The term “shelf life” was coined in the 20s to refer to how long a product could remain on a shelf while retaining its freshness. It feels more midcentury, though, when everything mass-produced was cool, the future was standardization, and people worried about spoilage. Claes Oldenburg’s “Shelf Life Number 6” (2016-2017) is a small sculpture, noticeably diminutive for an artist best known in recent decades for large-scale projects in collaboration with Coosje van Bruggen. Admittedly, the new work dramatizes the scalar shift: An oversized pencil has its tip nudging a white block and this nib is just anterior to a flagrantly wild-red banana skin. There is a rawness that pervades these new Oldenburgs, with none of the glossy, sparkling finish fetish of the giant installations.
They—the “Shelf Life” series—live in a condition of oscillation between displaying items that simulate mass-produced products for sale on a standardized shelf and, upon closer look, harboring that irregular patina associated with the handmade on the surfaces. It is impossible to not see the shelves and be reminded of Oldenburg’s “The Store,” when he turned his Lower East Side studio into a shop hawking artwork that emulated foodstuffs, hats, oranges, and frippery.
In “Shelf Life Number 6” Oldenburg offers the inedible red banana that reminds me of being an 18-year-old RISD student and pretending not to understand the radicality of his “Floor Burger” from 1962. My then-T.A. didn’t get how radical it was that it was fun. Squishy. Squishy as in for play…made from foam rubber and cardboard wrapped in canvas and painted with acrylics but also materially not made for play. In these shelves you can see that Oldenburg —the trickster.
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Looking back on that neatly packaged era, it is easy to think that Oldenburg was doing what everyone else was doing. The year 1962 was when Warhol exhibited at Ferus Gallery, displaying his “Campbell’s Soup Can” paintings on ledges in one long line like in a general store. Jim Dine and [James] Rosenquist and the Pop pantheon; Wayne Thiebaud’s paintings of baked goods in a bright case; and [Robert] Rauschenberg picking up trash to work in the gap between art and life and all that weird energy of the 60s. Consuming and wanting to inhale what was inconsumable, and some strange scopophilia finally let loose upon the world.
When I think of back then, I can’t help but be reminded of Richard Hamilton’s “Pop Art is: Popular (designed for a mass audience), Transient (short-term solution), Expendable (easily forgotten), Low Cost, Mass-Produced, Young (aimed at youth), Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big Business.” In some ways the objects in the “Shelf Life” series are consistent with Hamilton’s terms, but Oldenburg was always different, more misfit Happenings than Warhol glamor. The new series continues a legacy of assembling mixed media, but they exist in the now, when products are even more rapidly replaced by their rebranded counterparts before expiration.
Like that pizza slice, that red banana peel, or the aquamarine mug that I can’t take my eyes off in “Shelf Life Number 9,” these are all—yes—low cost, expendable, transient, and also whimsical objects or goods. Moreover, Oldenburg manages to integrate their humor into their materiality. If there is any irony in these titles, it is how they refuse the trappings of any noticeable shelf life: no graphic-designed labels; no trendy colors. They exist in an almost constant non-spectacular state: their confounding materiality peeling back to reveal layers of intrigue.
Claes Oldenburg’s “Shelf Life” is on view October 13-November 11, 2017 at Pace Gallery, 537 West 24th Street, New York.