Examples of this edition are in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Characteristically of Pop giant Claes Oldenburg’s singular oeuvre, Clothespin Ten Foot is at once amusing and elegant, light-hearted and profound. This striking example is an earlier version of Philadelphia’s favorite public sculpture, the soaring 45-foot structure which Oldenburg erected in the city in 1976. As a commonplace object that the artist encountered regularly in his studio, the clothespin fascinated Oldenburg and here he set about radically transforming its scale, shape, and texture to produce a sculpture that would provoke a sense of estrangement, delight, and wonder at the everyday, what he termed “the poetry of everywhere” (C. Oldenburg, “Extracts from Studio Notes (1962-64),” Artforum 4 no. 5, January 1966, p. 33). Thus, the present sculpture is the product of a mental game of looking at the world anew, as Oldenburg has not only enlarged but also elongated the fastener, creating two curved forms that seem to sensuously embrace, a graceful anthropomorphization of the pin’s act of bringing together. In fact, Oldenburg’s original sketch for Clothespin includes a photograph of Constântin Brancu?i’s proto-Cubist sculpture The Kiss, indicating the dual art historical and quotidian inspiration for the piece. At the same time as it echoes the poetic and playful enlargement of objects by Surrealists like René Magritte, the engorgement of a simple, archetypal clothespin into a glorious ten-foot sculptural form references America’s increasingly consumerist culture in a punchy Pop fashion. A high-impact sculpture whose form has become iconic, Clothespin Ten Foot coaxes the architecture, grace, and magic from a wooden fastener.
Oldenburg executes this work in Corten weathering steel which gives the sculpture a rich russet hue and the appearance of a velvety texture. The piece is resolutely concrete and material, a physical form to be reckoned with. The colossal clothespin’s two prongs are elegantly curved; they seem to be wrapped up in a silhouetted embrace, the taut steel spring emotionally soft as it evokes an arm pulling a lover close. There is a strong architectural element in Clothespin Ten Foot: as Oldenburg noted of the “found design,” clothespins inherently “have an architectural character, like the three-way plugs which also lie about in my studio” (C. Oldenburg quoted in Oldenburg: Six Themes, exh. cat., Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1975, p. 61). Like Oldenburg’s other masterfully enlarged and otherwise radically transformed common objects, the present sculpture questions the manner in which value ascription shapes conventions of sight. When a simple clothespin is altered in scale and material, it exists in the viewer’s visual field in an entirely different way, which opens that viewer up to a new mental experience of the object. That fresh perception could have both poetic and political resonances; in gazing upon Clothespin Ten Foot one can simultaneously delight in the unexpected beauty of the commonplace and contemplate the hulking presence and glorification of consumer goods in the American consciousness.
The Clothespin sculptures, which Oldenburg executed in a limited number in materials like steel, aluminum, bronze, and cardboard, have an interesting history. The artist initially designed Clothespin in 1969, at a point when he was moving away from soft sculpture and toward large-scale projects. His punchy graphic sketch, which envisioned the clothespin as a soaring structure that would pierce the skies, was presented as a facetious “late submission” to the historic 1922 Chicago Tribune Architectural Competition (one of the best-known 20th century international design competitions, the Tribune contest resulted in the neo-Gothic Tribune Tower). Oldenburg created these works at heights of four and ten feet before going on to construct a “large-scale project” version that was 45 feet tall. Erected in 1976 in Philadelphia’s Centre Square Plaza across from City Hall, the gigantic Clothespin was Oldenburg’s first large-scale civic sculpture to be permanently placed. Seen by thousands of people daily, the colossal clothespin is beloved by Philadelphians and visitors to the city.
Oldenburg’s reasons for selecting the clothespin as a subject to enlarge are multifaceted. For one, the artist frequently uses them as part of his own working method. He explained, “Clothespins are a studio necessity for me. With clothespins I join parts of soft sculptures in preparation for sewing. Clothespins also hold parts together while the glue is setting. They are instruments of connection which is why they are so important in the fabrication of my work” (C. Oldenburg quoted in M. Friedman (ed.), Oldenburg: Six Themes, exh. cat., Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1975, p. 61). He went on to note that the importance of object to his artistic process made him think of the pins as larger than they truly were, a thought which led him to make enlarged sculptures of them.
Oldenburg’s iconic sculptures take the world of real objects as their material and produce giant, fantastic sculptures that make reality, and our sense of our place in it, feel strange and new. Works such as Clothespin Ten Foot reveal to the viewer his or her own latent capacity for renewed and retooled perception and its capacity to do so is, perhaps, Claes Oldenburg’s greatest gift.