You can give me a gift like this anytime

This is Senior Week at Yale, the time leading up to their graduation.  So all kinds of events celebrate University notables from today and yesterday.

A curator from MoMA was in town to discuss a Claes Oldenburg sculpture on the Yale campus. The then-famous pop/conceptual artist was an alum, although at Yale he studied literature.  For many years, Oldenburg thought he wanted to be a writer and worked as a journalist.  Things started to change when he moved to New York and immersed himself in its streets and bric-a-brac storefronts on the Lower East Side.

He began to make works of the commercial, the mundane, and with the help of his wife, made colossal sized sculptures of hamburgers and rubber stamps and more.

He made the Yale work as a gift, and after fabrication and flat-bed trucking it to campus, literally assembled it with no warning in the Beinecke Library Plaza.

Surprise was a key element.  The year was 1969 ,and protest was in the air.

While Oldenburg doesn’t call Lipstick Ascending on Caterpillar Tracks a political work, it’s hard not to see the army tank topped by a tube of lipstick as anything but.

The inflatable lipstick deflated regularly; easy to see its erotic undertones.

From the first, students used the “monument” to post notices of protests and posters for other campus events.  Over time, apparently it was vandalized and deteriorated.

In fact, the original lipstick was made of a soft material that didn’t even last two weeks before being replaced by sturdier fiberglass.

Ultimately the sculpture was removed, at least in part because it was seen as incendiary on this traditional campus.  Ironically, it showed at the Guggenheim, where it was surrounded by stanchions–“keep off!” they communicate.

Reinstalled at Yale in 1974 after restoration, it now is a notable part of Yale’s identity.  One audience member commented that a senior rite of passage is to eat a particular greasy sandwich while sitting on the sculpture (although campus rules prohibit touching the sculpture, rarely is it seen without a rider).

We watched a film of the fabrication, done by  Lippincott in North Haven nearby.  That foundry also fabricated Barnett Newman’s works of broken obelisks.  They apparently knew what they were doing.

Frank and Ed, identified in the film, did their work while also laughing with the artist.  One commented that “I think they (Yale) should accept the sculpture because it’s fine art.” A far cry from how Oldenburg’s “low” subject matter was first received.

Still, at the time, such a hybrid sculpture as Lipstick was radical.  Not a sculpture out of steel or marble, but made of plywood and fabric.  Not a monumental subject, but an ordinary subject made monumental.  And not easily interpreted or understood, as two very different kinds of imagery were molded together.

The model in the Yale University Art Gallery

As the students gathered and began to clap the slapdash installation of the work, an official of Yale, unidentified, said, “It’s grand and beautiful and monumental.”  And so it remains today.  A commentary about the power of women, the changing university experience as Yale went co-ed, the Vietnam war, and much more can be read from it.  But it’s also silly, playful, absurd, fantastical, and fun.

If Oldenburg wants to drop a gift off in my yard, bring it on!




To read more about Oldenburg, check this out: