Not everyone liked the things artist Claes Oldenburg made, which were gigantic sculptures of such mundane objects as a hamburger, a lipstick case, a clothes peg, a cream cone ice cream, a pretzel, an ironing board, a teddy bear, aspirin and a very, very big bat. in Chicago.
Before the bat was built, the late Tribune architecture critic Paul Gapp called the artist a “veteran man and setter”, saying he was “about to rip off the taxpayers for a bat.” $100,000 baseball game. After it was built in 1977, my former colleague, Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Blair Kamin, called it “ridiculous.”
But the New York Times viewed Oldenburg favorably. He died July 18 at the Manhattan home/studio where he had long resided and part of the title of his obituary in that journal noted that he “took humble things to new heights” and a later story cried out that “Claes Oldenburg was a great Accord.”
His recent death brought back a personal memory of a chilly morning in 1977.
I was a young reporter standing in front of 600 W. Madison St. trying to get people to comment on the large sculpture that towered in the sky across the street, the “Batcolumn” of 101 feet high.
The baseball bat was not his brainchild. He first thought of a large spoon. Then he thought of a spark plug. He had been commissioned in 1975 as part of the General Services Administration’s Art in Architecture program to place contemporary American art in new federal buildings. (The city’s first GSA artwork was “Flamingo” by Alexander Calder, erected on Dearborn Street in 1974). The cost was $100,000, as Gapp humorously noted.
Oldenburg said the bat was a monument “both to baseball and to the construction industry…a celebration of steel construction and the ambition and vigor that Chicago loves to see in it. -same”.
I thought it was a good choice because, located on Madison Street, the north/south dividing line in the city, it symbolized how baseball has always divided this city. The neighborhood was then still erasing part of its past, getting rid of what was our dumping ground, a bunch of cheap hotels, saloons and sad souls clinging to what was left of life.
The bat is still standing, sunlight often playing on its open trellis, its criss-crossing diamond pattern reflecting off the windows of the Harold Washington Social Security Center.
Oldenburg wasn’t much of a baseball fan – “I love the game,” he told a reporter in 1977, “although I haven’t been to a game since I was 11 – but he was from Chicago. Born in 1929 in Sweden, he came here in 1936 when his diplomat father, Gösta, was appointed Swedish consul general in Chicago. And this is where he grew up.
It’s impossible to know how those youthful years here influenced his career, but it was a place of superlatives and the birthplace of the skyscraper. A visual feast.
He first lived on the quiet Crilly Court in the Old Town with his father, mother Sigrid (a former singer and visual artist) and a younger brother named Richard, who would be the director of the Museum of Modern Art and later chairman of Sotheby’s, the international auction house.
The family then moved to a flat in Walton Street, along with a French poodle named Tessie. It was filled with art and antiquities and was, one Tribune reporter wrote, “a sanctuary of gracious and comfortable living”. His parents were famous for throwing “lovely old-fashioned Swedish Christmas parties” at their house.
After graduating from the Latin School in 1946, Claes studied literature and art history at Yale University. Then he came back here to work at the City News Bureau, the famously colorful training ground (i.e. training camp) for future journalists such as Mike Royko, Richard Christiansen, Pam Zekman, Bernie Judge , Charles MacArthur and my father, Herman Kogan. It also employed some who chose different professions, such as writer Kurt Vonnegut, actor Melvin Douglas, and Oldenburg.
After a few years there, he attended the School of the Art Institute. He had a studio on North Avenue for a time and the first recorded sales of his work were at the 57th Street Art Fair where, the Tribune reported, he sold five items for a total price of $25. Soon he lives in New York, where he will become famous.
He was always eager to share his thoughts on street art, once saying, “A graffiti-decorated train is like a beautiful South American flower whose colors breathe new life into the greyness of the city.
And he often shared his impressions of our city, telling the Tribune in 1972: “Chicago is more serene [than New York City] because of the lake and the meadows. It’s quiet and overwhelming. The large amounts of space give you a strange feeling of nostalgia. The streets run endlessly.
Oldenburg was 93 when he died and you can learn a lot more by reading his obituary. You’ll read about his two influential wives, Patty Mucha and Coosje van Bruggen, his many works, and the controversy and differing opinions that accompanied his art.
The NYT wrote that it “revolutionized our idea of what public art could be.”
So, there I was on that cold day in 1977 watching the “Batcolumn.”
I stopped a guy, who had obviously been a recent and well-served client of one of the neighborhood saloons.
“Do you have anything to say about this sculpture?” I asked.
The man groaned and coughed.
“Do you want to say something ?” I asked.
“I have something to say,” said the man.
“Okay, then,” I said, pencil to paper.
“Give me a dollar,” the man said. “Give me a dollar and I could build something better than this.”