'Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties' maps road to the Spoonbridge

Spoonbridge and Cherry
The Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. The sculpture was created by the husband-and-wife artistic team of Claes Oldenberg and Coosje van Bruggen. Coosje van Bruggen passed away on Saturday, January 10, 2009. She was 61 years old.
MPR Photo/Steve Mullis

If you have ever spent a moment looking at the "Spoonbridge and Cherry" display in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and wondered what it's about, the Walker Art Center has an exhibit that could provide answers.

This weekend the Walker opens "Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties," an enormous show of the early work of the artist who gave the city one of its landmarks.

The exhibit's more 300 pieces elicit a new reaction at every turn. They are startling, funny, strange but all too familiar, and maybe just a little sexy. There are giant pieces of cake made of fabric, huge electric sockets made of cardboard and cheeseburgers made of chicken wire and plaster.

Photos: 'Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties'

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On its walls, movies of 1960s happenings made in and around Oldenburg's New York studio play. There is even a larger than life toilet, made of vinyl, and just a little too bright and a little too slumped for comfort.

Curator Achim Hochdorfer said Oldenburg has described his objects as door handles.

"A door handle opens doors into an imaginary world," Hochdorfer said.

At the Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties exhibit, museum visitors can see some of the artist's early sculptures of food and everyday items in "The Store" Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013 during a media preview at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The show runs Sept. 22, 2013 through Jan. 12, 2014.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Hochdorfer said Oldenburg came of age during the era of abstract expressionism, when artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko reigned and plunged into the giddy new world of pop art in New York. Oldenburg's work took new looks at everyday objects, drawing a sense of wonder and joy from the mundane.

Hochdorfer created the show for a museum in Vienna. It then traveled to Cologne and Bilbao before arriving at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and to Minneapolis, where it has been expanded.

Walker curator Siri Engberg said the exhibit is just the latest development in a half century-long relationship between the Walker and Oldenburg. The relationship started in 1966 when the museum purchased his newly created sculpture, "Shoe-string potatoes spilling from a bag," she said.

Many Walker visitors are very familiar with the piece, which is regularly on display. So is the huge vinyl three-way plug which hangs over one of the Walker lobbies. However, both pieces seem to take on a larger meaning amongst the other objects in the new show.

The Walker's "Three-Way Plug, Scale A, Soft, Brown," foreground, is part of the Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties exhibit, which includes about 300 pieces from collections around the world. The show runs through Jan. 12, 2014 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

That's as it should be, Hochdorfer said.

"You want to be able to walk around and like, think about different textures, colors, sizes," he said. "It's performative in the way that you move through the space."

The Walker show is set out chronologically, following periods in Oldenburg's life in New York. First, there is what he called The Street, the lower east side area where he made huge figures out of materials he found around him: cardboard, burlap and paint. They are the oldest pieces in the show, but strangely they look the freshest, shining with raw energy imbued by the young Oldenburg.

Next, there is The Store, a gallery installation and shop Oldenburg opened in 1961. In it, he presented plaster sculptures of everyday objects like food and clothing painted with garish hardware store enamel. People came to look and, Hochdorfer said, some came to buy.

Claes Oldenburg's "Geometric Mouse - Scale A," left, which used to be displayed outside the Walker Art Center, is part of The Sixties exhibit featuring the artist's early work.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

"This piece here, the shirt with the red tie, was bought by Andy Warhol, for example, and later given to the Whitney museum," he said.

"There is a story about one of the MoMA, Museum of Modern Art curators walking out of the gallery with the hamburger, the cheeseburgers, and just taking it over to the museum," laughed Engberg. "People were snapping them as they were being made."

Back then, Hochdorfer said, the pieces cost about $100, or maybe a little more. Around that time, Oldenburg made his first soft sculptures, including a huge cloth ice-cream cone which is draped across the floor.

In 1963, Oldenburg launched a project called The Home. In the Walker exhibit, visitors are greeted by a huge sofa-sized slice of chocolate cake. A gigantic cloth telephone hangs from the ceiling, not far from those famous string potatoes. To Engberg, the sculptures are more like paintings.

The Claes Oldenburg sculpture "Shoestring Potatoes Spilling from a Bag" on display during a media preview Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013 at the Walker Art Center.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

"These are made of canvas and they are painted," she said. "And some of them like "The Upside Down City" hang on a stretcher, but from the ceiling, so he was really playing with notions of painting and how that could very much blur with sculpture."

Beyond that, there is the "Mouse Museum," an architectural installation built to hold hundreds of tiny objects Oldenburg collected over the years. They often inspired his work.

As sound effects gurgle in the background, Engberg pointed to one thing of particular interest.

"It's a spoon in a puddle of fake chocolate," Enberg said. "And this was one of the objects that served as a reminder or inspiration for what became 'Spoon Bridge and Cherry.'"

Engberg said in the mid-1980s, Oldenburg and his wife Coosje van Bruggen were the first artists then-Walker Director Martin Friedman approached when work began on the Sculpture Garden.

Claes Oldenburg will speak at the Walker at a sold-out lecture on Sunday afternoon. It's likely he'll speak about the "Spoonbridge and Cherry."