Laden with the lush associations of hot summer days and childhood delight, along with the amorous undertones of the drip and the lick, ice cream has provided ample inspiration for Claes Oldenburg. The simple and evocative forms of the cone and the popsicle appear in large-scale public sculpture and intimate works alike, and are emblematic of the artist’s vision for the aggrandization of everyday objects within public life.
The alphabet is a similarly significant motif in Oldenburg’s work. A fascination with typography is evident from the visionary graphic design he used in early exhibition posters, in which letterforms shift dramatically in size and type, and deliberate misspellings demonstrate typographic wit. Elsewhere, letters are brought to life to take on new forms, becoming jigsaw-like pieces through which to envision a new imaginary world.
The Soft Alphabet multiple published by Multiples Inc evolved from an opportune collaboration between Oldenburg and Dutch graphic designer Wim Crouwel. Inspired by Oldenburg’s iconic soft objects, Crouwel conceived of “padded letters” for the cover of the Stedelijk’s Museum’s 1970 catalogue. When Oldenburg saw it he was thrilled, and asked Crouwel to draw the whole alphabet. In a delightful twist, Oldenburg later transformed the characters into soft objects themselves, contained in a wooden box that mimics the rectangular written page.
The alphabet found its unlikely form in the shape of a popsicle soon after. Oldenburg had been enamored with the Good Humor Bar emblazoned on the trucks that would slide past the window of his 1961 installation The Store, and began making soft sculptures of popsicles with the characteristic missing bite in the early 1960s. The conjunction of the Good Humor Bar with the alphabet took place in 1970, and Oldenburg sent Wim Crouwel a drawing of the Alphabet Good Humor to thank him for designing the first soft alphabet.
The Alphabet Good Humor would take many forms in the 1970s, including editions of two large-scale sculptures and twelve smaller sculptures. The large-scale version was first commissioned by author and filmmaker Michael Crichton for the garden of his home in L.A.––Oldenburg suggested Alphabet Good Humor because Crichton was a writer, and the artist often visualized the L.A. landscape in terms of letters. The sculpture’s delicate yellow-pink tone was inspired by the sunrise seen from the balcony of Oldenburg’s room at the Chateau Marmont Hotel. Published in an edition of two, one of the large Alphabet Good Humor works now installed at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, AK. The plaster maquette for this edition is a highlight of the current presentation, offering a unique view into Oldenburg’s process in developing the theme.
Like the popsicle, the ice cream cone was an object ripe with transformative potential. Pointed cones and dripping boules of ice cream abound in Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s drawings and sculptural studies, as they envisioned various ways that the motif might be brought to life on a monumental scale. The artists eventually settled on the dramatic Dropped Cone, an enormous upside-down ice cream cone that is balanced precariously atop the roof of a shopping mall in the Neumarkt Square in Cologne, the melting ice cream dripping down the windows, and the cone echoing the city skyline heavily populated with spires. Two drawings of the proposal for the Dropped Cone presented here are evidence of the artists’ realization of a fantastical dream.