Extremely Public Art in Vail: Claes and Coosje Part 1: What is the most valuable piece in Vail’s collection? | VailDaily.com

Extremely Public Art in Vail: Claes and Coosje Part 1: What is the most valuable piece in Vail’s collection?

This is the first story in a three-part series.

Among the town of Vail’s collection of 55 works of art, the piece that is the most valuable at this moment might be a model made of cardboard, styrofoam, nylon and metal, on display in the Vail Public Library. It was made in 1983 by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.

Extremely Public Art in Vail

The husband-and-wife duo created a lot of art following their time in Vail in the early 1980s, and Oldenburg won the prestigious National Medal of Arts in 2000. While van Bruggen died in 2009, Oldenburg, now 92, recently completed a model of one of their final creations, a piece titled “Dropped Bouquet.” The piece made its debut in March at Pace Gallery in New York and will remain on display through May 9, along with several more of Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s works.

The works span a period of several decades starting in the early ’80s; Vail’s piece, created in 1983, would fit in well with the Pace exhibition as a gallery-sized model of an idea which was not fully realized.

“The Dropped Bouquet itself is an unrealized project that was meant to be at the Indianapolis Art Museum Sculpture Garden,” said Oliver Shultz, Pace’s curatorial director.

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Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s work would often grow to be larger-than-life; they are best known in the U.S. for the enormous spoon balancing a 1,200-pound cherry sculpture over water in Minneapolis, and the world’s largest rubber stamp bearing the word “free” in Cleveland. Outside of the Denver Art Museum, Oldenburg and van Bruggen installed a 40-foot-tall dustpan and broom in 2006.

“The bulk of their collaboration is on these large-scale, site-specific projects; for each one they created numerous preparatory works, both drawings and models, in various different materials, and a number of those are in our show,” Shultz said.

In Vail, a preparatory drawing from Oldenburg and van Bruggen, and a story from the Vail Trail newspaper about it in 1983, kicked off a controversy which went on to draw unprecedented national attention to the town. The New York Times published two stories about it, and on Aug. 31, 1983, the Associated Press sent out a story about the controversy which was picked up by 500 newspapers across the country.

AP news editor Wayne Slater, in 1983, said he read a story in the Vail Trail which convinced him that Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s sculpture in Vail, and its controversial design, had national interest. That Vail Trail story centered around the town of Vail’s reluctance to reveal a preparatory drawing from Oldenburg and van Bruggen to the public.

“The drawing hasn’t been seen by many Vailites, and a request by the Vail Trail this week to see it was turned down by Town Manager Richard Caplan,” the Vail Trail reported. “Caplan didn’t say exactly why he and other town officials are sitting on the drawing, but said he is concerned about the public reaction to the proposal, and worried that it might be hard for some people to swallow.”

Nevertheless, the Vail Trail was able to ascertain a good description of what Oldenburg and van Bruggen had in mind.

“… Oldenburg has proposed erecting a 60-foot pole near Vail Associates’ children’s ski instruction area by Alfie Packer’s restaurant and the Lionshead clock tower,” the Vail Trail reported. “The pole goes from its base and up and over the surrounding area to a point above Gore Creek. From there is a cable — the fishing line — is strung down to the water. It is attached there to a sort of tin can.”

The tin can was the part that town officials predicted, correctly, would upset locals. Oldenburg and van Bruggen, with their senses of humor characteristically intact, were riffing on the classic comic image of a fishing line attached to an unexpected item.

This is, as described by Shultz, very much in Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s style of art.

“There’s an artificial opposition that often gets drawn between seriousness and humor,” Shultz said. “I’d say their work was both deeply serious, and deeply funny, at the same time.”

And many were enjoying a few laughs with them.

The Journal Herlad (Dayton, Ohio) from Sept. 1, 1983. Retrieved April 10, 2021 via newspapers.com.
Special to the Daily

In Ohio, Dayton Journal Herald staff illustrator Tim Borgert drew a picture of a skier snagged on the line of a fishing pole, tin can underneath the pole, and alongside the illustration the paper printed the sub headline: “Sculptor says yes, but town may can it,” answering the question of the main headline, “Is it art?”

The New York Times ran the headline “Oldenburg Sculpture has town on Tenterhooks.”

The AP story’s first sentence on Aug. 31 contained the line “local residents are far from hooked on the idea.”

The Vail Trail published a comic depicting Town Manager Richard Caplan holding a fishing pole with a tin can at the end; the tin can was filled with worms.

“The issued promises to become, excuse the term, a can of worms,” the caption read.

A cartoon from the March 18, 1983, Vail Trail newspaper, depicting Vail Town Manager Richard Caplan holding a can of worms.
Vail Trail file illustration / Special to the Daily

Even the Vail locals who weren’t in favor of the sculpture were enjoying the comic aspect of it. In a story titled “Council wasn’t fishing for publicity, but,” Town Council member Hermann Staufer was reported to be donning hip waders at a town meeting attended by Oldenburg, and was quoted as saying, “I took a crash course on public art two months ago,” before voting against it.

Ron Todd, a Council member who also voted against it, said people won’t stop in Vail to see the 60-foot-tall sculpture because “they won’t have to get off the highway to see it.”

Frank Caroselli, who was 72 at the time, said people will laugh at Vail, not with Vail, as a result of the fishing pole sculpture. But Caroselli, an engineer, admitted “there are very nice lines in the curvature of the pole.”

Few criticisms were offered to Oldenburg himself; Caroselli was one of only three people to speak out against the fishing pole and tin can when Oldenburg visited the Vail Town Council on Aug. 23, 1983. The Vail Trail used the sub headline “Oldenburg impressive” to describe the evening.

“Oldenburg and his explanation of the idea behind the sculpture also seemed to impress those attending, and gave them their first chance, in most cases, to hear some of the reasoning behind the work,” the Vail Trail reported.

The Vail Trail quoted Oldenburg as saying that he never saw the tin can to be an “iconological feature” representing pollution.

“I never saw it in the sense of a polluting element,” Oldenburg told the Vail residents in attendance. “I’ve found quite a few things in the stream. The stream transforms these objects into nature as they decay.”

Claes Oldenburg in Vail in 1983. Oldenburg visited the Vail Town Council to answer questions about his proposed sculpture of an arch in the form of a fishing pole catching a tin can.
Vail Trail file photo / Special to the Daily

The Vail Trail had been covering Oldenburg’s interest in Vail since 1981, and in its story on March 18, 1983, Mayor Rod Slifer was quoted saying the fishing pole and tin can design “will create a lot of controversy.”

The story was not one of the Vail Trail’s lead stories that week, but it caught the attention of the Associated Press, which would eventually lead to a culminating event on Sept. 6, 1983, in which NBC’s nationally televised newscast brought their cameras into Vail’s Town Council chambers to hear the council’s decision on the sculpture.

Slifer couldn’t have known how right he would be in predicting the controversy. One hundred people showed up to the meeting, and NBC’s news camera was behind Slifer as he carried out the council business on the evening.

While the council ultimately approved the sculpture, they didn’t approve funding it, and the $50,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant which started the effort didn’t go far. In addition to a private land donation to see it completed, the council also required a private group to work with the town on a full engineering and safety study, maintenance and liability insurance, and another $140,000 in private money to see it realized. The group, headed by Fitzhugh Scott and Chuck Rosenquist, was never able to see the project completed, but they did get as far as obtaining the model from Oldenburg and van Bruggen which is now on display at the library in Vail. Rosenquist had the model until 2000, at which time he donated it to the town of Vail.

When town of Vail Art in Public Places Director Molly Eppard started in 2009, she found Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s model in a surprisingly accessible location. Anyone at the library could walk up to it and touch it, and some of the paint was beginning to chip off. The library had a major renovation planned, and Eppard had visions of the Oldenburg model being accidentally destroyed.

“I didn’t want it to be in the library because they were going through the remodel,“ Eppard said. ”I was thinking oh my god, if someone were to throw this away …”

Read part 2 here: vaildaily.com/entertainment/extremely-public-art-in-vail-claes-and-coosje-part-2-recognizing-the-work/

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