Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

April 10, 2013

Random Thoughts: The art of Oldenburg

By Dorothy Copus Brush
Chronicle correspondent

CROSSVILLE — Last week I wrote about my book of letters but there was one handwritten one I didn’t include. It was written to me by Claes Oldenburg on December 8, 1972 when he was only 43.

How did this happen? Oldenburg was starting his career and was getting fine reviews for his work in cities interested in public art. Lansing, Michigan invited the sculptor to come and submit his idea for consideration. It was to be a huge sculpture of a household object or as he later called them a “Large Scale Project.”

A reception was held for Oldenburg at the home of the Michigan State University president’s home. Everyone was well dressed except the guest of honor. He was dressed very informally and seemed a bit uncomfortable surrounded by so much artificiality.

I spoke with him a few moments and later I wrote him a letter telling him about a Lansing art attraction from the New Deal days that he might find of interest.

It was a shock when I received a letter in return. His bold, hand written in black ink, scrawled message, though short, filled the entire lined 8 x 11 school tablet. It was signed Claes O and the O was instinctive for the extra loop that was added at the top of the O. Along the side he wrote Dec. 8, ’72.

He wrote, “Dear Dorothy Brush: Thank you for letting me know of this mans work. I hope to visit the museum next time Im in Lansing.” The message is exactly as he wrote it. Although that was the last and only time I had contact with the artist I have watched his career closely.

No, Oldenburg did not get the commission from Lansing but he and his wife artist Coosje Van Bruggen left examples of their public art in cities across this country and abroad. They were all named. There was The Trowel, the first both worked on and one of the last was in Barcelona where a 68 foot-tall book of red-tipped yellow matches was left by the pair.

I looked at that letter from long-ago when I read that an exhibition called “Claes Oldenbroug: The Street and the Store” is to open April 14 in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It will give credit to his wife for all her collaboration.

In 1961 a much younger, brasher Oldenbroug wrote a book “I Am for an Art” and in it he said a much-used phrase. He wrote, “I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.”

This will be Oldenbroug’s chance to do something other than sit on his ass in a museum.

Today the Swedish-born man is 84 and known everywhere as one of the founders of pop art culture. Brought to Chicago by his Swedish family in the ‘30s he was raised an American and became naturalized later. Yale-educated he reported for a Chicago newspaper before he got interested in public art.

After working on a number of projects involving  pop art with Coosje Van Bruggen the two married in 1978 and had 34 years together until her death in 2009.

She was born in the Netherlands and was well known as an art critic and author before she came to the states.

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Dorothy Copus Brush is a Fairfield Glade resident and Crossville Chronicle staffwriter whose column is published each Wednesday. She may be reached at