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.


Marc Chagall: Orphée

Orphee mosaic

Orphee, Marc Chagall, 1971, mosaic. National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. Washington, DC

Guest Blogger:  Amanda and Emily

We entered the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in search of specific works that we had already researched. It was cold out, and we weren’t really looking to spend a lot of time exploring outside- we wanted to take the pictures and move indoors. At one point, a glint of light caught our eyes from the back corner of the garden and we were curious where this was coming from. The Orphée, a mosaic by Marc Chagall sits tucked away underneath mossy trees just inside of a wrought-iron fence. It gives the viewer the sense of privacy and intimacy of a private garden within one of the most renowned art galleries in the United States. In fact, after further research, we found out that the work was recently installed in November 2013, and appears as it has for the past 40 years in Evelyn and John Nef’s garden in Georgetown.

Evelyn and John Nef enjoyed a lifelong friendship with Marc Chagall, who gifted this work of art to the couple in the late 1960’s as an installation for their garden. The Nefs and Chagalls would vacation together every year on the French Riviera. They would go out to dinner to celebrate Evelyn and Marc’s July birthdays, and Chagall often doodled on the menu cards as tokens for the Nefs to bring home. He also illustrated over forty books for Evelyn, along with smaller drawings which she kept and bequeathed to the National Gallery of Art. Chagall visited the Nef’s home in 1968, with the intention of creating a work of art to adorn their home. However, he quickly realized that Evelyn’s meticulously decorated interior could be improved no further and decided to make a mosaic for the garden instead.

Chagall designed the mosaic in France and in 1971 commissioned Lino Melano, an Italian mosaicist, to execute his design, which was unveiled on a November evening later that year. The mosaic is characteristic of Chagall’s work- surreal, confusing, and beautifully disjointed. There are images of Orpheus, the Three Graces, a cluster of immigrants (a personal reference to Chagall and Nef’s Jewish heritage), skyscrapers, Pegasus, an angel, and a couple resting under a tree. This last image prompted Evelyn to ask Chagall if the image was meant to represent her and John, to which the artist coyly replied, “If you like.”

Even if the couple depicted is not intended to concretely symbolize Evelyn and John, Chagall’s style unwittingly alludes to Evelyn’s unconventional approach to life. To the average viewer, Chagall’s work- influenced by surrealism and fantasy movements often appears to have no rhyme or reason. It seems as if as soon as Chagall finished one image of a work, he immediately moved onto the next without a second thought. This idea of constant change and reinvention perfectly sums up Evelyn’s own story; from a puppeteer to a psychologist, an Arctic researcher to an art patron, and a financial expert to a fitness buff, Evelyn embraced every opportunity that life threw at her, carving her own exceptional path. More than anything else, Evelyn was dominated by curiosity an eagerness to master anything and everything. This desire to collect information, ideas, and works of art led her to amass a substantial collection that included works by Renoir, Picasso, Leger, Kandinsky, and her beloved Chagall mosaic. Because she had enjoyed the mosaic’s light in her garden every day since 1971, she wanted to share this joy with others, and bequeathed the work to the National Gallery before her passing in 2009. While it was an arduous task to undertake, the Gallery spent 3 years preparing, removing, cleaning, and installing the mosaic in the sculpture garden. It made its debut this past November and will be formally unveiled this coming spring.

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.

Michael Lantz: Man Controlling Trade

Guest Blogger:  Emily

I’ve passed this sculpture countless times on my way to and from the National Gallery of Art, which is just across the street. With its rounded, stocky figures that appear to be unrealistically muscular and bloated at the same time, the sculpture has never been one of my favorites.

Sometimes, though, learning about the meaning of a work of art is enough to stimulate a completely different appreciation for the work. When I learned the title of this sculpture, Man Controlling Trade, and that it decorates the headquarters of the Federal Trade Commission, I began to understand the work on a whole new level.

The Federal Trade Commission, or FTC for short, was established in 1914, and by 1938 it was in charge of policing all anti-competitive and unfair business practices in the US. In 1938, the same year that the FTC was granted a substantial increase in power, the commission held the largest American sculptural competition ever. Over 500 artists submitted models of potential sculptures to adorn the outside of the building. The winning idea, fully realized outside the FTC building today, was submitted by sculptor Michael Lantz, an established New York artist who specialized in public sculpture.

Man Controlling Trade

Man Controlling Trade. Michael Lantz, 1942. Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington DC

Knowing that the statue was meant to represent the difficulties of managing an unpredictable, violent market caused me to view this work in a different light. I now appreciate the strain of the male figure’s back muscles, and his determined expression as he struggles to control the horse. The male figure and the horse are locked in a tense, endless fight, refusing to lift their steely gazes off of each other, illustrating how business will always be suspicious of the FTC, and how the FTC will always be suspicious of business. Lantz, though, makes a significant distinction between the two. While business is represented as an unruly, wild horse, the FTC is depicted as a hardworking, dedicated man trying to restrain the animal from whatever destruction it may cause. It is clear on which side Lantz’s sympathies lay.

Looking at Artworks

Still Life with Sleeping Woman. Henri Matisse. 1940. Web Museum of Art.

So many times we walk into a museum and we don’t know how to start a dialog about a work of art. Many of us just end up spending 10 seconds looking at a work and moving on. Next time you are in a museum and you find a work that interests you try doing the following.
Pretend that the artist is standing next to you. As you look at the work of art ask the artist questions. For example, I am at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and I am looking at Still Life with Sleeping Woman by Henri Matisse. Monsieur Matisse is standing next to me. After spending a few minutes looking at the work of art I have many questions for him.
• Why is the woman sleeping?
• Did she pose for you and fell asleep?
• What happened on the table? Did all the oranges and lemons fall?
• Is that a window on the wall? Or is it a mirror?
• Is the plant coming in from the outside?
• Is the woman dreaming of the plant taking over?
• Is the woman sitting or standing?

As you can see by asking questions it forces you to really look at the work of art. Hopefully it also makes you a bit more curious about the work.  You now have questions that can be the basis for your research when you return home.