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."