsbrun decided to close her Chelsea operation, saying bluntly that biennials, fairs and auctions had changed the character of the art market experience.
I got to thinking about this when I visited legendary artist Claes Oldenburg last week in his SoHo studio. The Museum of Modern Art has just opened “Claes Oldenburg: The Street and The Store,” a tribute to his seminal early works of the early 1960s, and the artist graciously welcomed me to his idea lab/home to chat, as he has in the past.
Claes Oldenburg’s Pastry Case, I from 1961-62. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection. © 1961-62 Claes Oldenburg. Photo: MoMA Imaging Services.
Oldenburg is now 84, and he’s slowing down a bit in terms of his travel schedule. But he’s still sharp as a tack—or as sharp as the tip of his huge sculpture Paint Torch, recently installed at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Art. These large public sculptures have taken most of his time in recent years, and he’s had enormous success in placing them in cities around the world.
Oldenburg took a quick left turn early in his career, giving up painting around age 30 completely to focus on sculpture and installation. It was a smart move. As a young artist on New York’s then-gritty Lower East Side, he decided to simply represent what he looked at every day; for The Street, that meant literally whatever he saw when he was looking down as he took a walk across his neighborhood. Out of this deceptively simple idea came some still-influential bodies of work.
For The Store, he rented an actual storefront, working in the back and selling pieces in the front, and it was set up like a real shop, except that it was filled with colorful, witty sculptures of cakes, ice cream sundaes, cigarettes, lingerie and hamburgers—the last of which got so big in a later venue it came to be known as the Floorburger.
Claes Oldenburg’s Floor Burger from 1962. Collection Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. Purchase, 1967. © 1962 Claes Oldenburg. Photo: Sean Weaver.
But guess what? Oldenburg, a free-thinker who certainly pioneered the distribution of his own work when he rented that shop, relied on the traditional gallery system, then arguably in its heyday, to get his work to a larger audience, as so many others have done.
“I had a chance to show at the Green Gallery on 57th St., owned by my friend Dick Bellamy,” Oldenburg told me. “Since it was not open in the summer, my first wife Patty and I could go there every day and work as if it was our studio.” Come September, The Store had its uptown debut, ending with a “bizarre” performance, in Oldenburg’s words, featuring dancing of a sort by him, his wife and the artist Lucas Samaras.
This downtown artist chuckled when he thought of the reaction back then. “People thought: ‘He’s ruined, he’s gone uptown.’ But the idea was to go uptown, to bring your wares there. Your work does have to travel uptown eventually, and Dick Bellamy’s gallery was perfect.”
The nurturing aspect of the traditional gallery system gave Oldenburg the time and space he needed to fully develop one of his seminal pieces, and it never hurt his street cred (though Green Gallery did specialize in avant-garde art). It’s worth remembering some of these moments from the history of contemporary art as we debate the way forward for galleries.
Claes Oldenburg’s 7-Up from 1961. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Joseph H. Hirshhorn Purchase and Bequest Funds, 1994. © 1961 Claes Oldenburg. Photo: Lee Stalsworth.