by Paula Bosse
Not too long ago I watched a couple of documentaries about artist Claes Oldenburg, the Swedish-born American sculptor who died this week at the age of 93. For someone who created works of art which he described as often being “absurd,” he comes off in interviews as more serious than you’d expect (although I think he has a deadpan sense of humor which is not always evident when listening to him).
At one point in one of the films he unexpectedly tears up a drawing (which I really liked!). I actually gasped! THINK HOW MUCH MONEY THAT DRAWING WAS WORTH!! Quoth Mr. Oldenburg: “Sometimes when a drawing bothers me, I can solve a great deal by just tearing up the drawing. If I tear up the drawing, it’s no longer a problem…. It’s out of my mind. Forgotten…. Some drawings eventually get destroyed after as much as a year, or two years, if they continue to irritate me, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Destroying drawings is just as important as making drawings.” He says sometimes he just tears stuff up because he gets pleasure from doing it. Fair enough.
As he has now shuffled off this mortal coil, I was reminded that he also talked about an idea he and several artist friends had at one point: they wanted to buy/create a cemetery which would be just for them. A permanent, eternal group-show. You can’t get more site-specific-installation that that!
And speaking of cemeteries, there are scenes of him working on a tombstone for fellow artist Ed Kienholz as part of a reciprocal deal in which they would make grave markers for each other. The tombstone Oldenburg made for Kienholz was fashioned to resemble a slice of bread and is called “Bread Stone (Tombstone for Ed)” – which, I mean, is just fantastic. Kienholz apparently made a tombstone for Oldenburg, but I can’t find any info on it.
This led me to look to see if Kienholz had died and if that tombstone marked his grave. He died in 1994, but I can’t find a photo of his grave. But here is how art historian Robert Hughes described his burial:
His corpulent, embalmed body was wedged into the front seat of a brown 1940 Packard coupe. There was a dollar and a deck of cards in his pocket, a bottle of 1931 Chianti beside him, and the ashes of his dog Smash in the back. He was set for the afterlife. To the whine of bagpipes, the Packard, steered by his widow Nancy Reddin Kienholz, rolled like a funeral barge into the big hole.
I hope to God that giant slice of bread is marking his final resting place. Eventually we’re all toast.
Oldenburg has now died. I don’t know what kind of tombstone Kienholz designed for him. Or whether Claes might have made one for himself. Maybe we will see soon.
As a native of Dallas, I will always love your “Stake Hitch,” even though it is no longer at the Dallas Museum of Art. And your “Monument to the Last Horse” in Marfa is one of my all-time favorite sculptures. RIP, Claes.
The caption of the above photo reads: “Don and Oldenburg with Bread Stone (Tombstone for Ed), 1974, which he had made for his friend Ed Kienholz, in response to a gravestone Keinholz had made for him. The letters E and D are placed as if they were part of the word BREAD, with the B, R, and A dropped out. (Granite. 441/2″ x 221/2″ x 4″ [113 x 57.2 x 10.2 cm]. © 1974 Claes Oldenburg.)” (“Don” is the bearded Don Lippincott, owner of Lippincott Inc. where Oldenburg and other artists had their large-scale pieces frabricated.)
Sources & Notes
Color photos of Oldenburg taken during the fabrication of “Bread Stone,” the slice-of-bread tombstone for Ed Kienholz, are screenshots from the documentary “Claes Oldenburg: The Formative Years” (1975).
Black-and-white photos are from the book “Large Scale, Fabricating Sculpture in the 1960s and 1970s” by Jonathan D. Lippincott (Princeton Architectural Press, 2010).
I wrote about Oldenburg’s first appearance in Dallas, in 1962, to present “The Store,” his now-famous installation, as well as “Injun,” one of his “happenings” – read the article in my Dallas-history blog Flashback Dallas here, and see rare, silent footage of a young, relatively unknown-except-to-art-hipsters Oldenburg and his first wife Patty Mucha tweaking “The Store” ahead of its opening at the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts (screenshot below, from the WFAA Collection, G. William Jones Film and Video Collection, Hamon Arts Library, Southern Methodist University).
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