It was wonderful to stumble upon pieces of Claes Oldenburg's Store at MoMA recently, not only because his food sculptures are still so hilarious, delicious, and good (which they are, besides being suddenly fashionable: they also seem to have informed Nathalie Djurberg's latest work at Zach Feuer, which I wrote about earlier this week) but also, as theanyspacewhatever show closes at the Guggenheim, his work is looking increasingly prescient.
Discussing his December 1961 - January 1962 project (in which he opened up a storefront on the Lower East Side selling his food sculptures to visitors) with Harvard professor Benjamin Buchloh in 1985, Oldenburg seems to anticipate some of the language regarding production that would surround Bourriaud's relational aesthetics in the 1990's:
Benjamin Buchloh: The Store was meant to function potentially like a store. People from the street were allowed to come in, weren't they?
Claes Oldenburg: Yes, they were. But realistically speaking, it was stacked against that because people in that neighborhood just aren't going to come in when they see something as strange as this. If people came in from the street, it was kids, or just curious people. I would see them at the window-they'd look in, but nobody would come in.
Buchloh: So it was more conceived as a private studio that could be open on certain occasions to art world people and friends.
Oldenburg: It was open-anybody could come in at any time-and I worked there more or less in view of the people who looked in. Even at night I would be visible.
Buchloh: But wasn't there an inherent assault on esoteric qualities of high art, in every aspect of The Store?
Oldenburg: Yes, but I think it was a matter of two things. One thing was to admit the commercial nature of art production by comparing it to ordinary production...
Oldenburg, in other words, was attempting to highlight the essentially "commercial nature of art production", while still taking part in it. Relational aesthetics, the argument goes, attempts to escape the enterprise entirely, proffering participatory, ephemeral events in place of such naked commerce: cooking Thai food for visitors, most famously.
Claire Bishop has argued, though, that the promise of relational aesthetics is largely illusory, cloaking the financial underpinnings of art with feel-good rhetoric about democracy and participation, serving it up to a self-selective, elite group.
Even back in the 1960's, Oldenburg seems to have realized this inherent contradiction, the false, hermetic radicalism of such a project, proposing a counterpoint to the artists of the 1990's thirty years in advance. Even in his project, which hardly attempted any of the participatory gestures undertaken by Tiravanija or Gillick, his audience was limited: "...[P]eople in that neighborhood just aren't going to come in when they see something as strange as this," he writes. In doing so, he would presage a point that Jerry Saltz would make in 1996 on viewing Tiravanija's work, which Bishop quotes:
“... [T]heoretically anyone can come in [to an art gallery]. How come they don’t? Somehow the art world seems to secrete an invisible enzyme that repels outsiders. What would happen if the next time Tiravanija set up a kitchen in an art gallery, a bunch of homeless people turned up daily for lunch? What would the Walker Art Center do if a certain homeless man scraped up the price of admission to the museum, and chose to sleep on Tiravanija’s cot all day, every day?"
Claire Bishop, "Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics," October 110 (Fall 2004), p. 51-79.
Benjamin Buchloh, "Three Conversations in 1985: Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, Robert Morris," October 70 (Fall 1994), p. 33-54.