Collectors and especially dealers are always on the prowl for undervalued artists. If that's truly the case, then they have no further to look than Claes Oldenburg.
This past May, Oldenburg set a new record for one of his sculptures when a soft vinyl version of a light switch sold for $574,500. While a half-million dollars is nothing to scoff at in the "real world," it's not that significant when it comes to a major work by a blue-chip artist.
Though his contemporaries such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein are expensive, Oldenburg, is nowhere near breaking the $1 million barrier at auction. In fact, he has yet to break $600,000.
What holds back Oldenburg's prices, in part, is the fact that markets usually don't move up when the best quality works are rarely available. There's little dispute that Oldenburg's finest body of work is his soft sculptures from the 1960s. His toilets, typewriters, pay phones and ice cream bars, often made from vinyl or canvas, remain Pop masterpieces. Once again, the problem is that the vast majority of these works are in museums and the likelihood of their entering the market is slim.
Another way to look at things is that the rarity of these key pieces is enough to keep demand high and prices up. When you look around you realize there are so few first-rate sculptors worth buying. The list is short and includes Tony Smith, Mark di Suvero, Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Joel Shapiro, John Chamberlain and Oldenburg. Richard Serra is a great artist, but his best work is expensive and dependent on tremendous scale, thus few collectors can own works of his that matter.
Oldenburg's lasting legacy may well be for his "Store." In 1961, he created objects, such as food and clothing, that were made of muslin soaked in plaster and painted with colorful enamel. He then rented a gallery space and turned it into an actual store that displayed his creations. Each available sculpture bore a price tag and the show was a commercial and esthetic success.
Several of these works come up for auction each year, but only do well when the imagery is well defined. A recent example, Three Ladies' Stockings, which fell into the shapeless category, was estimated at $80,000-$120,000 (Christie's November 2000), but failed to find a buyer.
Back in 1995, Oldenburg's traveling retrospective revealed several basic truths about his art. The show obviously confirmed the originality of his early work. Of greater surprise were his marvelous drawings. Currently, they offer the best value to collectors who want to own a unique Oldenburg. Even during the boom of the late 1980s, these drawings were only $35,000-$65,000.
Other sculptors have made and continue to make impressive drawings. The list includes David Smith, Joel Shapiro, Richard Serra and Louise Bourgeois. But only Oldenburg's drawings show off a facility for fluid line, shape and realistic rendering. In other words, Oldenburg can draw in a traditional sense. You just don't see that anymore.
In June 2001, at Christie's Los Angeles, the drawing, Breaking Plate of Scrambled Eggs, came up for sale. Here was a well-developed vintage drawing from 1967 with plenty of color. Prior to the auction, it was on the market privately for $75,000. That may have been pushing it a bit, but even so, it was a mild shock when it appeared with a $15,000-$20,000 estimate. The drawing ultimately brought $32,900. With prices like this, there appears to be a bona fide opportunity to buy work of substance by a legitimate 20th-century master.
Another overlooked aspect of Oldenburg's production is his monumental outdoor sculpture. In terms of overall acceptance by the general passerby, his public sculptures are the best in America. Great successes include Batcolumn (Chicago), Clothespin (Philadelphia) and Spoonbridge and Cherry (the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis). It would be a prudent investment to purchase any first-rate drawing that served as a study for any of these realized monuments.
If there's a cloud on Oldenburg's horizon it's his dubious decision, made in 1976, to designate his wife, Coosje van Bruggen, as a collaborator in all of his work. Since Coosje got involved, the work has lost its edge and tended to repeat itself. Not to be mean, but you wonder what Oldenburg did before he met her. It's one thing to be in love, but it's another to compromise your work.
The closest parallel to this situation occurred when Paul McCartney announced that his questionably talented wife, Linda, had become a full-fledged member of his band. But at least McCartney didn't co-credit Linda on his written compositions the way Oldenburg has Coosje co-sign each piece.
At any rate, I would still be a bullish buyer of any high quality pre-Coosje work. Oldenburg is a true original and history will ultimately judge him on his early work.
RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer specializing in post-1960 works of art. Questions or comments can be directed to him in San Francisco at at 415-885-1809 or Polskyart@aol.com.