Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen: Typewriter Eraser, Scale X

Guest Blogger:  Emily

A first look at Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, may leave viewers mildly confused. Not just an abstract sculpture of a circle with dynamic offshoots, it instead represents a typewriter eraser of monumental size. Why a typewriter eraser? The object has, after all, been out of use for nearly 40 years. Yet that’s just the point Oldenburg and Bruggen try to make. Obsolete objects- like the typewriter eraser- hold much more meaning than simply their tangible form and function. As Americans, we hold objects in almost a reverential position, spurred by the driving materialistic forces that haven’t abated since World War II. More than simply buying to acquire, we base our status, confidence, reputation, and self-worth on the objects we own. Oldenburg and van Bruggen sought to play on this attitude in Typewriter Eraser, Scale X.

Typewriter Eraser, Scale X

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, Model 1998, Fabricated 1999. painted stainless steel and fiberglass. National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC

Our materialism has driven faster progress than ever before. Though there were significant gaps in time between major innovations of the 1900s- radios, household appliances, TVs, and computers- we’ve had eight new versions of the iPhone within the past few years alone. So it’s no wonder why people forget about objects of the decade before, much less objects of half-a-century before, like the poor, unused typewriter eraser.

But what happens when we take a moment out of our busy, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses’ lifestyle to think and reflect on items of the past? This may sound like an odd idea- perhaps one that even encourages materialism- yet it plays right into the message that Oldenburg and Bruggen make in Typewriter Eraser, Scale X. It is an undeniable fact that objects play a major role in our lives, so it naturally follows that we should have significant memories attached to them. Such is the case with Oldenburg. This typewriter eraser is a remnant of Oldenburg’s childhood; Oldenburg was inspired to sculpt the work because of his fond memories of playing in his father’s office as a child in the 1930s. The typewriter eraser falls gracefully to the ground, the tips of its strands curving towards the sky, trying to slow it down. Oldenburg’s noble rendering of this object allows the viewer to feel the same love for the typewriter eraser that Oldenburg himself once felt. Such remembrances ensure that although old objects may not always be remembered, they will never be forgotten.

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David Smith: Pittsburgh Landscape

Pittsburgh Landscape

David Smith, Pittsburgh Landscape, 1954, painter steel. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC

Guest Blogger:  Mari

Many people view painted art and sculpture as two entities, as did many artists in the early 20th century. David Smith, however, saw paintings and sculptures as the same form; sculpture was simply painting given a third dimension. In his opinion, sculptures were metal “drawing[s] in space.” He saw no difference between sculptures and paintings beyond their technical execution.

This philosophy can clearly be seen in Pittsburgh Landscape. Housed in the Hirshhorn’s sculpture garden and created in 1954, the piece was originally crafted as a gift for G. David Thompson and was to be used as a guard rail for a terrace outside Thompson’s home. Thompson, a collector of modern art, was the president of Pittsburgh Steel at the time. Thus, Smith’s use of painted steel in Pittsburgh Landscape is very fitting not only for the city it depicts but also the man it was for. The piece is composed of delicate metal tracery rather than solid forms. This is meant to define the empty space rather than detract attention from it. The abstract composition of the sculpture creates a sense of rhythm and pattern that is found in a dynamic landscape, such as a city skyline, seen from a distance. The piece’s composition was inspired by Pablo Picasso and Julio González’s post-Cubist constructed metal sculptures, which are what drove Smith to begin experimenting with metal sculpture earlier in his career. Eventually, Pittsburgh Landscape found its way into the hands of Joseph H. Hirshhorn who donated it to the museum bearing his name in 1972.

Smith was heavily influenced by Surrealism and is considered to be the first American artist who took an interest in metal abstract sculpture and began creating his own works in this style. His life experiences help to explain his expertise in this medium. He gained skills from welding metal in an automobile factory that contributed greatly to his artistic talent. In addition, Smith set up his studio next to an iron forge and would often use scrap metal and parts of machines found there in his sculptures. In 1965 he was appointed to the National Council on the Arts by President Lyndon B. Johnson before tragically dying in a car crash that spring. Smith’s legacy and works, still widely popular today, earned him a prominent place in American art history and will continue to inspire others in years to come.

Barry Flanagan: Thinker on a Rock

Thinker on a Rock

Barry Flanagan, Thinker on a Rock. Bronze. 1997. National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC

Guest Blogger:  Amanda

While The Thinker was crafted by Rodin around 1880, Welsh sculptor Barry Flanagan sculpted his own Thinker on a Rock inspired by Rodin’s work about a century later in 1997. Cast in bronze, a hare, not a man, with an elongated and thin form, sits atop a rock in the National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden. The hare’s long ears seem to extend upwards with its lanky, thin body hunched over in contemplation. While it may at first seem odd and unusual that a hare is sitting in such a humanlike position, Flanagan is actually known for his hare motif, which dominates his sculptures that are displayed in cities including Washington, D.C., London, Madrid, Dublin, and Chicago.

Barry Flanagan did not always sculpt hares. Initially, he sculpted with materials such as clay and sand after studying in London during the 1960’s. It was not until the late 1970’s that the artist met his inspiration when he saw a hare running on a field in England. He was interested in the elastic and elongated qualities of the hare, and this became his central and distinctive focus for the next three decades, which is not surprising given his reputation for being a unique artist of his time. With this said,  Flanagan set himself apart from his peers by focusing on theater and installation arts instead of Minimalist and Conceptual Art.  Neither artist nor viewer can deny the humor in the hare form being likened to human poses and characteristics. Flanagan certainly saw the humor and wit in depicting such a serious pose by Rodin and transforming it into animal form.

When walking up to the sculpture in the National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., there is something odd yet comforting about seeing a hare in human form. The hare rests its chin upon its hand and its elbow upon its knee as humans so often do when lost in thought. Its long ears stretch in each direction, balancing the lanky form of the hare’s arms and legs. The eyes of the hare seem to stare back at the viewer in contemplation of what it is thinking as well as in uncertainty of the viewer. While this depiction is humorous in comparison to Rodin’s piece, Flanagan’s use of the hare form does have its ways of grabbing the viewer’s attention, getting them to stop, and think for a moment.

Felix de Weldon: Simon Bolivar

Simon Bolivar

Felix de Weldon. Simon Bolivar. Bronze. 1955. Located at Virginia Ave. NW and C Street, NW, Washington DC.

Guest Blogger:  Amanda

My attention was grabbed as soon I saw Bolivar sitting atop his horse, commanding attention as he thrusts his sword high into the air. The sword’s position is slightly behind him, implying that the liberator is ready to attack as he was in the early 1800’s when he made repeated efforts to liberate Venezuela from Spanish rule.

Austrian-American sculptor Felix de Weldon conveys Bolivar’s dual roles of conqueror and liberator by balancing times of war and later establishing a country in peace. His equestrian pose is used throughout art history to represent the power and authority of a hero. This is shown with the horse’s reigns in one hand and the sword in the other. Because of his apparently confident multitasking, I had the impression that Bolivar could handle the challenge of fighting for independence, even if it meant some personal sacrifice and compromise. In fact, Bolivar spent a number of his adult years plotting to liberate Gran Colombia, which is comprised of present day Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama. An inscription on the base of the equestrian credits Bolivar for this accomplishment.

From the base of the statue to the tip of the sword, the height of the piece stands at 27 feet tall. The height is fitting to Bolivar’s bold manner at a weight of 8 tons. The base is made of black marble, and the equestrian statue is of bronze. The Venezuelan government donated and paid for the sculpture as a gift to America, which was authorized by the United States Congress on July 5th, 1949, and was then permitted to be installed on public property on June 29th, 1955. The work was cast in New York and partly disassembled to travel to DC where it was finally erected in 1958.

The Austrian artist, Felix de Weldon, is most well- known for the sculpture of the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia depicting World War II Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima.. He was a combat artist stationed at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland during World War II and became an up and coming artist that paid tribute to his new home, the United States, when multiple presidents, including Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy appointed de Weldon to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. While de Weldon did not fight in combat and remained on the home front during the war, he understood the powerful duality of war: brutal destruction leading to a prosperous peace. Thus, through de Weldon’s capable hand, Bolivar’s legacy lives on in his sculpture militarily and heroically, as a man who caused destruction in his noble pursuit of peace.

Jacques Jouvenal: Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

Jacques Jouvenal. Benjamin Franklin, 1889. 1100 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC.

Guest Blogger:  Mari

On a rare cool morning this past August I took the metro into Washington, D.C. and wandered my way down Pennsylvania Avenue. After running into the Old Post Office Pavilion for a quick coffee break, I came across a sculpture of Benjamin Franklin, a founding father of both America and our postal service.

The sculpture, as I later found out, was dedicated on January 17, 1889 and created by a French artist named Jacques Jouvenal to stand in front of the Post Office Pavilion. It is no wonder that Benjamin Franklin was chosen as the subject for this piece because he served as the first Postmaster General of the newly formed United States of America in 1775 and standardized the postal system while serving as Postmaster General for the colonial British government before the American Revolution.

Composed of marble, the statue is reminiscent of the ancient Roman orator pose, one hand raised to command attention and convey speech while the other clutches a bundle of papers. I was awed by Franklin’s form; both his large pedestal and heroic figure exude dignity in an admirable but not too intimidating way. What I found so interesting about the artist’s depiction of this very Classical Benjamin Franklin was that it was made to adorn the Post Office Pavilion at the time of the building’s conception. The Post Office Pavilion was created to display the modern spirit sweeping the nation and boasted the first electrical power plant within a government building. I found myself questioning why the architects and commissioners of the Post Office Pavilion chose to place such a Classical piece in front of a building meant to exhibit America’s transition into the modern world. Perhaps it was to remind Americans that despite how much we advance, it is also important to retain our historic roots.

Regardless of the motivations behind the piece, the old Post Pavilion’s homage to Benjamin Franklin is an inspiring reminder of our revolutionary past as well as a celebration of our modern future.