Claes Oldenburg Plays Jack and the Beanstalk With Giant Sculpture

The National Gallery in Washington honors the Swedish-born artist who celebrates ordinary things -- larger-than-life

THINK Big. Really Big. It's reality on a massive scale. Claes Oldenburg has worked in just about every medium and dimension, but his most striking pieces are huge representations of daily life.

For an indoor show, there is probably no better place to exhibit the Stockholm-born artist's work than the National Gallery of Art's East Wing. Now through May 7, this wide open, naturally lit, and dramatically angled space, designed by architect I.M Pei, is the perfect temporary home to a 200-piece collection spanning the past 35 years of Oldenburg's creativity.

Imagine a pool-ball setup, freshly racked, with the cue ball off to the side. Breaking this colossal configuration is hardly possible with a cue, though. You'd need a bulldozer to disturb the neat arrangement of brightly-colored plexiglas and steel balls.

Nearby, an old-fashioned typewriter eraser sits whimsically on an angle; the viewer half expects to see its residue alongside. In keeping with a characteristic common to many Oldenburg sculptures, the effect is softness and flexibility, yet the artist's actual materials belie that notion. The eraser's round rubber base and blue-colored bristles, which are curved from apparent use, are actually steel, aluminum, and a ferrous iron.

Yards away is Oldenburg's 3-1/2-foot baseball mitt. Cupping a wooden ball pieced together by a geometric design, it looks like well-worn leather, but it's actually steel and lead.

Since the mid-1970s, Oldenburg has worked with art historian and writer Coosje van Bruggen on 25 monumental works. Oldenburg, who is given to elaborate sketches, technical drawings, and scientific assessments of planned pieces (there are many on display), sought her help in their implementation.

Ms. Van Bruggen's role was to interpret Oldenburg's complex ''notes, texts, and theoretical analyses, which immediately transformed the activity of the imagination,'' writes the exhibition's curator, Germano Celant, in ''Claes Oldenburg: An Anthology.''

With careful execution, Oldenburg has put together a dynamic body of work that is downright zany. Giving commonplace objects a humorous twist, he has gained a reputation as one of America's leading contemporary artists.

Up a flight in the East Wing, accessible by escalators that offer fine vistas of the work below, is the show's biggest attraction: a gargantuan red Swiss Army knife with eight silver oars protruding from both sides. Entitled ''Knife Ship II,'' this ''vessel'' measures more than 31 by 31 by 40 feet. ''Let's go up to the third floor so we can get a better look,'' says a young freckled-faced boy tugging on his mother's arm. That's how huge it is.

''It's fun, isn't it?'' chortles a woman passing by in a purple business suit. The knife's corkscrew is erect, but it descends back below deck every 20 minutes, as two gigantic knives come up.

''They had to take one of those huge floor-to-ceiling windows out to get this thing into the museum. It looked like a red plane had crashed into the East Wing as they moved it in,'' offers a museum worker. She is taking a lunch break while her five-year-old daughter waits for the corkscrew-knife number. This is her fourth day to see the show.

Museum guards, whose jobs can be monotonous, get a real kick out of the Oldenburg spread. They have to watch the art, they say, but they also enjoy watching the patrons. Everybody walks around this exhibit smiling, if not laughing out loud. For children, this may be the best way to engage them in art. It's easy to identify, tempting to touch, and leaves a lasting impression.

Drawing a reaction, even an interaction between the viewers and the art, is an Oldenburg specialty. When he moved to New York in the late 1950s, Oldenburg's crowd included Red Grooms and Jim Dine, artists who were then experimenting with performance art and staging ''happenings'' to disseminate their ideas. From that point on, Oldenburg preferred to display his objects in a certain arena -- often to create a theater environment -- to elicit a response to the context in which the art was placed.

One flight up from ''Knife Ship II'' is a silver fork with a meatball and spaghetti, which leans against a wall. Measuring more than 11 feet tall; it's one of Oldenburg's more recent works (1994), made in cast aluminum painted with urethane enamel. It looks gooey, with a couple of the noodles dangling off the fork. It, too, has drawn a crowd of adults and kids.

Across the hall is an apple core. Stem included, it reaches almost 8 feet in height. The artist made the remaining skin a shiny red, while he cleverly browned the uneaten inside portion to depict an exposure to the air.

While all of the objects in the East Wing show are transportable, many are smaller representations of sculptures that are firmly ensconced in parks, public buildings, and other open arenas around the world.

His book of matches -- a match cover folded back to reveal a few matches with colored tips, one crowned by a blue flame, and a few spent matches, blackened, cast aside -- is actually a smaller version of a Barcelona-based, steel, aluminum, and Fiberglas-reinforced plastic structure reaching 68 feet into the sky.

An entire room has been devoted to Oldenburg's soft musical instruments: oversized clarinets, saxophones, a harp with strings made of clothesline, an enormous drum set centered on a platform. Their canvas construction has a collapsed, tired look. ''I'll bet this room rocks at night,'' says museumgoer and music enthusiast Erin Gorman. ''These pieces probably come alive when everybody goes home,'' she says with a grin.

* The show will be at the National Gallery's East Wing through May 7, then goes on an international tour: Los Angeles's Museum of Contemporary Art, June 18-Sept. 3; New York's Guggenheim museum, Oct. 7-Jan. 14, 1996; Bonn's Kunstund Austellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Feb. 15-May 12, 1996; London's Hayward Gallery, June 6-Aug. 19, 1996.

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