Any single work from these two projects will seem merely crude, a joke, a simple passing off as art of something found in the world of trash and cheap commodities. But to see many of them gathered again into a gallery is to hear a primal cry against capitalism and its discontents. “I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical,” Oldenburg wrote in 1961, in a famous manifesto that continued: “I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.”
It’s striking that “political” is the first of the three essential elements in Oldenburg’s triad and that it leads through erotic passion to the mystical. “Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties” reanimates the political in our memory of the artist’s work, which all too often has taken the form of glib public sculpture that is more about personal branding than message or substance.
Both Wesselmann and Oldenburg directly confront the world of commodities and our fetishistic desire for them in American life. Wesselmann does it by showing us how the magic works, how advertising makes things beautiful, how light glints off the voluptuous sundries that marketers are hawking. In the oversize 1973 “Still Life No. 60,” the viewer can walk up and almost into a gathering of painted forms — lipstick, nail polish, sunglass, a ring — that are carefully reproduced on separate canvas panels, with a brilliant sheen, as if the photographer’s flash had just that moment gone off, giving each object its perfect moment of desirability.
In Oldenburg’s work from the 1960s, one can not only walk into a “store” filled with commodities, one also encounters giant floor sculptures, made of fabric, depicting cake, a burger and an ice cream cone. The scale is similar to Wesselmann’s glistening, free-standing still life, but the impact is very different. Wesselmann unmasks the theatrical spectacle that inflames our desire for things, while Oldenburg makes the desire itself seem all too real and present in the room, misshapen and misdirected and faintly disgusting.
Both exhibitions directly challenge an early verdict on Pop from critic Dore Ashton: “The attitude of the pop artist is diffident. He doesn’t aspire to interpret or re-present, but only to present.” In fact, nothing seems diffident in Wesselmann’s oeuvre, and certainly nothing is diffident in Oldenburg’s work from the ’60s. They were very different artists, but certainly at this moment, in the 1960s, both were passionately engaged with dissecting American visual culture and creating a new American art that rested on the foundation of centuries of antecedent genius.
“Claes Oldenburg: The 1960s” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through Aug. 5. “Pop Art and Beyond: Tom Wesselmann” is on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond through July 28. For more information, visit www.vmfa.state.va.us and www.moma.org.