The dynamic duet of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen

The dynamic duet of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen

Remembering Claes Oldenburg, who died aged 93 on 18 July 2022, we revisit our 2021 article celebrating his partnership with Coosje van Bruggen, as the duo’s final work together, Dropped Bouquet, was realised and exhibited at Pace New York’s ‘Claes & Coosje: A Duet’

It was a well-worn condition of 20th-century art: the creativity of women eclipsed by the fame of their husbands. But in New York, an exhibition at Pace Gallery is seeking to remedy one of these historical imbalances: Coosje van Bruggen’s vital yet historically unsung role alongside Claes Oldenburg in the Pop Art powerhouse that is Claes & Coosje. 

‘The exhibit as a whole is a beautiful, intelligent and compelling elucidation of artistic partnership in celebration of multiplicity over reductive views of authorship,’ the duo’s daughter, Maartje Oldenburg, tells Wallpaper*. 

The pair met in 1971, when Coosje was a young curator at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and Claes was a subversive and prominent force in Pop Art. They married six years later and Coosje soon turned from interlocutor into fully fledged artist and collaborator in her own right. She brought a lot to the table: the intellectual rigour of a critic combined with the poetic sensibilities of a sculptor. The results were sometimes controversial, instantly recognisable public artworks that prove difficult to forget. 

Oldenburg/van Bruggen, Leaning Fork with Meatball and Spaghetti II, 1994. Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen
12, 2008 Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen
Above: Oldenburg/van Bruggen, Leaning Fork with Meatball and Spaghetti II, 1994. Below: Knife Ship 1:12, 2008. © Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen

Augmented, uncanny replicas of familar objects were Claes & Coosje’s bread and butter. The Pace exhibition spans from their early collaborations in the 1980s to their final works in the late 2000s, including studies, original artefacts, soft sculptures and drawings relating to their most famed works. 

The beauty of Claes & Coosje’s work is that you never quite know what’s coming: perhaps it will be a blown-up shuttlecock, a deflated, sagging viola, a disorientingly large fork affixed to a pasta-covered meatball or perhaps even an ominous penknife splayed to resemble a boat. The latter sculpture relates to Il Corso del Coltello (The Course of the Knife), a colossal site-specific performance project for Venice, Italy, commissioned and conceived with the writer Germano Celant and architect Frank Gehry. Elsewhere, in a harmonious déjà vu, is a suite of gloriously warped musical instruments that Claes & Coosje created around the time of their last major solo show, ‘The Music Room’, presented at Pace Gallery, New York, in 2005. 

31 Flowers, 2009 2021 Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen
Oldenburg/van Bruggen, 31 Flowers, 2009. © 2021 Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen

The show captures all the wit, whimsy and subversive spirit of Claes & Coosje’s remarkable collaboration, but it’s also intensely moving. With 31 Flowers, the mood changes from amused awe to reflection. Over the years, Claes presented his wife with small sculptural works as tokens of affection. Shortly before Coosje passed away in 2009, Claes created 31 intricate paper flowers for her as an anniversary gift, one for each year of their marriage.

Flowers spring up as a recurring theme in their work, and formed the basis of their final project together. Dropped Bouquet – an enormous painted aluminium sculpture created this year and on display for the first time – was initially conceived for a grassy, sloping hillside in the sculpture garden of Indianapolis Museum of Art, but the original commission was never realised. ‘It is personally meaningful to realise Dropped Bouquet today to bring Coosje into a present with growing awareness of and appreciation for the too often minimised contributions of women,’ Maartje says. 

Oldenburg/van Bruggen Dropped Bouquet, 2021 by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen
Oldenburg/van Bruggen, Dropped Bouquet, 2021. © 2021 Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. Photography: Tom Powel Imaging

The exhibition offers rare insight into the fantastical world of Claes & Coosje. A world where high and low art converge, imagination roams free, love doesn’t wane, and where, ultimately, it takes two. 

As Maartje concludes, ‘When my eyes first skipped across more than 40 images of large-scale projects, displayed chronologically on a single wall, I cried, because they represent my childhood but also my parents’ lived commitment to the immanence of art that, moving between personal and public spheres, can sustain a duet for all.’ §

This article was first published in spring 2021

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