Max Kozloff – The Poetics of Softness 1967 and Claes Oldenberg’s soft sculpture

“[…(O)ne thing sculpture is quite simply not allowed to be, if it has any pretensions to the mainstream, or any claim to historical necessity, is soft. I mean soft in the literal sense of easily yielding to physical pressure. A soft thing can be poked, moulded, squeezed, scrunched. In a word, it’s surface is elastic, and it’s densities are scandalously rearrangeable.[…] [A] soft sculpture, in various proportions, might suggest fatigue, deterioration or inertia. It mimes a kind of surrender to the natural condition which pulls bodies down. No matter how figurative, then, sculpture in general must be seen as, in an important sense, escaping the anthropomorphic. And regardless of how abstract is a soft sculpture, it will unavoidable evoke the human.” Page 90, taken from Whitechapel series, “Materiality” 2015.

Kozloff goes on to say that the term organic as originally understood as an acceptable metaphor for a rigid or solid material. “However, when it becomes a factor of the material itself, it takes on an alarming correspondence to our own transient mortality… there evidently can be qualities of nostalgia or expectancy. For the very malleability of soft materials, slightly inflated or drooping, focusses on the way an action will, or possibly already has, altered a substance in time.” (p91).

Oldenberg started to explore soft sculpture in 1957, “…it throws in question the very nature of matter, and our relation with all the familiar objects around us” (91).

“Preoccupied by social perceptions, he rehabilitates the public falseness of the American scene by endorsing the synthetic materials like vinyl, and the aping of manufacturing methods in an ironically rationalised production outlook. Yet this has lead, not to caricature, but to a kind of monstrous, yet strangely innocent, inflation of the scale in all his creations[…] That dislocates our fondly held notion o human control over matter, introduces an hallucinating element into an aesthetic encounter that may slide downwards in menace, or upward to a greater potentiality in accommodating ourselves to our own ‘nature’.” (92)

Claes Oldenberg Untitled/Sausage 1957


Oldenberg creates a whole new connotation to the sculpture; in this particular piece (above), the bathtub becomes an ominous figure, sagging and drooping. The pinkish tube looks like an umbilical cord, bringing expressions of mortality. Moving the bathtub from it’s usual horizontal platform to this vertical monument makes it seem like a tomb stone or a looking figure, cloaked. It is also a very vulvic shape, suggestive of sexual display – open.

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