Oldenburg with his sculpture "Giant Three-Way Plug" (1970) at Oberlin College during installation (© Claes Oldenburg; photo courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York and Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College)

Claes Oldenburg, best known for his large, playful works of everyday objects — from a clothespin and a flashlight to a baseball bat and a fried egg — died on the morning of Monday, July 18 at his home in Manhattan, where he was recovering from a hip injury last month. He was 93. The artist’s death was confirmed by Paula Cooper and Pace, the two galleries that have long represented him.

Oldenburg, the son of a Swedish diplomat, was born in Stockholm in 1929, but moved with his family to Chicago in 1936. As a child, he invented an imaginary country, Neubern, with its own language, a blend of Swedish and English. Drawings, maps, and other details about Neubern, along with thousands of drawings, letters, and diaries, are housed in his archives at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.

“He wrote a whole history, with the rulers going back hundreds of years,” Glenn Phillips, a senior curator at the institute, told Hyperallergic. “There are topographical maps of every city and population maps. He invented rail lines and boat lines, and a newspaper and a movie industry with its own awards. He’s doing this as World War II is coming, and by the end, you start seeing plane crashes. It’s amazing the way he processes the world.” 

Oldenburg’s iconic “soft sculptures” (photo by Hrag Vartanian via Flickr)

Oldenburg studied English and art at Yale University and then moved back to Chicago, where he worked as a newspaper reporter and attended the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1956, the artist relocated to New York, taking up a job at the Cooper Union library, and had his first solo show at Judson Gallery in 1959.

Through his relationship with artists including Allan Kaprow and Jim Dine, Oldenburg got involved with experimental, participatory art programs, known as “Happenings.” These anti-narrative theatrical pieces are one of the many ways in which Oldenburg exerted his influence on the art world by moving performance art into the realm of the avant-garde. Oldenburg is often associated with Pop Art, Phillips noted, but his legacy goes far beyond the movement, and it was a term he never liked.

Claes Oldenburg with Pace Gallery founder Arne Glimcher in 2021 (image courtesy Pace)

Among Oldenburg’s most memorable early works was “The Store,” his unconventional 1961 installation in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In the studio-turned-storefront, the artist sold his sculptures of mundane consumer goods, including replicas of shoes and cheeseburgers, bridging the everyday and the bizarre. Oldenburg’s iconic, foam-filled “soft sculptures,” crafted of canvas and vinyl, satisfy a childlike desire for the tactile.

“At the bottom of everything I have done, the most radical effects, is the desire to touch and be touched,” Oldenburg once said. “Each thing is an instrument of sensuous communication.” 

Many of Oldenburg’s later works were produced in collaboration with his second wife, Coosje van Bruggen, whom he married in 1977 (she died in 2009). Their joint creations include huge shuttlecocks in Kansas City; an upside-down ice cream cone in Cologne, Germany; and a bow and arrow in San Francisco’s Embarcadero.

Oldenburg’s and van Bruggen’s sculpture “Cupid’s Span” in San Francisco (photo by Emily Allen via Flickr)

Phillips says you can see the roots of Oldenburg’s work, and his uncanny brilliance, in his childhood creation of a fictional nation. 

“If you look at Claes’ work, he’s doing two things simultaneously. He makes what looks like the thing, but it also looks like the thing in advertising,” he said. “He takes an idea and twists it and twists it again.” 

Oldenburg was the subject of a retrospective at both the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1995. In 2009, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York organized another, drawing primarily from its own holdings of the artist’s drawings, sculpture, film, and archival material.

Emily Wilson is a radio and print reporter in San Francisco. She has written stories for dozens of media outlets including NPR, Latino USA, the San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, California Teacher,...