At 88, Claes Oldenburg Debuts His First New Work in 12 Years—and It’s a Tiny Gift to His Fans

The diminutive new sculptures nod to seminal works from the artist's past.

Claes Oldenburg's Shelf Life Number 6 (2016-2017). Photo by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy of Pace Gallery.

The Pop art pioneer Claes Oldenburg hasn’t shown a new body of work in 12 years, which makes the octogenarian’s upcoming show at New York’s Pace Gallery next month one not to miss.

The 15 mixed-media sculptures and a series of lacquered canvas bags shaped like Mickey Mouse will revisit several of Oldenburg’s historical works, including his seminal performance-installation The Store (1961), in which the artist sold an eclectic selection of painted-plaster products out of a functioning storefront, and The Mouse Museum (1972), a mini-exhibition of kitschy found objects and studies, which he created for documenta 5.

Claes Oldenburg’s Shelf Life Number 1 (2016-2017). © 2017 Claes Oldenburg, Photo by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy of Pace Gallery.

For his new show, Oldenburg has arranged a seemingly random array of self-made, hand-painted objects and knick-knacks on rectangular shelves—bowling pins or a paintbrush or a slice of pizza, say, each made from diverse materials ranging from iron to paper. The process isn’t random at all, however, as Oldenburg shifts around and rearranges each object until the intended composition takes shape.

Viewed as a whole, the carefully choreographed shelves epitomize the subversive and humorous approach that has defined Oldenburg’s practice throughout his long career. Then as now, the works make a clever and sly comment on the banality of much contemporary art and the commodification of art objects—issues that are arguably even more relevant today than they were in the 1960s.

Claes Oldenburg’s Shelf Life Number 9 (2016-2017). © 2017 Claes Oldenburg. Photo by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy of Pace Gallery.

“This new body of work, with its nostalgia for the past and its optimism for the future, marks the beginning of a new period in his work,” said Arne Glimcher, the artist’s longtime gallerist, in a statement. “His radical combination of ideas continues his obsession with the elasticity of imagery.”

At a stage in his career where artists often begin thinking about their legacy, Oldenburg’s decision to revisit the themes addressed in this particular body of work, and to revisit them after such a significant hiatus, signals the importance that the artist places on this part of his oeuvre. That alone makes the show well worth a visit when it opens next month.

“Claes Oldenburg: Shelf Life” runs from October 13 — November 11, 2017, at Pace Gallery, New York.

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