Claes Oldenberg and Abstract Art Versus Representative

For many ordinary citizens, the term “abstract art” covers a lot of territory, some of it works that the Art World itself wouldn’t necessarily call abstract. For instance, many people are vaguely aware of the work of Claes Oldenberg because of his giant, soft sculptures of everyday objects, and they might classify him among the broad spectrum of abstract artists.  Although many of the things he strives to achieve in his work would resonate with abstractionists, he works with representational imagery.

"Flying Pins" by Claes Oldenberg and Coosje van Bruggen

“Flying Pins” by Claes Oldenberg and Coosje van Bruggen


Oldenberg’s Flying Pins


As the city of Eindhoven, Netherlands, prepared to host the 2000 European Championship soccer tournament, they city leaders wanted to commission a work that would be, in their words, an “eye-catcher.” They sought out Oldenberg to develop something that would add to the cityscape in an exciting new way. Oldenberg, who worked with his wife Coosje van Bruggen, decided to place their prospective work on the median of the Kennedylaan, the primary thoroughfare that leads to the city center.

The artists decided that the long, grass-covered space suggested a bowling space to them, since they had also chosen to develop a subject that referenced sports of some sort.  The flow of the traffic on the Kennedylaan would add to the sense of motion of the game in a bowling lane. To capture the sense of energy, they chose the moment of the ball striking the pins and sinking out of sight at the end of the lane. Van Bruggen chose the vibrant yellow for the pins to echo the daffodils that bloom on the lane in the spring.

Oldenberg’s Objectives


Oldenberg’s Pop Art impulses ran counter to the trends of the Art World in the early 1960s when he began displaying his large, humorous sculptures. Oldenberg felt that the artistic sensibilities had gotten too locked into serious and “profound” presentations of ideas, particularly from the abstract expressionists. He therefore focused on taking ordinary objects and brashly enlarging them. Many of the early works also were formed of soft materials sewn together.

Representational Art as Abstraction


By choosing to focus on the contrary aspects in creative works, turning to humor instead of seriousness, softness where others worked in hard, inflexible media, Oldenberg was, in effect, abstracting elements of his subjects that appealed to him. He highlights those elements through the means of making them extra large, he does many of the same things that abstract artists strive to do: he makes the viewer experience something more immediately, jolting them away from all the referential clutter than can come with a strictly representational art.  With “Flying Pins” the viewer is made to focus on the moment of impact, with the energy of the rolling ball communicated into the bright pins shooting outward from the impact.

An Abstract Perspective


All artists want to encourage the viewer to see the subject of their works in new ways. Abstract art does this by reducing the recognizable referenants to basic elements. It might be that the artist desires to focus on the basic shapes in a composition, or colors and general energy of a work.

"East Jesus Meets Tiger Cat" by Diana Hobson

“East Jesus Meets Tiger Cat” by Diana Hobson


Diana Hobson’s “East Jesus Meets Tiger Cat” draws the viewer to focus on the sense of energy in the piece. The sweep of the yellow shape that dominates the core of the piece pulls the eyes upward through the activity of the blue squiggly lines and the shape that cuts across the sweeping curve. We are left to feel the activity of the shapes in isolation, with no specific references to make us think of a particular activity. Hobson captures motion and energy in a more abstract fashion than Oldenberg did with “Flying Pins.” Much of Hobson’s other works display this same vibrancy.



“Flying Pins” by Claes Oldenberg and Coosje van Bruggen, installed 2000, on Kennedylaan, Eindhoven, the Netherlands. This photo of the work is reproduced here under Fair Use Practices for instruction and information.

“East Jesus Meets Tiger Cat” by Diana Hobson, 1987. Copyright Diana Hobson. Used by permission.


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