The Street and Flags
The Old Dump Flag, 1960
22.2 x 27.3 x 7 cm
Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen
“I’m for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap & still comes out on top.”
—Claes Oldenburg (1)
At the end of the 1950s, after a decade dominated by Abstract Expressionism and its process-oriented, abstract artworks, a group of artists began to rally for a return to real-life imagery. While many of these artists, such as Andy Warhol (1928–1987), were drawn to media and advertising imagery, Oldenburg, a Swedish artist, was fascinated by the objects that surrounded him on the Lower East Side, the neighborhood in New York that he called home.
In 1960, Oldenburg created an environment titled The Street. The Street filled an entire gallery with sculptural objects made of cardboard, wrapping paper, scraps of newspaper and fabric, bottles, and other debris. The objects were covered in expressionistic, painted lines and marks that were reminiscent of graffiti. Some objects were hung from the ceiling. Others were placed underfoot; crumpled paper littered the floor as if it were trash thrown on the street. Visitors to the gallery walked among the objects that depicted the urban life Oldenburg had observed on the Lower East Side: cars, an airplane, passersby, signs, a barking dog, a display window, a shoeshine man, a bicyclist, a man with a walking stick, and a number of figures armed with ray guns (a motif Oldenburg employed throughout his career). Oldenburg’s work addressed themes of the newly rampant post-war capitalism: work, money, the economy, poverty, alcoholism, isolation, and lack of communication. (2)
The envrionment was the setting for a performance called Snapshots from the City (1960), in which Oldenburg dressed in scraps of paper and fabric, affixed to his body like bandages, and crouched on the floor with a liquor bottle in his hand. Patty Muschinski (later Patty Mucha, b. 1935), his wife at the time, dressed as, in Oldenburg’s words, a “street chick”––a character type depicted in the installation itself––and together they performed a ritual dance as the lights flashed on and off. To those present, the performance seemed to capture Oldenburg’s overall description of the installation: “First it is clear to me now that it is a nightmare, my personal nightmare.” (3)
In summer 1960, Oldenburg left behind the commotion of the city for Provincetown, Massachusetts, a beach community of artists and writers. There he produced the series Provincetown Flags (1960), inspired by the symbol of Oldenburg’s adopted nation, the American flag, and made of driftwood. In April 1960, he wrote, “I will present my world view in a series of ‘grand symbols’ first the street, then perhaps the garden, or the beach etc. etc.” (4) The primitive, simple materials he used for this series stand in contrast to the urban detritus of The Street and seem to evoke, instead, an unspoiled, folksy quality.
1. Jörg Wolfert, Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties exhibition brochure, translated by Cynthia Hall (Vienna: Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, 2012), p. 4.
2. See Hochdörfer, Achim, and Barbara Schröder, eds, Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties (Munich: Delmonico Books, 2012), p. 31.
4. Ibid., p. 38
Show students a picture of the American flag and ask them to think about what they associate with the image. Write these associations on the board.
Then, show students Oldenburg’s The Old Dump Flag, 1960 and ask them to divide into groups of two to compare the real American flag with Oldenburg’s version. Ask them to compare the images in terms of proportions, materials, color, movement, shape, and so on. How is the shape of Oldenburg’s flag different from that of the real flag?
Tell students that Oldenburg made many flags in 1960, from materials such as driftwood and cardboard. The Old Dump Flag, is made of wood. How do the materials he used affect students’ associations with the image?
Oldenburg created these flags not long after finishing a project called The Street, in which the artis created sculptures of the sights he took in while living in New York, such as cars, signs, and display windows. He wrote: “I will present my world view in a series of ‘grand symbols’ first the street, then perhaps the garden, or the beach etc. etc.” (1) In what way does The Old Dump Flag, act as a “grand symbol?” What, if anything, do students think this artwork could be symbolic of? Which subjects would students focus on if they were to create “grand symbols” of their own community? Brainstorm a list of possibilities. Then, as a class, discuss which symbols might be most representative of your community, and why.