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Claes Oldenburg

"I wish to destroy the rectangle and substitute the 'medium' of indefinite form"

— Claes Oldenburg, 1960

Slideshow

Oldenburg with Giant Toothpaste Tube (1964) in London, during the touring exhibition Claes Oldenburg, organized by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 25 - November 23, 1969. Photo: Hans Hammarskiöld. © Hans Hammarskiöld Heritage.

Oldenburg with Giant Toothpaste Tube (1964) in London, during the touring exhibition Claes Oldenburg, organized by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 25 - November 23, 1969. Photo: Hans Hammarskiöld. © Hans Hammarskiöld Heritage.

It is no wonder the humble tube of toothpaste should have made its way into Claes Oldenburg’s pantheon of objects to assume a place of such prominence. As a newly mass-produced item, toothpaste was one of the emblems of postwar mass consumption, routinely marketed in newspaper and TV ads addressed to the American nuclear family. Far from the grainy, chalk-like concoctions of yore, postwar toothpaste had undergone several modifications to enhance its cavity-fighting properties and to ensure that the contents of the tube would be uniformly smooth and white – the stuff of smiling, healthy tomorrows. [1] It was the unnoticed but ubiquitous accessory of a universal daily ritual, a wholesome and democratic icon for a technologically – and hygienically – advanced society. More crucially for Oldenburg, it was replete with formal possibilities: a squeezable rectangle, forever blurring the boundaries between soft and hard, its paste a signifier of malleability, of the softness and “indefinite form” that the artist had begun so powerfully to inject into contemporary sculpture.

                                          Installation view, Exhibition of Recent Work by Claes Oldenburg (alternatively titled The Home), Sidney Janis Gallery, New York, April 7 - May 2, 1964.

Oldenburg’s earliest work on the theme, the masterful Giant Toothpaste Tube, was included in Oldenburg’s first one-person exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1964 as part of a collection of large-scale objects from the home. [2] Blown up to human scale, the tube rests supine like a marble nude, its cap immodestly removed and lying nearby, a smooth white emulsion emerging from its tip. The work masterfully combines connotations of eroticism with a reflection on sculpture and the human body throughout art history, while also invoking cross-media associations with painting and tubes of paint. [3]

                                                                                                   Oldenburg with Giant Toothpaste Tube at Städtische Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, 1970.

Though toothpaste and toothbrushes would recur in various ways throughout Oldenburg’s career, another related theme was soon to emerge: that of the Tube Supported by its Contents. This theme involves a startling and conceptually brilliant inversion in which the soft, shapeless paste becomes the structural support for the solid tube now hovering above it.

An early example of this idea occurs in Proposal for a Giant Balloon in the Form of a Tube and its Contents – Shown in Relation to the Giant Ice Bag, from 1969, for exhibition in the U.S. pavilion at Expo ‘70 in Osaka, Japan, in 1970. In this initial design, the tube floats above the paste, which cascaded out of it like unfurled drapery. In the end, while Ice Bag did go to Osaka, the toothpaste balloon was not realized.

 

The idea continues to occupy Oldenburg in a number of drawings between 1969 and 1973. It recurs for instance in Notebook Page #3184, Study for Tube Supported by its Contents (1971). In this vibrant drawing, the piece is integrated in a park-like landscape and enlarged to monumental scale. The toothpaste is now a straight rod, coiled twice near the ground where it is anchored, and the tube rises directly above it like a burning flame. The enigmatic inscription “Note – projects = myself ” at the bottom tantalizingly establishes Tube Supported by its Contents as a self-portrait. Oldenburg frequently spoke of the toothpaste works as representations of himself—as an artist who “takes off his cap and oozes out his content” [4] — and those contents supporting him. He wistfully envisioned a moment when, like an empty tube, he’d be discarded. [5]

Over the course of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Oldenburg embarked on a series of models of Tube Supported by its Contents, showing various dynamic solutions applied to the basic elements of tube and paste. In these versions, the tube now seems to flutter in the wind like a pennant. As he progressed with the form, then, Oldenburg continued to undermine the conventional elements of public sculpture (verticality, solidity) and to emphasize “indefinite form”: oozing, coiling, floating, fluttering.

This culminated in a commission for a large-scale version by the German gallerist Alfred Schmela. Schmela installed the work in Lantz’scher Park, Düsseldorf, in 1985, and published a catalogue for the work that same year. [6]

                                                                                            Catalogue cover, Oldenburg: Tube Supported by its Contents. Dusseldorf: Galerie Schmela, 1985.

At that point, Oldenburg had hit upon the final shape of the work: larger, knot-like coils of paste, approximately human size, with a shorter tube pitched diagonally above, as shown in the above Scale Study for Tube Supported by its Contents. [7]

In Oldenburg’s notes:

- better proportions

- reduce amount of casting

- better balance

- emphasis more on “contents”

By placing the viewer’s body in direct confrontation with the “contents” of the tube, that is, by refocusing our gaze on what is “expressed”—that pliable primordial paste from which any form might emerge—Oldenburg formulated his own view of art-making as poised midway between form and formlessness, a squeezing of creative matter from the mind of the artist, its fluttering and ultimately disposable container.

Available Works

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Slideshow 5

Claes Oldenburg, Third Model for the Tube Supported by its Contents, 1981

Claes Oldenburg

Third Model for the Tube Supported by its Contents, 1981

paper, foam, vacuum cleaner bag, wood and lacquer mixed with sand

18 1/2 x 12 x 14 1/2 in. (47 x 30.5 x 36.8 cm)

initialed and dated on base: "CO 81" 

Claes Oldenburg, Tube Supported by its Contents, 1981

Claes Oldenburg

Tube Supported by its Contents, 1981

paper, urethane foam, metal, vacuum cleaner hose, wood; painted with enamel

13 1/2 x 19 1/4 x 14 7/8 in. (34.3 x 48.9 x 37.8 cm)

initialed and dated on base: "CO 81" 

Proposal for a Giant Balloon in the Form of a Tube and its Contents – Shown in Relation to the Giant Ice Bag, 1969-70, graphite and color pencil on paper, frame: 14 7/8 x 16 1/4 in. (37.8 x 41.3 cm).

Claes Oldenburg

Proposal for a Giant Balloon in the Form of a Tube and its Contents – Shown in Relation to the Giant Ice Bag, 1969-70

graphite and color pencil on paper

8 x 9 3/4 in. (20.3 x 24.8 cm)

frame: 14 7/8 x 16 1/4 in. (37.8 x 41.3 cm)

initialed and dated: "CO 69"

Claes Oldenburg, Notebook Page #3184, Study for Tube Supported by its Contents, 1971

Claes Oldenburg

Notebook Page #3184, Study for Tube Supported by its Contents, 1971

felt-tip pen, ball point pen and colored pencil on lined notebook paper

11 x 8 1/2 in. (27.9 x 21.6 cm)

frame: 16 5/8 x 13 7/8 x 1 1/8 in. (42.2 x 35.2 x 2.9 cm)

numbered 3184 and dated 12/71, initialed and and numbered 314 on verso

Claes Oldenburg, Scale Study for the Tube Supported by its Contents, n.d.

Claes Oldenburg

Scale Study for the Tube Supported by its Contents, n.d.

Xerox, felt tip pen, pencil, and tape on paper

11 x 8 1/2 in. (27.9 x 21.6 cm)

frame: 19 1/4 x 16 3/4 x 1 14 in. (48.9 x 42.5 x 289.6 cm)

Footnotes

[1] Principally through the introduction of fluoride and sodium lauryl sulfate, a foaming and emulsifying agent that replaced coarser versions of soap.

[2] This toothpaste tube was then included in the 1964 Venice Biennale and in Oldenburg’s travelling exhibition organized by MoMA in 1970. It is now in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

[3] Oldenburg explored the relationship to the paint tube further in Tube and Contents (1966), now at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The piece depicts red paint oozing out of a rolled tube suspended from the ceiling, with the contents spilling onto the floor.

[4] Barbara Haskell, Claes Oldenburg: Object Into Monument (Pasadena: Pasadena Art Museum, 1971), 83.

[5] Email from David Platzker, Aug. 4, 2020.

[6] The large-scale version (bronze and steel, painted with polyurethane enamel, 15 x 12 x 9 1/2 ft.) is now in the collection of the Utsunomiya Museum of Art, Japan.

[7] This same final form was also used for a small-scale version of Tube Supported by its Contents dated 1983, produced in an edition of three.

 

All images © Claes Oldenburg.