Sculpture with a sense of fun. Oldenburg at Guggenheim; new book on Christo

Anyone who cannot immediately identify a Claes Oldenburg sculpture hasn't been paying much attention to recent American art. Thanks to Oldenburg's irreverent and delightful imagination, the world is now populated by monumental typewriters, lipsticks, ice bags, garden hoses, pliers, flashlights, and any number of other common household items. Some barely fit into the large museum spaces for which they were designed. Others dominate the impressive architectural sites they were intended to enliven. All are simple, colorful, and huge, and every one turns traditional sculpture on its ear. In 1985, a large ship in the form of a bright red Swiss Army knife, complete with two gigantic blades, a 26-foot high corkscrew, and eight oars extending from its sides (all electrically driven) joined this assortment of oversize public works of art. It was designed for a land and water performance conceived by Oldenburg, writer/curator Coosje van Bruggen, and architect Frank O. Gehry that took place in Venice in September of that year. At the finale of the production, ``The Knife Ship,'' launched earlier from the ancient naval yard at the Arsenale, made its appearance in the canal opposite the performance site in and around the historic Campo dell'Arsenale.

A 40-foot, slightly altered version of this work is now on display at the Guggenheim Museum here, along with the drawings made during its conception and evolution, as well as photographs and texts documenting the performance. Although the ship is ``beached'' during its stay here, its blades, corkscrew, and oars remain in continual motion. That, together with the supplemental material and the richly illustrated catalog that accompanies the exhibition, should give the viewer a fairly good idea of the wit, imagination, and invention that goes into everything Oldenburg attempts.

At the Guggenheim Museum through Feb. 16. New book on Christo

Christo is another artist who has altered traditional notions of what constitutes public art, and he has done so by wrapping buildings, bridges, and other large outdoor objects in nylon or similar material. His 1971-72 ``Valley Curtain'' consisted of a huge orange curtain hung across the canyon at Rifle Gap, Colo. And in 1976, he amazed the art world and the public with ``Running Fence,'' a continuous white curtain 18 feet high that meandered across almost 25 miles of hills north of San Francisco.

But that was only the beginning. In October 1980, Christo was invited by the director of Miami's Center for the Fine Arts to produce a major project for that city's World Festival of the Arts, scheduled for June 1982. After an extended on-site inspection, Christo agreed to participate in the event by ``wrapping'' several of the islands in Miami's Biscayne Bay.

It took until 1983 for his idea to be realized, due largely to an incredible amount of local, state, and federal red tape, and to the difficulties encountered in finding and manufacturing the right ``wrapping'' material. By May 7 of that year, however, everything was in place, and for the following two weeks 11 of Miami's islands attracted an almost unbelievable amount of media attention because of the bright pink woven polypropylene fabric with which each of them was surrounded.

By general consensus, the project was a huge success. Christo's idea of creating public art that dramatized the relationship between land and water was realized by playing the luminous pink of the fabric against the light of the city's sky, the colors of its tropical vegetation, and the jewel-like tones of the bay's shallow waters.

Unfortunately, this massive undertaking is now only a memory, every trace of its existence having been removed. All that remains are the many photographs taken of it and the documents that facilitated its execution.

Here, however, we are in luck, for over 1,000 of these pictures and records have been assembled by Harry N. Abrams Inc. in a 696-page marvel of a book that recreates the event from start to finish, reproduces every relevant document, and brings the project back to life in 332 stunning full-color photographs.

``Christo: Surrounding Islands'' is an extraordinary aesthetic, art historical, and human (585 volunteers were involved) ``diary'' that deserves to be on the bookshelf of anyone interested in recent art.

Since Christo perceived this book as part of the project itself, he supervised its design and layout, and insisted that a generous sample of the pink fabric be included.

The texts are by David Bourdon, Jonathan Fineberg, and Janet Mulholland, and the photographs were taken by Wolfgang Volz. The book was published by Harry N. Abrams Inc., sells for $65, and is worth every cent.

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