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Monday, 05 November 2012 23:05

Pop Worlds: David Hockney and Claes Oldenburg

Andy Warhol's manifesto for living could have been his declaration that 'Pop Art is for Everyone'. If, in the last issue of Itch, I was reflecting on the Gerhard Richter exhibition, Panorama, a couple of shows in 2012 brought two other pop art masters into my cultural orbit. Jostling my way through the final day of David Hockney's sell out A Bigger Picture exhibition at the Royal Academy in London (21 January–9 April 2012; now on show at Museum Ludwig, Cologne) proved an enjoyable if slightly fraught experience. My overriding impressions were of a deeply personal set of paintings of California and the Woldgate Woods in Yorkshire, whose flamboyant vibrancy was located somewhere between the formal innovations of Monet-Gauguin-Van Gogh and a set of 1960s-style West Coast hallucinations. Moreover, what really seemed to set this exhibition apart from other Hockney shows was the central place accorded to a room of works based on iPad sketches entitled The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011. In these landscapes drenched with colour it was good to see the spirit of pop, its embrace of popular technology, rub shoulders cheekily with the next room's more serious painterly riffs on Claude Lorrain's The Sermon on the Mount.

Indeed, playful dialogue with art historical tradition was also a key feature of the stunning Claes Oldenburg retrospective at the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien (Vienna, 4 February–28 May 2012; now on show at The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao). For if the London Hockney show was primarily rural, Vienna's Oldenburg exhibition was vigorously urban, dealing with the detritus and absurdity of public and private city life. Witty, coolly erotic and subversive of the American modernist tradition, Oldenburg seems to reassemble Duchampian iconoclasm in the mirror of American kitsch and provides us with serious Dr Strangelove-style parody along the way. This is perhaps most evident in the film of Oldenburg's 1969 anti-Vietnam War statement and satire on the national public art tradition, Monument for Yale University: Giant Travelling and Telescoping Lipstick. Masculine; feminine; aggressive; absurd. The connotations of Oldenburg's giant lipstick on tank-like caterpillar treads, its impish yet potentially destructive sexuality, were suitably framed by being displayed in the city most freely associated with Sigmund Freud. By contrast, and moving from the public to the domestic, Oldenburg's Home objects playfully subvert the American modernist disdain for kitsch as well as its fetishisation of masculine creative potency and Art for Art's Sake. Thus, readymade icons of everyday life are transformed into art by virtue of their loss of function and seeming impotency: a collapsed drainpipe loses its rigidity; giant electric plugs hang inert while outsized light switches cannot be turned on. If Oldenburg reflects on, inverses and departs from modernist art  tradition (as epitomised by figures such as Clement Greenberg), it is also arguable that iconographical traces of his oeuvre such as a deflated pill cabinet and collapsed bath tub can also be perceived in the preoccupations of later international artists. Here I am thinking of the potential for Oldenburg's influence on the perplexities posed by Rachel Whiteread's spectral domestic sculptural spaces or the pharmaceutical obsessions of Damien Hirst, whose pithily morbid reflections on art, cruelty, beauty, wealth and death were recently dissected at Tate Modern.

Having shed light on these complex artistic elements, the Oldenburg retrospective brought home just how central his work was to Pop in the 1960s and how his influence can still be felt today. Indeed, by the time I reached his Mouse Museum, a super-sized hybrid of Walt Disney, Joseph Cornell and an American salvage-yard, it seemed clear that this show was cementing Oldenburg's status as a King of Pop, his playful oeuvre nudging Jeff Koons's sculpture of Michael Jackson and Bubbles the Monkey off its plinth. Yet in contrast to London's Hockney exhibition and against the architectural backdrop of the ghosts of Vienna's imperial grandeur, I wandered around the show in blissful calm. Not even the carnivalesque imprint of Gustav Klimt's centenary celebrations – the gold, the glamour, the sensuousness, the thunder of The Beethoven Frieze – could disrupt me. I could drown out the drone of Vienna's rush-hour hubbub and visualize the night-time neon, domestic dramas and consumer fantasies littering and illuminating Oldenburg's pop world.

Exhibition Tours

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture
Museum Ludwig, Cologne: 29 October 2012–4 February 2013.
Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties
Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao: 30 October 2012–17 February 2013,
Museum of Modern Art, New York: 14 April–5 August 2013,
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis: 13 September 2013–12 January 2014.
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Larissa Allwork

'Fade to Grey: Review of Gerhard Richter exhibition (2012).

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