Roaming through MOMA’s chockablock installation of highlights from Claes Oldenburg’s early career, you can sense a febrile mind and lightning-speed hands digging out from under the sludge of late-term Abstract Expressionism. It’s 1960, and for inspiration the Swedish-born (in 1929) painter is turning away from the sublime visions of the previous generation and toward the garish cornucopia of New York’s mercantile frenzy. In one dashed-off drawing, two kids yip happily, a huge street sign hovering behind them. Oldenburg insists that you see the world through his eyes—and damned if that splattered slab of cardboard doesn’t capture the jutting presence of a store sign, and who wouldn’t look at those two chunks of wood and that blotched scrap of paper and see a pair of flags? Follow his gaze, and the abject blossoms into the glorious.
Oldenburg reflects our peculiar, sometimes violent splendor back upon ourselves: 1961’s Studies for Store Objects—Petticoat, Flag, Gun pretty much sums up one strain of American romance. The artist’s furious strokes of gouache and torn shreds of paper shove aside the sepia tones of the frontier for lurid postwar neon, billboards, true-crime mags, and lingerie counters.
“Ray Guns,” bulbously phallic sculptures and drawings, populate the main galleries. Everything—a barking dog, scrawled with head cocked and tongue bulging; toy airplanes—falls under this engagingly absurd rubric. Perhaps, as many drive-in movies of the day imagined, aliens are always among us. Certainly Oldenburg’s giant ice-cream cone and 7-foot “Floor Burger” could have beamed down from Jupiter.
The museum’s atrium hosts the “Mouse Museum,” a walk-in structure shaped like the head of Walt Disney’s favorite rodent—if it were solid black and lying flat on its back. In Mickey’s brain, as it were, brightly lit vitrines are crammed with store-bought tchotchkes collected by the artist: inflatable legs, plastic hams, tiny golf clubs, toy fire engines, rubber banana peels, plastic lollipops, clothespins balanced on end like proud orators.
Oldenburg has curated America’s id, along the way transforming it into colossal outdoor sculptures which have delighted and flummoxed the public in equal measure. After six decades, he must be onto something.