Claes Oldenburg's supersized "Floor Burger," seven feet in diameter.
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A Pop Art Buffet

Meryle Evans / July 2013

New York City—“Both pastry and art are forms of pleasure,” says celebrated Pop Art patriarch Claes Oldenburg, whose very pleasurable early 1960s sculptures of comestibles and commodities are the subject of a wide-ranging retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art through August 5. Among the over 150 sculptures and reliefs on display in “Claes Oldenburg: The Street and The Store,” images of food abound, ranging from a glass case stacked with plaster pies to the supersized 11-foot-long “Floor Cone,” made of foam rubber and cardboard boxes.

The show revisits the early days of Pop Art, when Oldenburg lived in the gritty, pre-gentrified Lower East Side and portrayed everyday life in the area with witty, audacious creations that reflected the cultural context of his surroundings. The artist, who was born in Sweden in 1929 but raised in Chicago, came to New York City in 1956 and became a groundbreaking pioneer in an era when young artists in the city were inventing new forms and collaborating with filmmakers and dancers to stage happenings and art installations. Even today, Oldenburg remarked at a preview of the MoMA exhibit, “If there is anything important about New York, it is performance; it takes place in the theater and in the street.”

The commonplace objects Oldenburg constructed of chicken wire overlaid with plaster-soaked canvas and enamel paint—clothes, household appliances, and deli and coffeeshop dishes—he actually sold in a pop-up store/art installation he set up on East Second Street in 1961 and later displayed in Manhattan galleries. Most of the pieces are now in museums and private collections, and have been temporarily reunited for this engaging sculptural buffet.

“Two Cheeseburgers with Everything,” made of burlap soaked in plaster, and his signature foam-filled “Floor Burger,” seven foot in diameter, illustrate Oldenburg’s imaginative use of different materials and scale to depict the same object. His “Giant BLT” is composed of vinyl, kapok, and wood, while tartines in a glass case are plaster on porcelain plates. More substantial fare includes pork chops in a frying pan, a green salad, and an oversized baked potato, split open and topped with a pat of butter.

There is an array of tempting plaster and paint soda fountain treats: pastries, a banana sundae, a candy counter with brightly colored candies, chocolates in a box, and an ice cream sandwich. While most of the sweets are close to average size, a monumental slice of chocolate cake with filling and icing is almost five feet tall. As Oldenburg observes, “There is nothing that says you shouldn’t enjoy food.”