Oldenburg's bat takes on Chicago

THIS bat sculpture is an idea that has traveled far from Claes Oldenburg's original idea of it as a saggy, stuffed, soft, cloth form that was eventually ``used'' for an Aspen softball game between poets and artists. Oldenburg's sense of wit is similar to Charlie Chaplin's comedic intuition. Chaplin saw humor in cooking and eating a shoe for a meal; Oldenburg lets his exploring imagination discover a feast in the objects of industrial manufacture, in order to find a form fit for art.

In his humorous encounters with the man-made object, Oldenburg often alters the object's normal scale (small becomes huge), its expected manufacture (hard becomes soft, metal becomes cloth), or its conventional function (an extension plug becomes a proposal for a building).

On its most obvious level the ``Batcolumn'' can be seen simply and amusingly as a monument to baseball. As a visual gag, it is also an apt metaphor for Chicago, where political clout is a front-page constant and a symbol of government power - it stands before the Federal Social Security Building.

Having spent part of his life in Chicago, Oldenburg is familiar with two of its striking features.

In this city, the dynamic, almost brutal, vertical thrust of the buildings is dramatically juxtaposed against the broad, flat horizontal planes of land and lake which open up to a vast sky. When Oldenburg discussed his inspiration for ``Batcolumn,'' which he saw in part as an inverted industrial chimney, he noted how the horizontal land emphasized the vertical presence of the chimneys at the then-open renewal site.

Now, with the steady encroachment of sophisticated architecture surrounding his ``Batcolumn,'' Oldenburg's sculpture has a newer, urban context and an environment more suited to its open-grid, flat steel manufacture.

The most compelling view of the ``Batcolumn,'' however, is from the base of it, as one looks toward the twin high-rise residences across the street that frame the Sears Tower in the distance.

Then the world's tallest bat vies with the world's tallest building and holds a surprising, dynamic counterbalance to its new massive surroundings. It is one of the few times that public art seems more than postage-stamp d'ecor against imposing buildings. It is at this point that the ``Batcolumn'' becomes a vital symbol of artistic imagination confronting ``heroic materialism.'' One can almost feel Chaplin tipping his hat and whirling his cane at these formidable neighbors.

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