Extremely Public Art in Vail: Claes and Coosje Part 2: Recognizing the work
This is the second story in a three-part series.
Artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, in the early 1980s, created a drawing for Vail that kicked off a massive controversy the likes of which the town had never seen.
“That is why NBC, which just opened up a Denver bureau, decided to send its camera crew and correspondent Don McNamara to Vail in what is likely the first nationally broadcast excerpts of a Vail Town Council meeting,” the Vail Trail newspaper reported on Sept. 9, 1983.
That broadcast told the world that Vail had approved an idea to have Oldenburg create a 60-foot-tall sculpture of an arch in the form of a fishing pole which he had drawn for Vail. The controversial part was not the pole, it was the catch — in Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s drawing, the hook had snagged not a fish, but a tin can.
The whereabouts of the drawing are currently unknown to the town of Vail’s Art in Public Places Director Molly Eppard. But the drawing gave way to the creation of a 2-foot-by-4-foot model of Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s idea, and in 2009, Eppard discovered that model in the library, in need of attention.
“I don’t think we even had a label on it,” Eppard said. “It was just sitting on a shelf.”
In 2012, during a renovation of the library, Eppard had the model removed from the library and temporarily placed in the public works department. It was at that time that the town had the piece conserved, insured and encased in glass. Eppard said the town put about $10,000 into the conservation, transport and creation of the display, which allows viewers to see the piece from all sides except the bottom.
The model is as close to reality as Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s vision would ever become.
“The history of unrealized projects is, in some sense, just as important as the history of things that do get made, in terms of large-scale, public art,” said Oliver Shultz, an Oldenburg and van Bruggen expert who works at Pace Gallery in New York.
Shultz pointed to Vail in 1983 as an example of the importance of unrealized projects in the advancement of public art. The Oldenburg and van Bruggen drawing, which was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, was Vail’s first piece of art created using public dollars.
“Public art is always this incredibly complex negotiation between a place, a community, the politics, the cultural concerns, the economic and financial concerns, and indeed environmental concerns, too,” Shultz said.
In an area where you can find dozens of bronze statues of animals along sidewalks and roadways, the fact that the town’s most recognized piece of art was made using simple materials like cardboard, wood and nylon speaks volumes, Shultz said.
“Just because something is made of throwaway material doesn’t mean it doesn’t have extraordinary value,” Shultz said. “In a way, the ephemerality of cardboard sculptures, the ephemerality of the models and the handmade quality of them gets you closer to the sensibility of Claes and Coosje. It’s easier to get closer to it than through some of the actual, fabricated, large-scale work because it was very much about capturing a thought, and a thought is a very ephemeral thing.”
It’s also easier to get closer to the sensibility of Oldenburg and van Bruggen when you’re viewing their models in the places for which they’re created. The pair was very focused on site-specific art, which is why the piece of public art Oldenburg and van Bruggen created for Vail is of most value to the public in a visible location within Vail, something Eppard realized through reading about Oldenburg and van Bruggen. When Eppard first unveiled her new display for the fishing pole and tin can model in 2012, the piece was accompanied by several Oldenburg and van Bruggen books, which are now available at the library, as well.
“Since 1976 Oldenburg, working with van Bruggen, always poses a relationship between his large-scale works and the historical and cultural environment,” Germano Celant wrote in his book, “The Course of the Knife,” in 1985. “His permanent installations involve a flow of metaphors and allegories around the essence of the site, be it a street or square, a museum of skyscraper, a university or factory, a city or a village.”
Celant’s book follows Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s work immediately after Vail, when they created perhaps their best and most internationally recognized work, “Il Corso del Coltello,” with architect Frank O. Gehry.
Shultz says it’s probably going too far to say “Il Corso del Coltello” would not have been created if Oldenburg and van Bruggen were in Vail creating the full version of the fishing pole and tin can sculpture during the summer of 1984, as originally planned. Oldenburg and van Bruggen were known to work on multiple projects at once, and they also created “Garden Hose” in Germany in 1983. Nevertheless, the time freed up by not being in Vail was used wisely by the artists.
“This is a crucial moment, and indeed a definitive one for them, the ’83-’84 moment,” Shultz said. “After ‘Coltello,’ (van Bruggen) became more comfortable thinking of (herself and Oldenburg) as co-equal collaborators, and they started attributing and authoring the work together.”
In examining the coverage from Vail in the early ’80s, a reader would not realize van Bruggen was a part of Oldenburg’s art. Throughout the Vail Trail’s local coverage, which spawned the Associated Press’s national coverage — published in 500 newspapers across the U.S. — van Bruggen is not mentioned once.
But their partnership was undeniable, and the pieces Oldenburg created throughout his 31 years of marriage to van Bruggen were a result of their collaboration. Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s final piece, “Dropped Bouquet,” is on display through May 9 at Pace Gallery, and took Oldenburg more than a decade to complete after van Bruggen died in 2009.
Pace Gallery is one of the longest-existing galleries in the world, and the 1960s Boston incarnation of Pace Gallery showed works from Oldenburg’s 1961 exhibit “The Store,” which was one of the installations that launched his career. So it’s only fitting that Pace Gallery now exhibits Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s last work in “Dropped Bouquet,” Shultz said, after some prompting from Pace to see it completed.
“Dropped Bouquet” was conceived of as a large-scale, site-specific work for a museum, but after Coosje died, “the trail of conversation sort of dies out,” Shultz said. “And it was never realized, as happens.”
At Pace Gallery, however, “we felt it was important (Oldenburg) make it,” Shultz said of “Dropped Bouquet.”
Although he was in his 80s, Oldenburg wanted to try something new, and spent years working with emerging technologies to finish the sculptures of flowers which comprise “Dropped Bouquet.” The final product was created using 3D scanning and 3D printing as a continuation of Oldenburg’s never-ending interest in the way things are made.
“The flowers are really significant, not least because before she died, Coosje and Claes conceived of this work together, made a plan for it, and made a model for it,” Shultz said. “So it is the last large-scale project that they jointly conceived.”
Shultz said Pace could have hosted the exhibition using “Dropped Bouquet” alone.
“But the more we thought about it, the feeling was — let’s take a moment, and actually delve a little bit more deeply into the long history of their collaboration, because people don’t know it,” Shultz said.
In a news release about the exhibition, Pace said the gallery seeks to highlight in particular “van Bruggen’s vital yet under-recognized role in their collective oeuvre.”
In Vail, Eppard had a similar feeling in bringing Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s piece into a space where it could be more property enjoyed. In addition to encasing it in glass, and making it able to be viewed from all sides, Eppard also made sure that a plaque was installed near the piece with its proper name, “Preliminary Model for an Arch in the Form of a Fishing Pole, a Line and Can for Vail, Colorado,” on display.
And along with its name we also learn, from the plaque, the model’s true creators.
“Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen,” the plaque reads.
On the bottom of the arch in the form of a fishing pole, unable to be seen, is another detail which Eppard discovered in having the piece stabilized.
“The words ‘For Vail,’ are engraved underneath it,” Eppard said. “It truly is a part of Vail’s history that we’re fortunate to have.”