Pop Art master Claes Oldenburg revisits his once-controversial 'Free Stamp'


By Steven Litt, The Plain Dealer

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Pop Art master Claes Oldenburg famously said in 1961, "I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on it's a-- in a museum."
On Wednesday, Oldenburg used more polite terms to describe his monumental "Free Stamp" sculpture, designed in collaboration with his late wife, Coosje van Bruggen, as an embodiment of his pugnacious philosophy of public art.
"You become part of the city, and that is what we wanted," he said during an interview at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland. "We wanted art to become part of the city and not something specialized that sits in a museum."
Oldenburg's official reason for visiting Cleveland from Saturday to Wednesday was to pick up an honorary doctor of humane letters degree at the Case Western Reserve University commencement on Sunday.
"Wow, that was a big deal, so many people," he said. "And so much clapping!"
But the trip from New York was also a good excuse for the 85-year-old artist -- who uses a cane and a wheelchair to get around -- to revisit his works scattered in museum collections around the region, including the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin, and to revisit "Free Stamp," now undergoing a round of maintenance and repair.
Oldenburg said he also wanted to see Lakeview Cemetery and the Peter B. Lewis Building at CWRU, designed by Frank Gehry.
"It's been a crowded few days," he said.
"Free Stamp" was originally commissioned by Sohio to sit on a pedestal at the foot of the company's skyscraper on Public Square, opposite the Soldiers and Sailors Monument.
BP America caused an uproar in 1986 when it took over Sohio and rejected the sculpture for undisclosed reasons.
"Free Stamp" was one of 44 monumental sculptures designed by Oldenburg and van Bruggen, and installed in cities around the world.
All are inspired by commonplace objects blown up to gargantuan scale: A set of giant shuttlecocks on the lawn in front of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri; a giant umbrella in downtown Des Moines, Iowa; a bent spoon with a cherry on the grounds of the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis.
Despite their humble inspirations and playful aura, Oldenburg and van Bruggen's public sculptures often conveyed political, social and sexual associations.
Perhaps for that reason, BP let "Free Stamp" sit for five years at the Illinois factory where it was fabricated, until the city of Cleveland agreed to place it at Willard Park, next to City Hall.
BP America never stated why it didn't want the sculpture, saying only that it was "inappropriate," according to Cleveland art historian and CWRU professor emeritus Ed Olszewski, who reviewed company documents for a book on "Free Stamp," and who coordinated Oldenburg's visit to Cleveland.
Olszewski said the bland language used by BP in reference to the sculpture was intended to avoid a lawsuit over breach of contract with the artist.
"It was difficult," Oldenburg said, looking back on the furor. "We stuck by our rules, and we just waited it out. Lots of people came to the rescue and spoke in favor of the sculpture."
Eventually, Oldenburg said he and van Bruggen allowed the work to be installed at Willard Park.
Instead of placing the gigantic rubber stamp upright on a pedestal, as originally intended, he said they wanted it placed on a diagonal so the handle would appear partially buried in the earth, as if BP had heaved the sculpture several blocks north of Public Square in disgust.
"We thought of the idea of picking it up and throwing it, and we were able to get this great site at City Hall, and it [looked as if] it landed on its side, and that made it far more interesting," Oldenburg said. "It made it an active work."
The diagonal placement made it possible to read the raised letters "F-R-E-E'' emblazoned in pink on the bottom of the stamp. Oldenburg said he and van Bruggen chose pink as the color to evoke the idea of a fresh rubber stamp that had not yet been inked.
Oldenburg said the idea of a giant rubber stamp was inspired by the form of the 1894 Soldiers and Sailors Monument, which features a slender, triumphal column rising out of a blocky, Romanesque-revival building.
Oldenburg and van Bruggen chose the word "FREE" not because they wanted to evoke the Civil War struggle to eradicate slavery, but simply because they wanted to play with a word that has enormous resonance in America.
"Free related to everything that you want to have for free," he said. "It's the idea of freedom in general. It has a lot of meanings. It's very open-ended. It doesn't mean anything. It's everything you can attach 'free' to in your experience."
Despite the fraught history of the sculpture and its relationship to BP, Oldenburg said he was very pleased that the company is paying $96,000 to have the sculpture maintained in a project led by the nonprofit ICA Art Conservation of Cleveland. The work is to last about a month.
"I'm not an expert in maintenance myself, but I could see that they're going to do a very thorough job," he said.
Oldenburg once proposed creating a giant edition of The Plain Dealer that would have been stuck to the top of the lakefront skyscraper designed by Gehry for Peter Lewis as the downtown headquarters of Progressive Corp., but the project never got off the ground.
Oldenburg said the fracas over "Free Stamp" was not his first rejection over visual content and symbolism in Cleveland.
He said the state of Ohio rejected a proposal of his to create a large-scale arch in the shape of a bent screw in front of the Frank J. Lausche State Office Building.
"It was rejected because of its connotations," he said, alluding to the idea of a limp phallus in front of a government building.
Then again, Oldenburg said, it probably would have been too tricky for state officials to use the sculpture as a rendezvous point by saying, "I'll meet you at the screw."

Early 1958 painting by Pop Art icon LeRoy Neiman fetches $162,000 at Shannon's May 1st auction


MILFORD, Connecticut -- 21 May 2014

MILFORD, Conn. – Four vibrant and colorful paintings by the renowned American Pop artist LeRoy Neiman (1921-2012) sold for a combined $279,600 at a sale of fine American and European paintings, drawings and sculptures held May 1st by Shannon's Fine Art Auctioneers, in the firm’s gallery located at 354 Woodmont Road in Milford. The auction grossed $2.5 million.
One of the paintings, a brilliantly colored early 1958 Neiman work titled The Gambling Set, showing a confluence of Las Vegas roulette wheels, was the auction’s top lot, soaring to $162,000. The other paintings were an enamel and acrylic on board titled Toreador ($50,400); a 1976 work titled Olympic Hurdlers ($40,800); and, from 1980, Olympic Ski Jump ($26,400).
“LeRoy Neiman has become an American icon in the art world. His prices are climbing fast due to strong collector interest,” said Gene Shannon of Shannon’s Fine Art Auctioneers. Of the sale overall, he said, “The market is solid at all price ranges. There was as much interest in the lower-priced art as there was for the more expensive paintings. As they say, a rising tide lifts all boats.”
Mr. Shannon said there was interest in all categories, to include American landscape and coastal works, Impressionism, Regionalism, Ashcan School, European Modern and American Modern, and 19th century European. Just over 250 artworks came up for bid in an auction that reported a 76 percent sell-through. About 1,250 bidders participated over the internet, via Invaluable.com.
Following are additional highlights from the auction. All prices quoted include a 20 percent buyer’s premium.
A pair of outstanding paintings realized identical selling prices of $78,000. The first was a large Manhattan scene with horse carriages and pedestrians by Paul Cornoyer, titled Rainy Day, New York. The dark Tonalist work hit $78,000 (its high estimate). Cornoyer was born in Missouri but studied art in Paris. He returned to America, where he became famous for his New York scenes.
The second painting was by the English-born American painter John George Brown, whose Girl With Doll depicted a young girl at the vine-covered door to her home. She is holding a doll in one hand and an umbrella in the other. Brown trained in England and Scotland before emigrating to this country in 1853. He’s best known for his renderings of hardscrabble urban street urchins.
“The paintings by Blanch Lazzell were as if from a time capsule,” Mr. Shannon said of the noted Provincetown artist. “They remained in her family until this auction.” The works sold included a classic woodcut of a small dory docked on a pier titled Provincetown Studios ($44,400); a stylized oil on canvas titled Petunias ($45,600); and a still life of a vase with flowers ($24,000).
Paintings by Jane Peterson were offered at the beginning of the auction and really got paddles wagging. A colorful rendering, pulled from a private collection and titled Zinnias in a Vase, was conservatively estimated at $7,000-$10,000. It ended up bringing $50,400. A gouache work by the artist, showing New York’s City Hall in a park setting with workers taking lunch hit $10,000.
Two paintings posted selling prices of $72,000. One was a coastal scene by Alfred Thompson Bricher, depicting sparkling blue water, a craggy coastline and a small boat sailing into port. The other was a study of circles and color by Victor Vasarely, the acknowledged grandfather of the Op Art movement, titled Stri-Arc (1974). The 31-inch-square painting sold to a bidder in France.
Another pair of paintings also posted identical selling prices, of $45,600. The first was a portrait of a young girl in a wooded setting, watching over her flock of geese, by Czechoslovakian artist Wenceslas Vaclav Von Brozik. The work sailed past its pre-sale estimate of $5,000-$7,000. The other was a New York City Impressionist street scene, titled Wall Street, by Lawrence Campbell.
From the sculptures category, Louise Nevelson’s painted wood composition titled Cryptic XXX, an unusual black painted creation with inset mirrors, went for nearly double its estimate, fetching $28,800. Returning to paintings, a small oil painting by the burgeoning Hawaiian artist David Hitchcock, measuring 9 inches by 17 inches and titled Kilauea Erupting, hammered for $27,600.
An untitled 30 inch by 40 inch “drip painting” oil on canvas by Rolph Scarlett (an artist featured in many of Shannon’s past auctions and a favorite with bidders) changed hands for $24,000. Also, an unusual mixed media on newsprint blue hued abstract by Paul Thek coasted to $26,400. Thek painted primarily on newsprint, which deteriorates rapidly, making his works quite rare.
A 1980 ink and acrylic on paper by Chinese artist Chao Chung-Hsiang went to a phone bidder in China for $21,600. It had been gifted to the consignor by the artist while he was living in New York City. Also, a view of Niagara Falls by Ferdinand Richardt (smaller than his monumental views of the Falls offered in previous Shannon’s sales), went to a determined bidder for $18,000.
Additional top achievers included a large, double-sided monochromatic watercolor of a woman walking past a tavern, with other figures, by Reginald Marsh, done in 1946 ($19,200); a still life oil painting by Albert Frances King, showing oranges and grapes ($11,000); and another still life oil painting, this one by Bryant Chapin, depicting a large selection of fruit atop a table ($9,000).
Historically, Shannon’s has specialized in American and European art executed between 1840 and 1940. In recent years the firm has expanded more into post-war modern and pop art. Shannon’s produces an extensive color catalog, which is available for sale on their website (www.shannons.com);. The firm holds two sales a year. The next sale will be held October 23rd.
Shannon’s Fine Art Auctioneers is always accepting quality consignments for future auctions. To consign a single piece of artwork, an estate or an entire collection, you may call them at (203) 877-1711; or, you can e-mail them at info@shannons.com. To learn more about Shannon’s Fine Art Auctioneers and the firm’s upcoming calendar of events, please log on to www.shannons.com.
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Press Contact:
Gene Shannon
Shannon's Fine Art Auctioneers
P: (203) 877-1711