Claes Oldenburg’s two-story exhibition at MoMA “The Street and the Store” is more like one big stockroom of early sixties New York City. At best, perusing the inventory, from mutilated garbage to large pastries, gives a sense of reality seeping into an Ab-Ex art world. It’s a show made for its day.
The exhibition opens in MoMA’s atrium with “The Mouse Museum” and “The Ray Gun Wing”, two black circus trailer-style displays for Oldenburg’s trinkets, which he collected throughout the sixties and seventies. They’re split, respectively, by the store and the street; the more commercial “Mouse Museum” (tellingly, larger, fuller, and shaped like Mickey Mouse) houses 1950s toys, like a double-ended dildo and a plastic ladies’ wig. One museum-goer informed the girl next to him that Oldenburg was “just trying to get a snapshot of the era”—which sounds blunt, but fits the bill, along with general “hoarder” comments. It looks like an exercise in honing his sculptural aesthetic; viscous sundaes and a lumpy plastic peanut provide a clear preview of what’s upstairs. Though closer looking could reveal some hints. According to the Internet, a Five of Diamonds also symbolizes the amalgamation of experiences and objects.
Fewer people seem interested in the Ray Gun Wing, a countertop display of garbage shaped like ray guns, or upside-down L’s: tape, sticks, rocks, metal bars, and ray guns. As a clinical sample, the most notable factor is the scrotal shape.
Ray guns continue in the sculptural exhibition upstairs, with “The Ray Gun Show,” his two-person show with Jim Dine at the Judson Memorial Church. “The Street” was Oldenburg’s half, consisting primarily of ripped, trash-like sculptures of cardboard and dingy paper maché. “The Street” is probably worst exemplified in a brief film of Oldenburg’s performance Snapshots from the City (1960). Like many early Happenings, it’s straightforward dramatization– as Jim Dine has described, “to make visible the energy that young men had.” Wearing strips of newspaper, Oldenburg screams and writhes, and then falls down; the camera lingers on a close-up of his black-painted hand making a gun with his pointer finger. Maybe because it’s out of place on a ceiling-mounted screen, but watching Snapshots at MoMA makes you wish for an everyday that’s not so conventional; today, we hate blatant angst. On the other hand, considering a fifty-year-old Happening, the point is probably moot.
Although it’s about the Lower East Side, “The Street”’s one-note grime doesn’t feel particularly intrinsic to any neighborhood, and Oldenburg tends to polarize. In a few crude comic book sketches, rapists chase naked women; others are just torn cardboard specters of skeletal Lower East Side residents, a symbol of “the street is death”: a sympathetic sentiment, but removed. Similarly, a summer in Provincetown results in a wall of American flags made of driftwood because, he wrote, that town was “so focused on the commercialization of patriotism and history.”
A more detailed exploration begins with color and texture in “The Store,” where, for two months, Oldenburg sold knickknacks out of an actual Lower East Side store. His affinity for Ab-Ex is clear; an early poster sketch is just a cloud of crayon, ink, and watercolor washes. The sculptures celebrate a holy trinity of wireframe, muslin, and enamel, with swooping, Chamberlain-esque results. Between a wall of bottle cap scraps and big splashy cakes, it feels more like a dime store got a high art treatment than the other way around. Same goes for the prices, which started at $21.79 and went up to $499.99.
Ultimately, “The Store” tells a story of an artist’s rise to an uptown gallery. In 1962, Oldenburg, with sewing help from his then-wife Patty Mucha, began making large soft sculptures, the bean-baggy Floor Burger, Floor Cake, and Floor Cone, large enough to compete with grand pianos and luxury cars near the Green Gallery on 53rd Street. One show-stopper is Tartines, a case of plaster pastries which Oldenburg saw a few years later while on a trip to Galerie Illeana Sonnabend in Paris. Their clean use of plaster molds, reserving the palette knife only to emulate frosting, appear jewel-like in comparison to their puddly ancestors. Nearby, his 1963 Giant BLT reflects his first exercise in vinyl, professionally stitched with a perfect hole cut around the toothpick.
How much of “The Store” gets lost with the times? The quotidian-ness loses some of its cachet when the Lower East Side is now filled with galleries, themselves filled with high-art found objects. So today, Oldenburg’s high tops would just look great. For a few, though, grossness is more timeless. In a 1962 lingerie counter display, enamel-coated garter slips hang like roadkill on a meat hook, and fake flowers have been placed on the marble countertop, like a grave. Art cuts high-end down to size, while self-serious painting shows its underwear. It’s funny, it’s pat, and it still sticks.