Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, partners in love and art, were inspired with the idea of creating a public work of art after visiting Bruggen’s father, who began growing a long beard. This beard reminded them of the castaway character, Robinson Crusoe, from Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel. Upon visiting Nollen Plaza (now Cowles Commons), the pair imagined a Cor-Ten steel umbrella in the space, which included a waterfall and large pool at the time.
“The playful and sketch-like sculpture is was inspired by an illustration from Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe, in which a castaway, stranded on a desert island for 28 years, builds a makeshift umbrella out of natural materials to remind him of the civilization that he was torn from.”
Also, during a lecture Oldenburg talked about his interest in the Travelers Insurance sign of an umbrella that looms over downtown Des Moines a few blocks from Cowles Common.
This artwork was installed and inaugurated in late November, 1979.
Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen collaborated on their art since meeting in 1976 and marrying the following year. With more than 40 sculptures around the world in the U.S., Asia, and Europe, their unique creations of large-scale “ordinary” objects have drawn delight from thousands. Oldenburg was a leader of the Pop Art movement in the 1960s, creating performance art and drawings through the early 1970s. The pair decided to concentrate on public art commissions in 1978 and have been designing these installations ever since. Van Bruggen was an accomplished art historian and curator before committing to making public art with her husband; she died in 2009.
(6-12 ELA) READ Robinson Crusoe
In anticipation of your visit and to put Crusoe Umbrella in context, read the novel Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe. Younger students or struggling readers can read adapted novels to serve their reading levels:
Students will be fascinated while watching two different videos showing the process of turning steel and other metals into artwork. Viewing these videos will help students get a “making of” feeling, which will be appreciated when visiting the steel sculpture in person:
(6-12, Art) MODEL ART
Since working with steel in the classroom is unlikely, have students make a clay version of the Crusoe Umbrella, either directly modeling or using it as a starting point for their own umbrella sculpture. Take it further and select another Oldenburg-van Bruggen sculpture, or have students select an additional “everyday object” to create a miniature artwork.
(12) SPEAK WITH A LOCAL ARTIST
Local artist James Bearden (https://www.jamesbeardensculpture.com/) has been creating sculptural art for over a decade; his work has been featured in several galleries around the state and nationally. Bearden has been included in DSM Magazine, Interior Design Magazine, and Introspective Magazine.
(6-12) REAL STEEL DISCOVERIES
Learn more about working with steel by touring or inviting into your classroom a local steel/ metal fabrication business:
Specializing in stainless steel and aluminum since 1987, this company designs manufacturing equipment, metal signage, and interactive displays – just to name a few of their undertakings!
The artists’ official website hosts a very thorough catalog of every large-scale project created with histories and images. Biographies, selected publications and writings are also linked on this easy-to-navigate website.
Find information on artists and movements using this website, as well as timelines and an updated blog. Claes Oldenburg has a nice, thorough profile here, where his “Most Important Art” is highlighted, along with his influences and connections. This is a wonderfully organized resource for any artist study.
This recent NY Times Style Magazine profile on Claes Oldenburg digs into both early and latter points of his career. Personal anecdotes are shared throughout the article, as well as a description of his upcoming private commission and gallery showing in New York City.
“Gemano Celant, organizing curator of the travelling exhibition Claes Oldenburg: An Anthology, on view at the Gallery from February 12 to May 7, 1995, joins the artists in this lecture. In this recording from March 5, 1995, the trio discuss the art in the exhibition—the first survey of their art since 1969—and how it offers a sense of interaction unlike anything else in a museum.”
Stamp Your Local(ish) Cultural Passport
Stamp your National Cultural Passport
Visit additional large-scale art pieces of everyday objects by Oldenburg-van Bruggen around the country, like Flashlight (University of Nevada, Las Vegas); Clothespin (Philadelphia); and even a Knife Slicing Through Wall (Los Angeles, CA).
View all Oldenburg-van Bruggen national and international artworks with information and location in the artists’ Chronology of Large-Scale Projects.
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