Claes Oldenburg

Claes Oldenburg I was given a place to meet.

On November 3, 1975, Here Comes 4-Story Clothespin was streamed across the top of the metro section of The Philadelphia Inquirer. “Within 18 months, a four-story-tall clothespin that looks almost Gothic and that the artist says is an updated version of “The Kiss” is expected to become a new landmark in Philadelphia,” wrote art critic Victoria Donohue.

It was going to be one of many works of art built at the new Centre Square office building, which is just across the street from City Hall. It had to have art because it was built on land that was bought from the city. Developer Jack Wolgin, who used to be in charge of the city’s art commission, got in touch with both famous and unknown artists to fill the space. There was also supposed to be a statue of a Philadelphia mummer, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Centre Square bought Milord la Chamarre (My Lord of the Fancy Vest) by Jean Dubuffet, which looks like a mummer.

The Fancy Vest Lord is still there, and so is Clothespin, a silly, simple, giant sculpture by Claes Oldenburg, who died yesterday at the age of 93. His Clothespin was Philadelphia’s best piece of public art. It could be my favorite piece of public art.

Oldenburg was born in Sweden, but he worked in New York City. In the early 1960s, he started painting pictures of his Lower East Side neighborhood. The noise, dirt, and charm of the area made him want to paint it. Later in the decade, he did hippie performance art. In a piece called “Placid Civic Monument,” gravediggers dug a rectangular hole in the ground behind the Met that was 6 feet by 3 feet. In 1969, he put up Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks at Yale University. It was a big lipstick tube that became a place where people protested against the war. A story in a Yale alumni magazine says that the whole thing “was kept a secret from Yale officials.”

This was Oldenburg’s first big project, and it was exactly the kind of thing he would become famous for. He called these big versions of things people use every day “large-scale projects.” There are a lot of them! In Germany, you can buy pool balls, a pick-ax, and a toothbrush. Binoculars in Venice, California. An Italian needle and thread. A “FREE” stamp in front of Cleveland’s free library. At UNLV, a flashlight. Many of his works, like Umbrella in Des Moines, Iowa, were done with his wife, Coosje van Bruggen. In 1977, they got married. In 2009, she died.

There are a number of works by Oldenburg in Philadelphia. His newest piece is Paint Torch, which is a big paintbrush with a poop-emoji-shaped blob of paint on it. That’s fine. Giant Three-Way Plug is one of my favorites. You can find it behind the Art Museum here and also at Oberlin College.

But the best is Clothespin. When it was put in, it caused arguments right away. Before the project was built, Tony Auth of the Inquirer wrote that “many were appalled.” Even fewer people on the staff were excited. Bob Lancaster wrote, “We need a symbol to show that we’re not the stereotype of sleepy mossbacks, that we’re what Macriarose would call “with it” or “today.” “And we’ll get a clothespin as our symbol.” The paper said that it got mixed reviews the day it was put in place. “What does it mean?” asked Jerry Cannon, a worker on the building site. “You think being between two banks has something to do with it?”

Still, some people don’t like it. In 1982, Mark Bowden, who later wrote the book Black Hawk Down, wrote an article for the Inquirer in which he called it “the champion of controversy.” “You think of all the good things that have happened in this city, and someone wants to put up something like that that makes the rest of the world laugh at us,” said Art Gorman, who led the successful effort to get the Rocky statue put up in the city. “I mean, what kind of city do people think this is, with a huge clothespin in the middle of it? It’s rude, don’t you know?”

I won’t say what kind of city people think Philadelphia is, but I will say that the big clothespin might not be as good a tourist attraction as a famous movie prop. Whatever. The better piece of public art is clearly the clothespin. I fell in love with it when I was a teenager and just starting to explore Center City on my own. I’m old enough to remember when most people didn’t have cell phones, so if friends came down from different places, we’d need a place to meet. We didn’t meet at the eagle, which was a sculpture in a department store that was also known as a place to meet. The clothespin is where we met. It had more space. It wasn’t as old. It is a better landmark than the eagle, which I still like so much that I asked my wife to marry me in front of it.

We need to stress how big this sculpture is. The height of a Clothespin is 45 feet. It is on a pedestal in the middle of the entrance to the underground part of Centre Square and where the two subway lines in Philadelphia meet. Oldenburg said that if it was put on the ground, it would turn into a wind tunnel. That height matters. This is a very built-up area, and the clothespin shows how big the tall buildings are compared to the tiny people running around below. It makes downtown feel like less of an alien place. If you’re wondering if I got that last sentence from my friend who has a degree in art, the answer is yes.

There’s also more. The pins on the Clothespin look like the number “76,” which is an important number in Philadelphia. If you walk behind it, the pins line up with the City Hall tower. And yes, it makes a reference to The Kiss, a sculpture by Constantin Brancuşi. I kinda see it. My friend from art school is a little more sure about this than I am.

But you don’t have to understand all of that to like Clothespin. In the middle of downtown Philadelphia is a big clothespin. What else do you need to know? It’s great. Here’s to the person who made it happen.