In New York in 1961, the doors opened in a Store unlike any other. Claes Oldenburg's First Store was not only a shop, but was an entire gallery's worth of playful artworks, and its opening was one of the seminal moments in the development of art in the last half century. Oldenburg had painstakingly and humourously recreated absurd plaster imitations of the kind of object that he saw in the shops in his area and filled an entire shop with them, labeling them with prices suited to their nature as artworks. Two Hats, executed that year, was one of the pieces on display in this First Store (which had first appeared in the Martha Jackson Gallery earlier that year). He created many of these objects using the same method evident in Two Hats, with plaster-soaked muslin placed over wire frames then enameled and given its zany, lurid colors.
The opening of Oldenburg's Store was one of the key moments in the development of early Pop, introducing everyday comsumerism to the canon of art subjects. The subjects of his artworks are the items of everyday life, our knickknacks and necessities. Oldenberg has eschewed aesthetic themes, and indeed aesthetics, creating something that is popular in origin and in its result, that can be recognized by the man on the street, and incorporates the life of the man on the street.
Oldenburg acted as, and therefore celebrated, the store owner as well as the manufacturer. There is a political edge to his interest in working class subjects, and to his enshrining them here in his Store. Likewise, on a deeper, more personal level, the artist had long been fascinated with the street, and life on the street, with the contents of the shops in his area, with the characters who peopled the city. He did not find that most art had anything to do with real life and with real people, and sought to rectify this in his works: 'Art should be literally made out of the ordinary world; its space should be our space, its time our time; its objects our ordinary objects' (Oldenburg, quoted in B. Rose, Claes Oldenburg, exh.cat., New York, 1970, p. 53). So here, the Two Hats are common objects that have been reconstructed in the stuff of art, with humor and whimsy shining through and gilding their prosaic subject's origins.
First Store reliefs including Two Hats in the exhibition Environments, Situations, Spaces, Martha Jackson Gallery, 1961