Not everyone liked the things artist Claes Oldenburg made, the gigantic sculptures made out of such everyday objects as a hamburger, a lipstick case, a clothespin, an ice cream cone, a pretzel, an ironing board, a teddy bear, aspirin and a very, very large one Bat were in Chicago.
Before the bat was built, the late Tribune architecture critic Paul Gapp called the artist “a veteran dresser and poseur” and railed that he was “about to rip off the taxpayers for a $100,000 baseball bat.” After it was built in 1977, my former colleague, Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Blair Kamin, called it “ridiculous.”
But the New York Times looked positively at Oldenburg. He died on July 18 at Manhattan’s home/studio, where he had long lived, and part of his obituary headline in that paper noted that he “taken humble objects to new heights,” and a later story exclaimed that “Claes Oldenburg was a great trade.”
His recent death brought back a personal memory of a chilly 1977 morning.
I was a young reporter standing across the street from 600 W. Madison St. trying to get people to comment on the large sculpture towering skyward across the street, the 101 foot tall “Bat Pillar” .
The baseball bat wasn’t his original idea. He first thought of a large spoon. Then he thought of a fire candle. He was 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 Alexander Calder’s “Flamingo,” placed on Dearborn Street in 1974). The cost was $100,000, Gapp noted irritably.
Oldenburg said the bat is a memorial “to both baseball and the construction industry … a celebration of steel construction and the ambition and strength that Chicago likes to see in itself.”
I thought it was a good choice because on Madison Street, the north-south division of the city, it symbolized the way baseball ever divided this city. The area was still in the process of erasing part of its past, getting rid of our Skid Row, a stretch of cheap hotels, saloons and sad souls clinging to what was left of life.
The bat still stands, sunlight often playing with its open latticework, its criss-crossing diamond pattern reflected in the windows of the Harold Washington Social Security Center.
Oldenburg wasn’t a huge baseball fan — “I like the game,” he told a reporter in 1977, “although I haven’t seen the game since I was 11,” but he was a Chicagoan. Born in Sweden in 1929, 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 say how growing up here influenced his career, but this was a place of superlatives and the birthplace of the skyscraper. A feast for the eyes.
He initially lived in tranquil Crilly Court in the old town with his father, his mother Sigrid (a former singer and visual artist) and a younger brother named Richard, who would become director of the Museum of Modern Art and later chairman of Sotheby’s, the international auction company.
The family later moved into an apartment on Walton Street with a French poodle named Tessie. Filled with art and antiques, it was, as one Tribune reporter wrote, “a sanctuary of living gracefully and comfortably.” His parents were known for throwing “charming, old-fashioned Swedish Christmas parties” at their homes.
After graduating from the Latin School in 1946, Claes studied literature and art history at Yale University. He then returned here to work at the City News Bureau, the infamous training ground (ie, boot 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 other careers, such as writer Kurt Vonnegut, actor Melvin Douglas, and Oldenburg.
After a few years he attended the School of the Art Institute there. 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 combined price of $25. Soon he was living in New York, where he would become famous.
Always willing to share his ideas about urban art, he once said: “A graffiti-decorated train is like a magnificent South American flower, whose colors breathe new life into the gray of the city.”
And he often shared his impressions of our city, telling the Tribune in 1972, “Chicago is more laid back [than New York City] because of the lake and the prairie. It feels calm and overwhelming. The large proportions of space convey a strange feeling of nostalgia. The streets run to infinity.”
Oldenburg was 93 years old when he died, and much more can be learned from his obituary. You will read about his two influential wives, Patty Mucha and Coosje van Bruggen, his many works, and the controversies and differing opinions that accompanied his art.
The NYT wrote that he “revolutionized our idea of what public art could be.”
So there I was on this cool day in 1977 looking at the “Bat Column”.
I stopped a guy who had apparently recently been a well-served customer at one of the neighborhood salesrooms.
“Have you anything to say about this sculpture?” I asked.
The man grunted and coughed.
“Do you want to say something?” I asked.
“I have something to say,” said the man.
“All right,” I said, pointing the pencil to the paper.
“Give me a dollar,” the man said. “Give me a dollar and I could build something better.”