Claes Oldenburg

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Ice bag - scale B 1971

© Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen Purchased 1975

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Oldenburg’s art has always been preoccupied with the ordinary, and his subjects are consistently taken from his immediate surroundings. This practice of elevating humble, everyday objects to the realm of high art has its origins in the Surrealist obsession with the objet trouvé, or found object, the readymade tradition set in train by Marcel Duchamp. In Icebag—scale B 1971 the Surrealists’ absurdist disregard for scale and functionality is married to a Pop art fixation on consumerism. Forfeiting functionality for style, the utilitarian object becomes an ideal, reversing the original Modernist dictum that form must follow function; here, function follows form. With works such as Icebag—scale B, Oldenburg was at the forefront of the avant-garde sculpture that transformed art in the 1960s. Soft sculpture was Oldenburg’s preferred medium and he is widely credited as the catalyst for the movement, evolving as they did out of the soft, oversized props he created for performances at his Ray Gun Theater in New York in the early 1960s.

‘I am for an art … that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum,’ stated Oldenburg in 1961.[i] With the production of his mechanised Icebags in 1971 this desire was realised. Icebag—scale B moves almost imperceptibly in the exhibition space, slowly winding and undulating this way and that, creating the rather eerie sensation that it is following one around the room. The soft, amorphous folds of bright yellow nylon lend the object an organic feel as it gently, almost reassuringly, ‘breathes’.

Icebag—scale B is a variant of Oldenburg’s first mechanised sculpture, Giant icebag, which he created for the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka, Japan. Harnessing technology to realise the desired movement, Oldenburg was able ‘to take something which is formidable in its complexity, and make it do some very foolish thing—I sort of like the idea that all this time and effort was spent on the Icebag’.[ii] The creation of this very complex work was the result of a collaboration between Oldenburg, Gemini GEL and Krofft Enterprises over 14 months. Although the Icebags are identical, each of the 25 examples in the edition was individually assembled and fitted with the specially designed hydraulic system that regulates inflation and deflation. For Oldenburg, who is particularly concerned with ‘movement and the conversion of states’,[iii] the resultant works were well worth the long process.

Oldenburg’s soft sculptures―mechanised or not―never simply ‘sit on their asses’. Fashioned from malleable materials, and ranging in size from miniature to mammoth, the works take on their own life and exist in a constant state of flux. In Icebag—scale B this idea is taken to its extreme: distending and deflating like a lung, the object goes beyond its utility as a therapeutic aid, to become an uncanny extension of the body itself.

Bronwyn Campbell, Brooke Babington and Emilie Owens

[i] The artist, 1961, cited in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds), Art in theory, 1900–2000: An anthology of changing ideas, Blackwell Publishing, New York, 2005, p 744.

[ii] The artist, 1971, quoted in Claes Oldenburg, Claes Oldenburg: an anthology, Guggenheim and National Gallery of Art, New York and Washington, 1995, p 323.

[iii] The artist, quoted at, accessed 5 April 2018.

By the early 1960s aspects of popular culture and everyday items were increasingly the subject matter of art. An icebag is used to soothe a headache or treat a bruise, yet Oldenburg makes a gargantuan object which is neither comforting nor useful. The icebag takes on a new identity. ‘Breathing’ quietly, it twists and turns, creating an eerie suspicion the sculpture might follow you round the room.