Claes Oldenburg: Popping the cherry

GREGORY J. SCOTT | Updated 9/19/2013

“Spoonbridge and Cherry” icon Claes Oldenburg conjures emblems from the everyday in a blockbuster exhibition at the Walker.

“But Mom, I want to say hello to the cherry!”

It’s a hot Friday afternoon, and the 6-year-old who just set foot in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden already recognizes Claes Oldenburg’s “Spoonbridge and Cherry” for exactly what it is: a playful new friend. It may as well be a man in a reindeer suit, with the half-ton fruit — suctioned to the spoon tip in a surface-tension kiss, its stem curled in a sideways smile — as his shiny red nose. The girl sprints right at it. Were it not for the pond surrounding the 51-foot sculpture’s base, security guards would be swarming to prevent a kindergarten bear hug.

Mom just shrugs: “I don’t really get it.”

This scene — little-kid mirth, grown-up bafflement — plays out thousands of times a year outside Walker Art Center. It’s a postcard contemporary-art moment, as visitors react to the city’s most unlikely mascot. “Spoonbridge and Cherry.” Behold: our Phillie Phanatic. A goofy nonsequitur winning hearts with its jubilant nonsense.

But the artist who created it wasn’t playing around. At least not entirely. As a new blockbuster exhibition at the Walker reveals, Claes Oldenburg, king of Pop art, wizard of whimsy, an 84-year-old guy perhaps best known for making floppy, oversized “soft sculptures” of ice cream cones and BLT sandwiches, has a process.

Opening Sunday, “Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties” arrives slathered in tasty must-see bait. It is the largest exhibition ever to focus on what scholars regard as the artist’s seminal period. It is also a European-organized show whose only American stops are here and New York’s MoMA. This means that many significant pieces on display — from the raggedy sculptures of “The Street,” his first major series, to the freestanding walk-in environments “Mouse Museum” and “Ray Gun Wing” — have rarely been seen in the United States.

But press releases aside, the show’s biggest allure is its peek behind the curtain. The 1960s cracks open Oldenburg’s brain, presenting a cache of choice marginalia, most of it plucked right from his studio: notebook sketches, early collages, magazine clippings, snapshots, fractal distillations of circles and squares plotted on graph paper. Taken together, it paints the man as a sort of Edison-meets-Disney, a junk-obsessed engineer who worked his imagination like a geometry proof. It liberates Oldenburg from the Pop pigeonhole, elevating him above the knee-jerk silliness that attaches itself to the era’s worship of kitsch.

Or, as Siri Engberg, coordinating curator for the show, tells me during a private tour: “It’s playful. But extraordinarily serious. Everything that comes into his mind gets scribbled down, and then, through a very analytical process … it somehow becomes something else.”

Upon first entering “The Sixties,” you will likely have this thought: Wow, for a show about ’60s pop art, this stuff sure is grimy.

And sure enough, there’s “Upside Down City,” hauled up from the Walker’s permanent collection like a hamper of dirty laundry. Narrow muslin tubes, plump with newspaper stuffing, hang from a rectangular wooden frame like socks on a clothesline. It’s meant to represent the Manhattan skyline, a proscenium for the urban grit exalted in Oldenburg’s first big collection of work, “The Street.” These sculptures, made literally from garbage (burlap, cardboard, discarded wood), reflect the city-gritty mileu of the not-yet-gentrified Lower East Side of the early ’60s, a time when Oldenburg was immersed in the hepcat world of performance-poetry and “happenings.”

“It was about taking what was at hand and making it art,” says Engberg. “ ‘The Street’ featured bums, prostitutes. Oldenburg was looking at the characters of the neighborhood and turning them into emblems of urban life.”