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Pop artist Claes Oldenburg transformed everyday objects into towering monuments – CBC.ca

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Claes Oldenburg will be remembered as “an extraordinary man” for his impact on the art world and beyond, says an art gallery curator and long-time collaborator.

“Claes was an extraordinary man, an incredible artist and someone who we will all sorely, sorely miss,” Steven Henry, a senior partner at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, told As It Happens guest host David Cochrane.

Henry worked on projects with Oldenburg for decades, including the artist’s final piece earlier this year.

The Swedish-American sculptor, who disrupted the art world with his whimsical depictions of everyday objects and massive pieces of public art, died this week at the age of 93.

“The loss does feel profound for those of us in the art world but … beyond the art world as well, because his work touched so many,” Henry said.

“Someone will say, ‘Meet me at the baseball bat,’ or ‘Meet me at the clothespin,’ and I think they may not even realize that’s a Claes Oldenburg, yet they’re delighted and enraptured by the piece.”

Inspired by everyday items

Oldenburg was born in 1929 in Stockholm. He grew up living between Sweden, Norway and the U.S. due to his father’s job postings as a diplomat. Oldenburg studied literature and art history at Yale University and then went on to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

In 1970, Oldenburg displayed his Giant Three-Way Plug outside the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College in Ohio. (© Claes Oldenburg, Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York and Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College)

In 1956, the budding artist moved to New York City. He was captivated by the city streets that were decorated with display windows, graffiti, advertisements and trash.

Over the next few years, his artwork was inspired by the everyday items sold at a bodega. He made “soft” sculptures, made of canvas or vinyl and filled with foam, that took the form of items like sandwiches, oranges and cigarettes.

“You have a great one in Canada,” Henry said, referring to Oldenburg’s 1962 work, Giant Hamburger. 

“It’s hilarious. It’s, you know, sewn fabric that’s been painted. And then you kind of encounter it, you’re like: ‘Wait, that’s a hamburger!’ and, ‘What’s it doing in a museum?’ It’s funny and it’s subversive, I think.”

Oldenburg created Floor Burger from canvas filled with foam rubber and cardboard boxes and rendered the structure with acrylic paint. (Art Gallery of Ontario. Purchase, 1967. © Estate of Claes Oldenburg 66/29)

Giant Hamburger was purchased by the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1967. At the time, some people didn’t think the sculpture, which was renamed Floor Burger, belonged in the museum. Some students responded by leading protests while carrying a nine-foot ketchup bottle.

“Oldenburg’s art continues to inspire and challenge,” AGO curator Xiaoyu Weng wrote in an email to As It Happens.

“The work has generated many stories, some controversial (like the initial protest from the public against the work’s acquisition due to its then experimental nature) and some joyful (there is a little boy who came two years in a row to see the work on his birthday),” wrote Weng, who is the AGO’s Carol and Morton Rapp curator of modern and contemporary art.

Oldenburg and his wife Coosje van Bruggen displayed Spoonbridge and Cherry at the Walker Art Center’s Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in 1988. According to the center, the spoon weighs 5,800 pounds and the cherry weighs an extra 1,200 pounds. The cherry’s stem functions as a fountain, spraying water into the bowl of the spoon and the pond beneath it. (© Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Attilio Maranzano)

Henry remembers Oldenburg for his wry sense of humour, which the artist infused into his work. In the ’60s, Oldenburg made a name for himself in New York’s explosive pop art scene with his outsized, ordinary objects inside Manhattan’s tiny gallery spaces — a radical departure from the traditional displays at the time.

“I think he was commenting on this notion of the representation of power and how traditionally monuments have been these visualizations of typically men, standing or on horseback, and generating or at least communicating this notion of power and hegemony,” he said.

“And I think he’s saying, ‘Okay, these other things can also be aggrandized in a way that, you know, maybe kind of gets us to question what is a monument?'”

Art à la carte

Food featured prominently in Oldenburg’s work over the years — so much so that he carried a sketchbook with him to the dinner table.

“He would pull it out just in the midst of a conversation,” Henry recalled. “And he would start drawing. And often it would be a sort of fanciful take on a meal.”

Part of the reason why he drew his food was because his wife, Coosje van Bruggen, had food allergies and had to follow a plain diet.

“He would draw these wonderful, fantastic food dishes that she could consume visually,” Henry explained. “We actually did a show called Images à la Carte, which was an exhibition of these very sweet drawings that he did for Coosje…. It was a very sweet and loving tribute to her.”

Van Bruggen was also a sculptor and worked in collaboration with Oldenburg on several monuments, including the Clothespin in Philadelphia, Saw, Sawing in Japan and Apple Core in Israel, among others. She died in 2009.

People walk past Oldenburg’s final monument, Plantoir, Blue, at the Channel Gardens in Rockefeller Center on March 22, 2022 in New York City. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

According to Henry, Oldenburg stopped working on large-scale projects after his wife died. But a few years ago, when Henry spoke with Oldenburg about what projects he wanted to complete, a project from 20 years ago came up.

Oldenburg created a giant red shovel for his property in France. He wanted to create another shovel like it in blue, but never got it done until earlier this year. When the idea took shape, it was finally planted at Rockefeller Center in New York City.

“It became this metaphor of a rebirth,” Henry said.

“He always loved the way the work was seen amongst buildings … where people could really engage with it one-on-one. We were thrilled that it was able to be done before he passed.”


Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview with Steven Henry produced by Chris Trowbridge.

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Ehiko: The Multidisciplinary Artist Shaping Decolonization Through Art

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Ehiko, a multidisciplinary artist born in Lagos, Nigeria, now calls Toronto, Ontario, her home. An OCAD University graduate, she has gained recognition for her powerful and evocative works that delve into the complexities of decolonization, health and wellness, spirituality, sexual violence, and the representation of melanated hair.

Ehiko’s artistic journey began in the vibrant city of Lagos, where the rich cultural heritage and traditional artistry influenced her deeply. This foundation blossomed in Toronto, where she continued to experiment and manipulate raw canvas due to its flexibility. Her expressive palette and the use of various textiles pay homage to traditional Nigerian craftsmanship, creating a unique blend of contemporary and ancestral art forms.

Her works are not just visually striking but also laden with profound messages. Ehiko’s exploration of decolonization is evident in her large-scale multi-medium paintings, performances, drawings, and installations. Each piece she creates is a testament to her commitment to unravelling spirituality linked to traditional Afrakan masks, presenting a dialogue between the past and present.

One of the central themes in Ehiko’s work is health and wellness, particularly within the context of the Black community. She addresses the often-overlooked aspects of mental health and the importance of wellness practices rooted in African traditions. Through her art, Ehiko encourages a reconnection with these practices, promoting healing and resilience.

Sexual violence is another critical subject Ehiko tackles with sensitivity and boldness. Her works often depict the pain and trauma associated with such experiences while also highlighting the strength and resilience of survivors. By bringing these issues to the forefront, she fosters conversations that are essential for societal change and healing.

The representation of melanated hair in Ehiko’s art is a celebration of Black identity and beauty. Her pieces challenge societal norms and stereotypes, presenting Black hair in its diverse and natural forms. This representation is not only about aesthetics but also about reclaiming cultural identity and pride.

Ehiko’s exhibitions in Lagos and Toronto have garnered significant attention, and her private collection of purchased work is available upon request. Her contributions to the art world extend beyond her creations; she is also an advocate for using art as a tool for social change and empowerment.

In every piece, Ehiko weaves her experiences, heritage, and vision, creating a tapestry that speaks to the heart and mind. Her work is a powerful reminder of the role of art in decolonization and healing, and her journey continues to inspire and influence the global art community.

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Home + Away artwork opens in Vancouver’s Hastings Park

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A new art installation now towers over Vancouver’s Hastings Park fields in celebration of the city’s history of spectators and sports.

Home + Away is a sculpture by Seattle artists Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo of Lead Pencil Studio, which opened Monday in the southeast end of the historic park.

It’s a 17-metre-tall structure that resembles a narrow set of bleachers — similar to the stands of the Empire Stadium, which stood on the site of the park from 1954 to 1993 and hosted The Beatles, among many others. It recalls a covered ski jump that stood there in the 1950s and the nearby wooden rollercoaster at the PNE.

The city says the public is invited to walk the stairs and sit on the benches.

“In addition to being visually striking, this artwork is intended to be ascended, sat on and experienced. It offers exciting experiences of height and views and provides 16 rows of seating for up to 49 people, making for a unique spectator experience when watching events at Empire Fields,” the city said in a release Monday.

The idea for the park to include public art was outlined in the Hastings Park “Master Plan,” first adopted by the city in 2010. The city says Han and Mihalyo first presented their design in 2015.

“It’s wonderful to see this piece realized within the context of such a well-used public space,” said Han.

Home + Away was inspired directly by the site history of spectatorship, and we hope it will connect Hastings Park users to that history and the majestic views of the environment for many decades to come,” added Mihalyo.

The artwork features a large light-up sign, in the style of a sports scoreboard, that reads “HOME” and “AWAY.”

 

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Bill Viola, Video Artist Who Established the Medium as an Integral Part of Contemporary Art, Dies at 73

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Bill Viola, whose decades-long engagement with video proved vital in establishing the medium as an integral part of contemporary art, died on July 12 at his home in Long Beach, California. He was at 73 years old. The cause was complications related to Alzheimer’s disease. The news of his passing was confirmed by James Cohan Gallery.

Viola’s works are centered around the idea of human consciousness and such fundamental experiences as birth, death, and spirituality. He delved into mystical traditions from Zen Buddhism to Islamic Sufism, as well as Western devotional art from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in his videos, which often juxtaposed themes of life and death, light and dark, noise and silence. These explorations were achieved by submerging viewers in both image and sound with cutting-edge technologies for their time.

“I first used the camera and lens as a surrogate eye, to bring things closer, or to magnify them, to experiment with perception, to extend vision and make lengthy observations of simple objects,” Viola said in a 2015 interview. “Once you do that, their essence becomes visible. So I suppose I was always interested in the inner life of the world around me.”

Beginning in the 1970s, Viola created videotapes, architectural video installations, sound environments, electronic music performances, flat panel video pieces, and works for television broadcast—all of which expanded the scope of the medium and established Viola as one of its most notable practitioner.

Video still of a man diving into water that has been reversed. The image is mostly black and teal.

In 2003 the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; Tate, London; and the Centre Pompidou in Paris jointly acquired Bill Viola’s 2001 three-channel video installation Five Angels for the Millennium.

Photo Kira Perov/©Bill Viola Studio

Bill Viola was born in 1951. He grew up in Queens and Westbury, New York, and attended P.S. 20 in Flushing, before receiving his BFA in experimental studios from Syracuse University in 1973. There, he studied with visual art with the likes of Jack Nelson and electronic music with Franklin Morris.

Following his graduation, between 1973 to 1980, Viola studied and performed with composer David Tudor in the music group Rainforest, which later became known as Composers Inside Electronics. He also worked as technical director at the pioneering video studio Art/tapes/22 in Florence, Italy from 1974 to 1976. During that time he encountered the work of other seminal video artists like Nam June Paik, Bruce Nauman, and Vito Acconci.

Viola was subsequently an artist-in-residence at New York’s WNET Thirteen Television Laboratory between 1976 to 1983, wherein he created a series of works that premiered on television. He traveled to the Solomon Islands, Java, and Indonesia to record traditional performing arts between 1976 and 1977. Later that year, Viola was invited to show work at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, by cultural arts director Kira Perov, with whom he married and began a lifelong collaboration.

He was appointed an instructor in advanced video at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California in 1983. He was the Getty Research Institute scholar-in-residence in Los Angeles in 1998 and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2000.

In 1985, Viola received with a Guggenheim Fellowship for fine arts, and later that decade, in 1989, he was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. His work was also featured in some of the world’s most notable exhibitions, including Documenta VI in 1977, Documenta XI in 1992, the 1987 and 1993 editions of the Whitney Biennial, and the 2001 Venice Biennale.

In 1995, he represented the United States at the 46th edition of the Venice Biennale. For the pavilion, Viola produced the series of works “Buried Secrets,” including one of his most known works The Greeting, which offers a contemporary interpretation of Pontormo’s oil painting The Visitation (ca.1528–30). The Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin and New York’s Guggenheim Museum commissioned the digital fresco cycle in high-definition video, titled Going Forth By Day, in 2002.

Viola’s work was the subject of a major 25-year survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1997, which subsequently toured internationally. His work has been the subject of major museum retrospectives in the years since, including at the Grand Palais in Paris (in 2014), the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence (2017), the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain (2017), and the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia (2019), as well as an exhibition pairing his work with that of Michelangelo at the Royal Academy of Art in London in 2019.

Viola is survived by his wife Kira Perov, who has been the executive director of his studio since 1978, and their two children.

“One thing that’s very exciting about video that has turned me on since I first saw this glowing image way back in 1970 is that it can be so much,” Viola said in a 1995 with Charlie Rose on the occasion of this US Pavilion at the Biennale. “Furthermore, what’s really exciting is I don’t think it’s been since really the Renaissance where artists have been able to use a medium that one could say is the dominant communication form in society.”

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