Over the weekend Coosje van Bruggen, Claes Oldenburg’s wife and collaborator, died at their home in L.A. Van Bruggen was a Dutch born art historian and a curator at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam when she met Oldenburg in 1970. At the time Oldenburg was just beginning his transition from his oversize soft sculptures of the 60s to monumental fabricated steel pieces that could survive outside. Oldenburg’s work had drawn on the Surrealist idea — Magritte used it all the time — that a change in the scale of an object gave it a strange power. At first he applied that insight to most ordinary items of American life, especially humble edibles, all those cheeseburgers and ice cream cones and pillowy wedges of pie, made even more dream like because they were rendered in soft materials, with their inevitable hint of the pliancy of the human body, and splattered with mock-Abstract Expressionist drizzles of paint.
When he met Van Bruggen, Oldenburg was working on one of the first big outdoor steel versions of his basic idea, in this case a giant gardening tool called Trowel 1. In its original version, which Oldenburg installed at an outdoor sculpture show in the Netherlands in 1971, the piece was a metallic silver gray. Van Bruggen thought the gray made it look too much like a serving utensil. She persuaded Oldenburg to paint it the blue of Dutch workmen’s overalls. In 1976 a blue version was unveiled in the sculpture garden of the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterloo — just pretend I typed in a couple of umlauts there over the “o” and “u” in Kroller-Muller — and the Oldenburg-Van Bruggen team was born. One year later they were married.
Together Oldenburg and Van Bruggen produced three decades of monumental sculpture that Van Bruggen would call The Large-Scale Projects. Basically, they monumentalized Pop, an idea we’re all familiar with now. We’re so familiar with it — it goes without saying that Jeff Koons’ shiny steel balloon dogs and heart pendants are just a riff on the Oldenburg/van Bruggen brand — that it’s hard to remember that the early works had a really bracing brilliance to them. The great Batcolumn in Chicago, from 1977, is both a very funny parody of monumental sculpture — it’s a giant baseball bat — and a brilliantly plausible quasi-Minimalist steel abstraction.
I don’t know whether, after Van Bruggen’s death, Oldenburg will choose to return to working on his own. (He turns 80 at the end of this month.) But they’ve already left a long line of monuments to their own wit.