After the recent death of Claes Oldenburg, Art in America is looking back on a May 2012 feature in which Martin Friedman, former director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, attended to the major themes and motifs of the artist’s work.
CLAES OLDENBURG AND I were sitting outdoors at an Indian health food restaurant off Sunset Boulevard. It was a crisp sunny day in fall 1974. The restaurant had white-turbaned waiters, who smiled beatifically at the world. Whatever was being served on the premises was attracting swarms of bees to our table, so we were obliged to retreat to Chateau Marmont, the hotel where Claes was staying, a few blocks west on the Strip, as that section of the boulevard is known.
The palm-surrounded, faux-Norman Marmont retained a shabby grandeur from its early Hollywood days. Oldenburg’s minimal suite, with its battered furniture, became our office for a few days; there he was helping me prepare the exhibition “Oldenburg: Six Themes” (1975) for the Walker Art Center, where I was director. The exhibition was arranged according to elements in the artist’s iconography: Three-Way Plug, Fagend, Clothespin, Typewriter Eraser, Standing Mitt with Ball and Geometric Mouse. During our conversations, we talked about each of these themes and why he had chosen them.
Included in the show were drawings, models and large-scale sculptures. The artist used kapok-stuffed muslin, vinyl and canvas for his soft sculptures; wood, aluminum, lead and plastic for the hard. Oldenburg’s genius has always been to generalize form, allowing the specific identities of his objects—even the most familiar of them—to admit a multitude of interpretations. The Fagends, a term describing crushed cigarette butts, can have a priapic character. In its hard version, the Light Switch resembles a face; in its soft version, made of shiny vinyl, it may look like a female torso. Over the years, Oldenburg’s objects have mutated and combined with one another, altogether constituting a family of images.
It became readily apparent in our discussions that Oldenburg accorded a special importance to the Geometric Mouse. We have talked about the mouse for many years, both at that time and in a series of interviews that took place after I moved to New York in 1990.1 The Geometric Mouse, sometimes termed the Analytical Mouse, was the most abstract of all the motifs in the Walker exhibition.2 Its basic form is two large circles attached to a rectangle, but it came to resemble many different things, having connections to objects in other categories. For example, its eyes might be seen as a reiteration of the vertical slots in Three-Way Plug, itself suggesting a face. The mouse is more symbolic than many of Oldenburg’s motifs, which tend to represent functional objects, sometimes associated with past times. Unlike the other motifs in the Walker show, so rooted in quaint domesticity—objects around the house, the office and the playground—the mouse had an independent, complex relationship to Oldenburg’s other imagery. Its earliest appearance, as just a head, took the form of a large soft mask worn by participants in a 1965 Oldenburg performance titled Moveyhouse.
The original Geometric Mouse was created in 1969 in Oldenburg’s studio in New Haven, which he shared with the artist Hannah Wilke. He told me:
It had been a garment factory. It was a huge, open space about 200 feet long, and the people who had worked there had written over the entrance to the building, “Welcome to the house of mice.” As it turned out, there were a lot of mice in the house, and after winter set in, there were rats, too, that came in from the fields. I realized that we were really living in a house in which we were intruders. I was a little scared of rats and they were very scared of me, too. At night the mice would dance on the electric cords in the bedrooms. You’d turn the light off and they’re back, dancing. This went on all the time and it was one of the reasons we finally left the place, because there was no way to compete with all this rodent activity. And it didn’t do any good to make images [of them]. We speculated a lot about whether or not making images of mice produced more mice or deterred them—whether they, in some way, got involved in worshipping the images. We hoped to catch them doing that one night, but we never did. They were probably too shy to do that in front of us, too wise.
I ASKED CLAES if the presence of the real mice had anything to do with generating his interest in making more mice. He replied, “I think it did. There are so many sources for the mouse as subject, but each source confirms the others and that experience definitely had something to do with it.”
We talked about styles of drawn mice. We talked about Mickey Mouse, about the fact that Walt Disney originally supplied his voice, and other matters related to that gifted rodent. Oldenburg said:
I always felt that there were different kinds of cartoon mice. They came from different classes of society. For example, Mickey Mouse is obviously the “bourgeois mouse,” and even though he started as a poor mouse in Kansas City when he jumped onto Walt Disney’s drawing board, he became a rather bourgeois mouse. Whereas the cartoon character Ignatz [from George Herriman’s Krazy Kat] was the “outlaw mouse.” He was always the guy who was compelled to cause trouble by throwing a brick at someone. I guess my sympathies would go to the anti-bourgeois mouse. There was another one that sort of looked like a mouse but was actually a cat called Felix. He was rather a weak imitation of Mickey, but the fact that he was drawn black and white is very interesting to me. It makes him a “contrast mouse,” whereas Ignatz was really a stick figure with a white face.
I asked Claes about the mouse in Tom and Jerry. He responded, “That’s a later development. Those cartoons were interesting because of their inventiveness and their movement, but the individual figures were, I think, a little too cute. Of course, all animation is more interesting if you go back in time.”
Oldenburg’s mouse iconography manifested itself in drawings and models, in cloth, steel and cardboard and in various sizes and materials. In “Six Themes,” the Geometric Mouse appeared in drawings, cloth masks, banners, cardboard models and painted aluminum and steel sculptures.
IN 1972, THE MOUSE took on dramatic architectural form. As director of Documenta 5, the highly influential Swiss-born curator Harald Szeemann organized a special section of artists’ “museums.” Marcel Broodthaers installed a version of his Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, and Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-Valise put in an appearance. Oldenburg’s contribution was a structure he dubbed the Mouse Museum.
Oldenburg’s partner in this enterprise was the curator and art historian Kasper Koenig, who had organized the first retrospective of the artist’s work, at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, in 1966. In Stockholm, what Oldenburg called his “Strange Mickey Mouse” became the logo for the exhibition’s stationery. According to Coosje van Bruggen, Oldenburg’s late wife and collaborator, the word “mus,” in Swedish, means both mouse and museum. Indeed, it was at the Stockholm retrospective that the seed for the Mouse Museum was planted.3 For Documenta 5, Oldenburg and Koenig developed exhibition and collection policies based on actual museum procedures. Koenig was the “director.” Oldenburg determined that the museum would contain familiar and unfamiliar objects, and inventoried the hundreds of items (both found objects and works made by the artist) selected for its “collections.” (Oldenburg and Koenig have long greeted each other as fellow officials of their hypothetical institution.)
In plans (drawn up by artists/architects Bernhard Leitner and Heidi Bechinie), the Documenta 5 Mouse Museum consisted of two circles attached to a rectangle—which makes it look like an old-fashioned movie projector as well as the head of a mouse. In drawings, the exterior looks a little like a loaf of bread, with a mouse-mask entrance. The drawn version was never built; in the actual structure the mouse shape was enclosed within an overall box shape, so that its contours were only evident once you entered the space, and never in their totality. The interior served as a display area and was filled with vitrines containing the objects. At the close of Documenta 5 it was dismantled and the objects preserved by the artist.
A second and more durable version of the Mouse Museum was created for an exhibition organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Chicago, for a 1977 exhibition. Like its predecessor, the second Mouse Museum displayed a collection of objects, but van Bruggen suggested the elimination of the exteri-or box, so that the mouse shape was now visible from the exterior. Plans were executed by the Chicago architect Stuart Cohen. In addition, an annex was built—the Ray Gun Wing, a right-angled structure loosely resembling a gun, based on another of Oldenburg’s favorite motifs. Although the Ray Gun had many meanings, it referred in part to comic-book science fiction: a super weapon capable of instantly evaporating targets, be they super heroes or super villains. The annex displayed a plethora of objects that Oldenburg had either made or found all over the world, presenting, as Oldenburg put it, “a right angle and Ray Gun configuration.”4 The plan for the annex was taken from a Ray Gun drawing (based on the shape of a printer’s block) used many years earlier in an ad that ran in the Village Voice, January 1960, announcing Oldenburg’s “Ray Gun Show” at the Judson Gallery.
Both structures were exhibited in the first-floor main gallery of the MCA, with guards limiting the crowds entering. The entirety—both structures along with their collections—was purchased by the Peter Ludwig Collection in Cologne in 1979, when the Ludwig Museum produced a catalogue of the whole ensemble, written by van Bruggen.5 In 1981, the Mouse Museum and Ray Gun Wing were placed on permanent loan to the Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien (MUMOK), where they are presently the culmination of the exhibition “Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties.”
MUMOK’s exhibition includes two earlier installations—The Street and The Store—that, like the Mouse Museum, involve the display of objects. Oldenburg set up The Store in 1961 in a ground floor space he rented on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and filled with objects he was selling made of plastic, paper, papier-mâché and other materials, and brightly colored with glossy enamel. There was faux-food: slices of cake, cookies, an upside down ice-cream cone, cheesecake, cherry pastry, two Danishes and a turnover, carrots, three jelly doughnuts, fried chicken, a can of sardines, a fried egg in a pan, four pies in a glass case and strawberry shortcake. There was also faux-clothing—socks, shoes, overalls, extra-large shirts, a jacket with shirt and tie, a fur coat—as well as a mannequin, a Statue of Liberty souvenir and a sewing machine.
From the street these “products” must have seemed truly baffling, a collection of seemingly unrelated objects. The art world soon discovered The Store, and it became a place for discussions and performances. There was no shortage of buyers, many requesting bargain prices, who knew they were acquiring objects with special character. Oldenburg recalls the late Ileana Sonnabend jokingly asking for a discount on a dress. The Store was implicitly a social statement about the low end of urban America.
Compared to The Store, with its exuberant references to New York street life, the Mouse Museum was a temple of Zenlike, meditative silence. The items within are reminiscent of those in Dubuffet’s Art Brut collection of expressionistic works made by children, emotionally disturbed people and self-taught artists. Again, as in The Store, Oldenburg made foodstuff objects: fried shrimp with melting butter, in wax; a giant soft peanut, in foam latex; a baked potato, in cloth and Dacron; giant ravioli, in plaster; a custard dessert, in wax, plastic and glass; a candy tomato sandwich on cardboard. There are false ears made of cloth; a small replica of the Washington Monument and a bear ashtray, in porcelain; monster fingernails made of plastic and a ski boot of metal, leather and plastic; little pillows made of canvas, kapok and plaster; a plastic walrus and hot water bottle; a miniature metal battleship plaster and enamel roses; and other sundry objects. A feeling of high kitsch pervades this odd assortment.
Few of Oldenburg’s themes, of which there is such a rich profusion, can approximate the continuity and psychological depth of the mouse. During the preparation of the “Six Themes” exhibition I casually asked Oldenburg, “Are you the Mouse?” His reply was an amused admission: “I’m the Mouse.”
1. Unless otherwise indicated, all Oldenburg quotes in this article are taken from those various conversations.
2. For a meditation on the mouse theme that the artist wrote in 1971, see “Notes on the Geometric Mouse Subject,” reprinted in Claes Oldenburg: An Anthology, New York, Guggenheim Museum, 1995, p. 346.
3. Coosje van Bruggen, Claes Oldenburg: Mouse Museum/Ray Gun Wing, exh. cat., Cologne, Museum Ludwig, 1979, p. 67.
5. For the Chicago iteration, see van Bruggen and Judith Russi Kirshner, Claes Oldenburg: Mouse Museum, Ray Gun Wing, exh. cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, 1977, with a chronology by Oldenburg.
This article is part of a series undertaken with support from the Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program.