Q&A: Claes Oldenburg

The 82-year-old sculptor is the creator of the Clothespin and the new Paint Torch on PAFA’s Lenfest Plaza

Photography by Wesley Mann

What was your inspiration for Paint Torch, your new sculpture that’s debuting on October 1st? The school still encourages painting with a brush. I started making all kinds of drawings of brushes in different positions, and I made little models. I used to do this with my wife [artist Coosje van Bruggen]. This is the first work since she passed away that I’m doing on my own.

Was the 53-foot scale of the piece daunting? It’s daunting to the fabricators and the installers to put it up right. The brush is facing up, and it’s got what we call “the blip” on the point of it. It’s suggesting a movement—the brush faces down, it picks up the paint and carries it up into the air where it will be applied, presumably, to a painting. Everything in Philadelphia is right-angular. This is a 60-degree diagonal. When you’re coming down Broad Street toward City Hall, you’ll see it sticking out. Very dramatic.

Is there something special about returning to Philadelphia, home of your first major public sculpture? There is. In 1976 I invited Coosje, who became my wife, to come to the installation of the Clothespin. That was her first encounter with America. One of the first things we did was to go to PAFA’s Furness-Hewitt building with Anne d’Harnoncourt, before she became [Art Museum] director.

Why a clothespin? There had been an exhibition in ’72 of my work, called “Object Into Monument,” at the Museum. The poster for that show was a clothespin. Other things seemed to add to the rightness of it, such as the fact that the stainless steel clasp, when you looked at it, was really a seven and a six. It also had a sort of distant reference to the Liberty Bell, with the flowing-out at the bottom and a crack in the middle where the two parts met.

Was it also a sly commentary on the city’s unique odors? No, I don’t associate bad smells with Philadelphia. [laughs]

Do you know there’s a tradition at Penn involving your Split Button sculpture? I know it’s in many of their photographs—pictures of the band standing on it, kids sticking their heads out of the holes.

They try to have sex under it. Is that right?

One of your sketches is part of a secret art installation left on the moon by Apollo 12. Forrest Myers was a sculptor, and he had a friend who had access to the capsule that was going up there. There was this very tiny ceramic chip, and he got five artists [including Andy Warhol] to put little drawings on it. I drew a mouse on it, “The Geometric Mouse.”

It’s believed that the “moon museum” is there to this day. That’s possible. I don’t think we’re going to spend a lot of money- to find out.

What do you think of the Rocky statue at the Philadelphia Art Museum? It’s still there? Well, there’s a lot of statues in Philadelphia.  It doesn’t bother me. It’s outside, right?