Museum  August 17, 2018  Chandra Noyes

Still Lives with "Shelf Life"

Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Claes Oldenburg (American (born in Sweden, 1929)), Shelf Life Number 12, 2016-2017. Mixed media. Museum purchase with funds donated by generous supporters of the Department of Contemporary Art. © Claes Oldenburg
 

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) is putting their recently acquired Claes Oldenburg works in an unusual context. The 89-year-old Oldenburg has created a series of sculptures that look like maquettes, comprised in part of familiar works from his oeuvre. Shelf Life is a clever play on words from an artist looking back on a rich and full career, reviewing his body of work and seeing what sticks. The works themselves project off the wall on their own shelves, becoming miniature retrospective exhibitions in still lives. Fittingly, the MFA has paired Oldenburg’s new sculptural compositions with a selection of 17th-century Dutch still life paintings from the museum’s collection. Oldenburg’s works remind us of a life well spent creating famous monumental works, while the Dutch still lives (often memento mori), warn us not to forget death.

Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts (Flemish, active in 1659–1675), Vanitas Still Life, about 1667-1668. Oil on canvas. Abbott Lawrence Fund

Born in Sweden, Oldenburg has lived and worked most of his life in America. Emerging from the New York art scene in the 1960s, Oldenburg worked in performance art but became best known as a sculptor. Associated with Pop Art, his works are plays on familiar objects from our lives. Working in soft sculpture, he created deflated fabric versions of objects like toilets and vacuum cleaners, the objects becoming droopy caricatures of themselves. The works Oldenburg is best known for are his larger than life versions of mundane objects, monumental public sculptures found around the world.

Claes Oldenburg (American (born in Sweden, 1929)), Shelf Life Number 15, 2016-2017
Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Claes Oldenburg (American (born in Sweden, 1929)), Shelf Life Number 15, 2016-2017. Mixed media. Museum purchase with funds donated by generous supporters of the Department of Contemporary Art. © Claes Oldenburg

Pieter Claesz (Dutch, about 1597–1660), Still Life with Wine Goblet and Oysters, 1639
Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Pieter Claesz (Dutch, about 1597–1660), Still Life with Wine Goblet and Oysters, 1639. Oil on panel. Gift of Mrs. H. P. Ahrnke in memory of her great-aunt Mrs. Francis B. Greene.

Claes Oldenburg (American (born in Sweden, 1929)), Shelf Life Number 14, 2016-2017
Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Claes Oldenburg (American (born in Sweden, 1929)), Shelf Life Number 14, 2016-2017. Mixed media. Museum purchase with funds donated by generous supporters of the Department of Contemporary Art © Claes Oldenburg

Pieter Claesz (Dutch, about 1597–1660), Still Life with Silver Brandy Bowl, Wine Glass, Herring, and Bread, 1642
Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Pieter Claesz (Dutch, about 1597–1660), Still Life with Silver Brandy Bowl, Wine Glass, Herring, and Bread, 1642. Oil on panel. Bequest of Mrs. Edward Wheelwright

Claes Oldenburg (American (born in Sweden, 1929)), Shelf Life Number 13, 2016-2017
Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Claes Oldenburg (American (born in Sweden, 1929)), Shelf Life Number 13, 2016-2017. Mixed media. Museum purchase with funds donated by generous supporters of the Department of Contemporary Art © Claes Oldenburg

The works in Shelf Life use Oldenburg’s vocabulary of common objects and his usual sense of humor. In their new setting, the objects collected take on new lives, while also reminding us of their larger relatives in Oldenburg’s other works. Compared to the dark and dramatic Dutch still lives from the MFA’s collection, Oldenburg’s works are light and spacious, showing us that reflecting on life and death can be a joyous exercise, rather than a fearful one.

Claes Oldenburg: Shelf Life is on view at the Boston MFA through December 2, 2018.

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra is managing editor for Art & Object.