“Clothespins are a studio necessity for me. With clothespins I join parts of soft sculpture in preparation for sewing. Clothespins are the instruments of connection which are so important in the fabrication of my work. The most efficient clothespin is the old-fashioned one which has the little spring on it. I prefer the ones made of wood. My studio is full of clothespins. I handle these objects. After a while I begin to see them as much larger structures than they actually are, and think about enlarging them. They have an architectural character, like the three-way plugs which also lie about my studio. The Clothespin is intended to relate to the skyscrapers around it, and especially to the soaring freestanding tower of the City Hall.” (Claes Oldenburg)
In 1974, the Clothespin was one of two large-scale works chosen by the developer Jack Wolgin for Centre Square, an office building at 15th and Market streets in downtown Philadelphia, under the city’s requirement that 1% of the construction budget for the new building be set aside for art. The Clothespin was the first feasible monument to be installed in an urban setting.
The actual clothespins that inspired the various versions of the Clothespin had been used to attach parts of cloth sculptures in the studio. Starting with a particular pin selected from several different types, profiles of the face and side were developed through many drawings into a prototype for the first three-dimensional example.
The Clothespin became associated with Philadelphia through its use on a poster for the exhibition Object Into Monument at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1973. The joined parts, bound by two springs, recalled the embracing couple in Brancusi’s sculpture The Kiss in the museum’s collection.
The Clothespin was meant to stand without a base on the floor of the plaza in front of Centre Square. When, in a surprise development, a city subway entrance was inserted into the center of the plaza, it became necessary to place the sculpture on a pedestal projecting out of the entrance. The arrangement had the advantage of protecting the Clothespin from vandalism and also afforded exiting subway riders an interesting view of the sculpture from below.
Split Button (1981)
In December 1978 we received a commission assisted in 1980 by a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, for a sculpture in front of the Library on the newly developed campus of the University of Pennsylvania. After a visit to the site, Coosje proposed a button, which led us to experiment with the subject in models made of paper, polystyrene and cardboard. We tried rolling it, breaking it in half and bending it in different ways. In the end, we came up with a design in which the button was split and the two parts were set together at an angle. Then the button was fastened to the ground in a tilted position, acquiring a unique presence.
In 1980, the design was first realized in a wooden model in which the top surface was given the shape of a stereotypical button whose cross-section could be seen in the sides of the split. After its approval by a university committee, the design was translated into aluminum in a diameter of sixteen feet.
The Split Button was installed in 1981 on a small plaza before the entrance to the Van Pelt Library, across from a statue of Benjamin Franklin. Seen from the upper floors of the Library, the startlingly white Split Button creates a focus for the landscaping around it. Its four holes recall Philadelphia founder William Penn’s design for laying out the center of the city around four symmetrically placed parks.
While the sculpture has moments to be itself, it often serves as a place to rest or play. Children like to stand in the holes and students sun, study and recline on its surface. The University band and sports teams pose for yearbook photos on it and the sculpture is decorated for special events. The Split Button was once shrouded in black, as a memorial to students who died of AIDS.
The late Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who was nearly blind, encountered the Split Button on his travels and wrote of it afterwards as follows: "I am quite sure that Mr. So-and-So, whose name I can no longer recall, saw something at a glance that no one had ever seen before the beginning of history. What he saw was a button. He saw that everyday artifact which so engages the fingers and he understood that in order to transmit this disclosure, the revelation of something so simple, he must augment its size and execute the vast and serene circle we see at the center of a square in Philadelphia." (Atlas, 1985, "a personal geography of writings and photos from around the world.")
Giant Three-Way Plug, Scale A, 3/3
Recently donated by David Pincus to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and sited in front of the museum.
The strongly volumetric plug, soft or hard, emphasizes internal space and structure, whether it appears as balloon, cathedral or float. The slot-like apertures, receptacles for prongs, enable the viewer to look inside; the windows, according to Oldenburg, are the counterparts of the prongs, and emphasize the sculpture’s capacity to “receive the observer into itself.” In contrast, the “fallen” plug, in metal, is about weight and gravity, a fact emphasized by the illusion of its having dropped from a great height, embedding itself in the ground.
Martin Friedman: Are the hard versions of the Three-Way Plug in wood and metal cubistic sculptures?
Claes Oldenburg: Well, let’s say it’s cubistic if cubistic sculpture has to do with sensing the third dimension or knowing the other side of something. One of the nicest things about the Three-Way Plug is that it’s built up of symmetrical forms, so that if you look at one side, you know what the other side looks like. In the steel version, which is always half-buried, you know what’s under the ground by what’s over the ground – because you know that it repeats itself. The three-way plug is also known as a “cube tap” in some parts of the country. “Cube tap” is a nice handle.
MF: You seem determined to reconstruct reality each time you make an object. The object retains its identity, however abstract it becomes during this process of translation.
CO: I am trying to create a combination of art and reality. On the one hand, the hard Three-Way Plug is really an anti-aesthetic formulation of a sculpture because it’s almost a slavish recreation of an object. It’s like saying this is as good as a sculpture because I claim it to be. On the other hand, it’s qualified by an aesthetic intention that I also have. But, in my work, art is limited by the boundaries of appearances, and if I make this Three-Way Plug, I don’t put it on something or against something. It’s contained in itself. I’m formulating a concept in which sculpture and object are one thing – together – and I think that’s a rather radical notion of art.
In her article on the Giant Three-Way Plug Ellen Johnson observes that: “…the Plug matches Renaissance design on its combination of rectilinear and curvilinear elements and in its strict bilateral symmetry, which is, however, hidden, almost denied, by its partly submerged, dropped position.” -- Ellen Johnson, “Oldenburg’s Giant Three-Way Plug,” Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin, XXVIII, 1970-71, p. 226