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“I was very fortunate in coming to New York at a time before things got out of control.” Robert Ayers in conversation with Claes Oldenburg.

Claes Oldenburg, 1997 [full photo credits can be found at the foot of this post]

Last Tuesday I wrote here that “50 Years at Pace” was “without a doubt the best gallery show opening this week – and probably this year, to be frank.” The four Pace galleries are littered with some of the greatest art of the last century, but some of the most memorable pieces there in my opinion are those made by today’s interviewee.

This is a really special interview for me. The subject of my never-completed PhD study – the pretext for me coming to New York City in the first place in 1979 was the performance art – the so-called “happenings” – made here in the years immediately before and after 1960 (which are dealt with somewhat dismissively in five tiny photographs in MoMA’s current “Original Copy” show.) Among the artists that I studied (many of whom I came to know well, either then or subsequently) were Jim Dine, Simone Forti, Red Grooms, Al Hansen, Allan Kaprow, Lucas Samaras, Carolee Schneemann, George Segal, Andy Warhol, and Robert Whitman – to whom I shall be eternally grateful for distracting me from my art historical studies! The one artist I never got to meet at the time – and for whom in many ways I had highest regard, ironically – was Claes Oldenburg. Of course I now understand that his attentions were by then focused somewhere else entirely (on the large-scale projects that he was making with his wife Coosje van Bruggen) and the thought of discussing stuff he’d done twenty years before was probably far from stimulating for him. So when I got to finally sit down with him in his studio – courtesy of Jennifer Joy at Pace – I wound up conducting the interview that I’d been thinking about for thirty years!

Claes Oldenburg is without doubt one of the outstanding artists of our time. Though often still corralled alongside Warhol, James Rosenquist, and Dine as one of the Pop artists, he can now be seen to have evolved a highly complex art, which is at once romantic and literary, and which manages to give attention both to the history of ideas and to the appearances of the contemporary world. We talked for more than two hours, and covered far more material than I can use here, but because of my performance art obsessions – and because of Mr Oldenburg’s prodigious memory: he had actually kept a copy of a chapter-draft I had mailed him in 1980 – we started out talking about the happenings, and specifically the room filled with the film records of them that had been part of the Whitney show “Claes Oldenburg: Early Sculpture, Drawings, Happenings and Films” this time last year.

nstallation view of Claes Oldenburg: Early Sculpture, Drawings, Happenings and Films
Installation view of “Claes Oldenburg: Early Sculpture, Drawings, Happenings and Films”

Claes, can I begin by asking you about the films of your happenings that were included in the Whitney show last year?

I had my doubts about the films and had more or less ignored them – they were mostly sitting here in cardboard boxes – because they weren’t films that I had made. They were made by other people who were very selective in what they chose, or who didn’t have enough money for film so they didn’t shoot a lot of film. So they were like a double performance – first the actual performance itself, and then what the filmmaker made out of it. So you got an impression of the performance: it showed you what was going on and who was in it, but when I would see them, things always seemed to be missing. They didn’t quite have the feeling of the performance, or the pace of the performance, and they didn’t have the feeling of the particular space that the performances took place in. So I regarded those films as interesting records, but I didn’t like to watch them – not individually, anyway.

But Chrissie Iles came up with a rather unusual arrangement for showing them, didn’t she?

Yes, it really was her idea. When you put them all together and you stand in the middle, and one is behind you and one is in front of you, and there’s one on each side of you, then it’s a whole different thing and you’re picking up something which is more like the actual experience of the performance. I thought it was a great idea to do that. It really worked. The problem was that people didn’t stay long enough. It wasn’t very comfortable on those benches. Perhaps they should have had swiveling chairs. Or I thought it should just have been a big pillow so that people could roll around on it.

Yes, I recall that when the show opened you said that if people lay down to watch them it might remind them that the subject of those performances was the unconscious. It’s always seemed to me that your work of that period was pretty dark.

I think that’s true. I guess I still have a dark view, but it’s usually hidden or transformed, or something like that. Maybe it’s my Swedish heritage! I don’t know.

I was certainly influenced by my surroundings, living on the Lower East Side with a very limited income. I experienced something very different to what I had experienced before I came to New York. That certainly had an effect on me. I focused on the streets of that area which when I first came to it was before it became an artists’ hang-out. You’d hardly recognize that area any more, but I was very fortunate in coming to New York at a time before things got out of control.

When was that exactly?

I came here in ’56. I’d had contact with New York before then of course, but not as an artist, or someone wanting to become an artist. I had known about New York, but not about the Lower East Side. I had an apartment on Avenue C (at $60 a month!) but I needed more space. I was working in the library at Cooper Union at the time and I would walk to work every morning and pass these storefronts. So I rented a store to be my studio, and of course eventually that became well known as a gallery as well, but it was all within a very limited budget and making do with what you had, which wasn’t very much. But, as always with my work, whatever I’m doing is conditioned or inspired by my surroundings, and that period reflected the surroundings strongly.

Claes Oldenburg, Interior of "The Store" (1961)
Interior of “The Store” (1961)

Once I moved away from the Lower East Side I began a different kind of work.

Do you think that happenings could only have emerged in those sort of circumstances?

One of [Allan] Kaprow’s rules about happenings, I remember, was they were not supposed to be redone. We used waste materials and they were supposed to be thrown away after we’d finished with them. However I didn’t totally agree with this: I would go through the performance area afterwards and pick up things that I thought would work again in another performance. But I did throw out quite a bit, so that it became something fresh. But we used things like paper and cardboard, so they wouldn’t have lasted anyway.

How collaborative were your happenings? Were you very much in charge?

Well I was definitely the director. Of course I had Lucas [Samaras] and I had Patty [Oldenburg – the artist’s first wife], and they were the center of it. You could do anything with just those two. They related very much to one another. At that time Lucas was planning to be an actor, and he mainly wanted to be seen.

Claes Oldenburg, "Voyages I" (1962)
Claes Oldenburg, “Voyages I” (1962)

People volunteered, and I selected some of them. I didn’t take all the people who volunteered.

What was it you were looking for in the people you selected? And how did you meet them?

You saw people. You saw just about everybody who was in the scene because there were a lot of parties and you met one another all the time. And you’d make friends with someone, and before they knew it, they were cast. I’d try to find something in them. There’d be a general pattern to the story, but I would try to find something in the people who had volunteered that would add to it. So I could develop that. I was definitely violating the laws of the happening, let’s say that. The idea that they sprang out of casual and chance things just wasn’t true. They were organized. The only thing was that they were organized very quickly.

We never knew what to call them, actually. Bob [Whitman] had the same problem. He was also creating theater, and really so was Kaprow. Bob and I settled on ‘performances.’

Can you describe how your performances developed?

I did different kinds of things: the first performance, Snapshots from the City, was done at the Judson Memorial Church in 1960, and that one was very brief. There doesn’t exist any full record, just Stan Vanderbeek’s film version.

Claes Oldenburg, "Snapshots from the City" (1961)
Claes Oldenburg, “Snapshots from the City” (1961)

Then there were the Store pieces in 1962, the so-called Ray Gun Theater, and they were part of a group. There were eight altogether, one each week, on Friday and Saturday nights. They were paired as opposites. If the subject in one was dark, the next would be light. Four sets of opposites. Altogether it was supposed to be a passage from winter into spring.

After the summer, there was a performance in the Green Gallery, during my exhibition there, which grew out of the items in the show.

Installation view of "Claes Oldenburg", Green Gallery, New York (1962)
Installation view of “Claes Oldenburg”, Green Gallery, New York (1962)

After 1962, I went on the road. Going on the road meant that I would arrive in a place like Chicago, collect volunteers, and do a performance taking the elements of the surroundings, as I saw them, or as they impressed me, and use them in some way or refer to them in a sort of theatrical presentation. I did Chicago, I did Los Angeles, I did Washington DC and so on. There was always a pattern, or an intention, and in the same way as my artwork they grew out of my surroundings.

A few minutes ago you talked about arriving in New York, “before things got out of control”. What did you mean by that?

I meant that the performances that we were doing very in the early sixties quickly became over-discovered, you know, and it was time to get out of town. Here’s an example – out on Long Island they had something they called “thrill clubs”. They advertized in the paper and you signed up for a thrill club for a weekend and the limousine would pick you up in Long Island and take you to thrilling places, places that you had never seen before. Of course the happenings were on that list, so instead of a few friends showing up for a happening, you’d have a lot of limousines with seekers of thrills. So, like everything in New York, it doesn’t take long before it becomes too known, so it loses its charm. I meant that kind of thing. I just had the sense that we had become too noticed. On one occasion I had the police come in and interview me as to whether certain events in the performance were pornographic. It had to do with objects, not people, and the suggestive use of objects! Water, and things like that. It was silly!

Also, what was later to be known as Pop Art had crested. I think that by ’62 most of the important shows had been held. So, it was time to leave.

I hadn’t realized that things had moved quite that quickly.

Yes they had. Starting in ’60, with just two years of intense activity. I felt that New York was pretty much exhausted for me in 1963, so I decided to move to Los Angeles, and started a whole different approach, with The Home, as I called it.

Claes Oldenburg, "Bedroom Ensemble 1/3" (1963)
Claes Oldenburg, “Bedroom Ensemble 1/3” (1963)

Claes Oldenburg, "Leopard Chair" (1963)
Claes Oldenburg, “Leopard Chair” (1963)

As it turned out, it was a great moment to go to Los Angeles, because it hadn’t been overwhelmed by the East Coast, and most of the artists that I met there were all very characteristic LA types. It was great to meet those originals. Hardly anybody had been there. I think John Chamberlain had been there once, and James Rosenquist had been there and he told me, “You’ve gotta go there, because it’s really a strange place!” So I went out there and enjoyed it very much. Andy Warhol was soon on the scene. He came out with his group, and of course with Andy coming, that’s always the beginning of a lot of people coming, but we got there just before that. I remember we he made an early movie called Tarzan and Jane Regained, Sort Of with Dennis Hopper and Taylor Mead, in the backyard of my place in Venice. And of course I did a performance in LA using cars and a concrete mixer truck, called Autobodys. Bob Whitman was out there too, and he did a piece.

Claes Oldenburg, "Autobodys" (1963)
Claes Oldenburg, “Autobodys” (1963)

But you were also working in Europe, weren’t you?

I hadn’t been in Europe for a long time. In 1964 I was asked to be in the Biennale in Venice. That was the year that America was accused of trying to take over Europe, and it was said to be planned by Leo Castelli. The American show was held in the American Consulate in Venice, and Alan Solomon was head of it. Bob Rauschenberg was the winner of course. Jim Dine, myself, and some others were included as supporting cast.

Afterwards I had a show of French edibles in Ileana Sonnabend’s gallery in Paris and then went back to New York where there was a whole different sort of spirit: performances were still being done but they weren’t the center of attention, and you could do pretty much what you wanted. I remember that I did Moviehouse – that was ’65 – and then in ‘66 I went to Sweden and did a performance at the Moderna Museet, .After that, I stopped performances. Well, actually there was a written one after that, called The Typewriter in Esquire magazine in 1968. It was described but not done, and that was called “my very last happening”.

Photo credits: All images in this post (other than the Whitney installation shot) have been generously supplied by Claes Oldenburg. Credits and full captions for individual images are:

Installation view of Claes Oldenburg: Early Sculpture, Drawings, Happenings and Films (May 7 – September 6, 2009) at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY – (L-R) ) Scarface and Aphrodite, 1963 (E.2009.0547); Autobodys, 1963 (E.2009.0546); Birth of the Flag I, II, 1965 (edited 1974) (E.2009.0548) – Photography by Sheldan C. Collins – Copyright Claes Oldenburg

Claes Oldenburg with Valentine Purfume at the Biennale Venezia, 1997 – Photo: Nanda Lanfranco

Interior of The Store 107 East 2nd Street, New York – December 1961 – Photo © Robert McElroy/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY – Courtesy the Oldenburg van Bruggen Foundation – Copyright 2008 Claes Oldenburg

Claes Oldenburg, Voyages I, performed as part of Ray Gun Theater, Ray Gun Mfg. Co., 107 East 2nd Street, New York (in cooperation with Green Gallery, New York; performed in The Store, May 4-5, 1962 – Pictured: Lucas Samaras and Pat Muschinski Oldenburg – Courtesy the Oldenburg van Bruggen Foundation – Photo © Robert McElroy/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Claes Oldenburg, Snapshots from the City, performed as part of Ray Gun Spex and in conjunction with Ray Gun Show – Performance at Judson Gallery, Judson Memorial Church, NY – February 29- March 1-2, 1960 – Courtesy the Oldenburg van Bruggen Foundation – Photo: Martha Holmes (Getty Images – permission pending)

Installation view of Claes OldenburgGreen Gallery, New York – September 24 – October 20, 1962 – Courtesy the Oldenburg van Bruggen Foundation

Claes Oldenburg, Bedroom Ensemble 1/3, 1963 – Wood, Formica, vinyl, aluminum, paper, fake fur, muslin, Dacron, polyurethane foam, lacquer – overall: 10 ft. x 17 ft. x 21 ft. (303 x 512 x 648 cm): bed (in two elements): 2 ft. x 8 ft. 6 in. x 7 ft. 1/2 in. (0.6 x 2.6 x 2.1 m); chair: 3 ft. 9 in. x 3 ft. 6 in. x 2 ft. 3 in. (1.1 x 1.1 x 0.7 m); dresser: 2 ft. 10 1/2 in. x 7 ft. 6 in. x 6 ft. 5 1/2 in. (0.9 x 2.3 x 2 m); two bedside tables, each: 3 ft. x 3 ft. x 1 ft. 4 1/2 in. (0.9 x 0.9 x 0.4 m) – Collection National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa – Photo courtesy the Oldenburg van Bruggen Foundation – Copyright 1963 Claes Oldenburg – Photo: Geoffrey Clements

Claes Oldenburg, Leopard Chair, 1963 – Vinyl, foam, wood – 77 3/16 x 37 3/4 x 15 in. (196.1 x 95.9 x 38.1 cm) – Collection National Gallery of Australia, Canberra – Courtesy the Oldenburg van Bruggen Foundation – Copyright 1963 Claes Oldenburg

Claes Oldenburg, Autobodys, Los Angeles, CA – December 9-10, 1963 – Pictured: Rolf Nelson – Courtesy the Oldenburg van Bruggen Foundation – Photo: Julian Wasser

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