Dancing with Oldenburg

Claes Oldenburg, the Swedish-born artist and sculptor who we lost recently, created larger-than-life sculptures of ordinary objects, from clothespins and hamburgers to ice cream cones and shuttlecocks. In 1969, he plopped a giant lipstick atop a military vehicle in Beinecke Plaza at his alma mater, Yale University. It drew, shall we say, intense interest.

Twenty-odd years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Oldenburg and his wife and collaborator, Coosje van Bruggen, at their Manhattan studio. I was designing a new visitor’s center at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln that neighbored their iconic Torn Notebook sculpture. We visited to present our concept and, hopefully, to get their blessing. No pressure there.

We pulled our building back from the sculpture – composed of a big metal notebook and two smaller pages – and aligned our entrance to emphasize its prominence. The pages, which appear windblown, inspired us to consider how the building might follow suit in windy Nebraska. Its curved roofs, we thought, could dance with them in syncopated rhythm. The duo liked what they saw and gave us the green light.

My father was a sculptor, and, over the years, I’ve dabbled myself. Oldenburg was a giant to me. It was a special pleasure to work with him, and to make a place for the public to enjoy one of his fantastic creations.