By Eva Piatek
The famous Swedish artist Claes Oldenburg holds a monopoly on whimsical outdoor sculpture in Philadelphia, especially since it is now home to more of his colossal public pieces than any other city in the world. Best known for his public art installations that involve transforming and architecturally enlarging mundane objects “hand-picked” by the artist for their relation to a specific site, Oldenburg graces Philadelphia once again with his fourth work for the city, making his dominant pop-art presence hard to miss. His newest work, titled Paint Torch, takes the massive form of a cartoon-like paintbrush with a giant glob of “paint” situated on the ground directly below it. Comprised of steel, fiberglass reinforced plastic, gelcoat, polyurethane, and LED lighting, it stands 51 feet tall and slants toward Broad Street at a bold 60 degree angle, as if stopped midway in the act of painting. Oldenburg just installed the piece this past summer at The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts’ new Lenfest Plaza, a dynamic outdoor civic space designed to hold events and display rotating works by both emerging and established artists alike, taking over a block of what was previously Cherry Street.
As its title suggests, Paint Torch cleverly merges two ideas into one monumental sculpture – that of a paintbrush and a torch, aptly situated at an institution “where painting with a brush is really practiced,” as Oldenburg said himself. Dual references are commonly encountered in Oldenburg’s work, as can be seen simply by looking at his other Philadelphia pieces. Clothespin, his first public work here designed at an urban scale and situated at the very heart of Center City on 15th and Market Streets, plays on several different allusions. Although seemingly out of place amongst a frenzied metropolitan area populated by banks and office buildings, Clothespin is actually quite specific to its location. Its blown-up scale makes passersby aware of the anthropomorphic qualities possible for a normally minute clothespin. When elevated to such grand proportions, the two sprongs resting firmly on the ground now appear as long, slender legs with a silver spring clasp assuming the position of an arm. Personifying the clothespin in such a way makes it humorously fit in with the hundreds of other “legs” hustling and bustling downtown on their way to work.
Although not apparent at first, Oldenburg sneaks some symbolic references to Philadelphia’s history into the piece as well. The year ’76, which pertains not only to the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia (1776) but also to the completed date of the piece (1976), practically writes itself into the work within the shape of the spring, which resembles the fusion of a seven and a six. Even Split Button, Oldenburg’s 1981 sculpture located in front of the Van Pelt library on Penn’s campus and subject to much student ridicule, contains a tongue-in-cheek historical reference when seen in context. Situated nearby a statue of Benjamin Franklin, it makes one think of a button that just popped off his sweater vest, often depicted as much-too-tight with the danger of splitting open like the giant button laying across from it.
Similarly, Paint Torch also alludes to the history of Philadelphia through its iconographic reference to a torch, which, according to David R. Brigham, PAFA’s President and CEO, symbolizes Philadelphia’s significant role in the country’s history “as a leader of the American Revolution.” Its resemblance to a torch is also significant for functioning as PAFA’s connection to the “Museum Mile” that comprises a slew of cultural destinations along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. It now literally lights the starting point for this museum trek that ends at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which coincidentally also happens to be home to another Oldenburg piece: Giant Three-Way Plug, located in the museum’s sculpture garden.
The opening celebration of Lenfest Plaza’s completion and the official “lighting” of Paint Torch took place on Saturday, October 1st. As I biked down Broad Street to go witness this gala, the glaring presence of the oversized paintbrush immediately struck me, which is expected of any “in-your-face” Oldenburg sculpture. Nestled in a city known for its grid-like composition of perpendicular streets, the giant paintbrush provides a fun juxtaposition, jutting out diagonally into the traffic on Broad Street with bright complementary colors of blue and orange, as if about to splatter some color onto the monochrome glass curtain wall of the newly expanded Convention Center facing the plaza. It recalls the days I took a “Beginning Painting” class at PAFA, where the colors Prussian Blue and Cadmium Orange were required in every new student’s oil paint color palette.
Getting up close to the work provides one with yet another perspective. It seemed strange and befuddling to me at first, reminiscent of something akin to a dancing broomstick from Disney’s Fantasia. The massive orange “paint dollop” on the ground beneath it similarly looks a bit cartoonish, acquiring an appearance closer to a serving of perfectly squeezed-out cheez whiz than to a glob of paint (which interestingly evokes more images of Philadelphia, as this condiment dresses our beloved cheesesteaks). This slightly kitschy simplicity makes sense though, highlighting the fact that although PAFA prides itself on its collection of great American artists like Thomas Eakins, it still embraces modern art and contemporary approaches to painting, perhaps fusing modernity and tradition as Paint Brush and the Lenfest Plaza fuse the Academy’s Historic Landmark and Samuel M.V. Hamilton buildings.
Viewed from different vantage points, Paint Torch executes something different at each angle. When walking along Broad Street towards City Hall directly ahead in plain view, the tip of the brush leans against its clock tower while also mimicking the spires of the Arch Street United Methodist Church situated to the left. From underneath, one especially feels the torch’s dynamic sense of movement, as if it were echoing a futurist’s sense of speed. The most interesting viewpoint of Paint Torch, however, is perhaps from behind it on the plaza, which is where the crowd gathered to witness the monumental “lighting” that took place at sunset. In the daylight, the sky serves as a canvas for the brush that reaches out to it, perhaps a metaphor for artistic striving high towards the sky, an appropriate message for PAFA students to embrace. At night, the illuminated brush takes on a level of performance. The glass façade of the expanded Convention Center it faces contains a built-in lighting feature that creates various light schemes using ten rows of LED lights. Immediately after the torch was “lit” with a similarly oversized light switch held victoriously by PAFA alum Billy Blaise Dufala, the adjacent Convention Center danced with lights that alternated between flickering blue and horizontal lines illustrating the basic color spectrum. It was quite a spectacle, and again, felt a little “Disney-like” to me, which is perhaps what Philadelphia needs right now.
While some people criticize or poke fun at Oldenburg’s sculptures, what makes them truly momentous may not always be their level of artistic execution, but their quirky interactions with their surrounding contexts, changing the way these commonplace objects behave in playful defiance of our expectations. Although we are all familiar with buttons, clothespins and spoons, their contextual alteration and magnification can cause us to step back and engage with them in ways we have not considered before, prompting a three-way dialogue between artwork, viewer, and location. I am eager to hear all the comments Oldenburg’s newest work will generate amongst my fellow Philadelphians this time around.
Born, raised, and still here in Philadelphia, Eva Piatek is a jack of all trades but is currently pursuing her MA in Art History at Tyler School of Art. She enjoys dabbling in the city’s art scene, has had a few curatorial gigs here and there, and hopes to maybe open her own gallery someday.