His first theatrical venture was a short work, Snapshots from the City, performed in 1960 in an environment he was showing at the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village. Subsequent performance pieces include Blackouts (1961), Fotodeath/Iron works (1961), Injun (1962), Stars (1963), Gayety (1963), Autobodys (1963), Washes (1965), and Moviehouse (1965). In the spring of 1962, he also produced a series of works on ten Successive weekends for his Lower East Side storefront studio, which he christened The Ray Gun Theatre - a period remembered in Oldenburg's book Store Days (1967). Where the earlier performance pieces occurred in settings especially constructed for artistic occasions, Oldenburg's more recent theatre works explore such "found," yet spatially closed, locations as an indoor swimming pool or the seats of a moviehouse. Although his preparations for a theatrical piece tend to be rather informal, if not haphazard, the resulting work is invariably extremely deft; and through each one runs a distinctly personal style that is consistently achieved....
KOSTELANETZ: What kind of theatrical awareness did you have when you presented
your first theatre piece, Snapshots from the City?
OLDENBURG: Since that was as late as March, 1960, I had by then seen everyone give performances, except Jimmy Dine, who gave his first at that time too. That is, I had seen pieces by Robert Whitman, Red Grooms, Allan Kaprow, Dick Higgins, and perhaps George Brecht. I was aware of a tradition called "happenings" and also the experiments lumped with happenings although they had a different sort of inspiration, such as Red Grooms's The Burning Building. I had also seen the productions at The Living Theatre. I was influenced of course by all these things, but since my purpose was making all this useful to myself, I wasn't trying to be the first one to do anything.
At the time, I made an analysis of what was going on. I felt that there were two possible choices whose differences then looked very clear to me. There were people, both performers and spectators, who would go to one kind of theatre and ignore the other. I remember very well that the late Bob Thompson said he would not see a Kaprow, for example, because he was in the Red Grooms piece. I remember that when a Red Grooms piece and a Kaprow were put on together at the Reuben Gallery, in January of 1960, there was really a lack of communication between the two groups; they divided between ail emotional and a rational expression. The latter had come out of Cage's ideas and what Kaprow had done with the 18 Happenings....
KOSTELANETZ: How did, say, Kaprow's example work upon you?
OLDENBURG: My position, you must understand, has always been on the outside. I didn't live in New Jersey, and I wasn't part of the New Jersey school, of which Kaprow was the leader. I didn't study with Cage. I discovered this whole area when I was looking for a gallery in 1958 and came across Red Grooms, who had started the City Gallery, which was the prototype of the Judson and many other informal artist-run places which also housed performances. Another later stopping-place of Red's perambulating was, for instance, the Delancey Street Museum, a loft which has recently been the home of Peter Schumann's Bread and Puppet Theatre.
At the same time, I found Jim Dine, who had also found Red. The City Gallery was a splinter from the Hansa Gallery, and we formed the younger generation. After having my first one-man show at the Judson, I went away for the summer; and when I came back I saw Kaprow open the Reuben Gallery with his IS Happenings in 6 Parts. It wasn't until then that I gradually came to realize the existence of this New Jersey group. It included Whitman and Lucas Samaras, who both had been students of Kaprow's and were very much influenced by him, at the same time that they had their own entirely different ideas. Also through Kaprow, I met George Segal and Roy Lichtenstein. That year, of course, I had started the Judson Gallery with Jim Dine, Dick Tyler, and Phyllis Yampolsky. Although I had seen Kaprow at a Hansa picnic at George Segal's farm in 1958, the Reuben performance was my first meaningful point of contact with him. I had earlier read his piece on Jackson Pollock, which impressed me.
KOSTELANETZ: How did you do your first piece?
OLDENBURG: Snapshots was done in the beginning of March, 1960. I had created a "street" inside the Judson Gallery; a metamorphic "street" constructed out of paper and street materials; and it had a "floor collage" with all kinds of found objects on it - a "landscape" of the street; and the white walls showing through the construction were to be taken as open space.
KOSTELANETZ: Would you have preferred to have done this on areal street?
OLDENBURG: The original performance was supposed to take place in front of the Judson on Thompson Street. It was called Post No Bills. We had planned to block the street at the moment of performance by stalling a car, but the more I thought about the piece, the more I felt it was very closely connected with the construction I had made. I decided that I wanted to show my construction at the same time that I presented a performance. When people eventually came into the Judson Gallery, they saw me on the street as an object. So, from my first performance, my theatre work was linked to my sculpture or my construction. I was literally in my construction. Otherwise, I was trying to work from the inanimate situation to an animate one, from no-motion into motion.
KOSTELANETZ: Would you say, then, that the notion of "painter's theatre" is not very useful, because even among the painters exist not only different styles but different artistic traditions and different artistic ancestors?
OLDENBURG: Yet something you could say about my performances to individualize them is that as they are very much connected with my work as a painter and sculptor, they correspond to certain periods of my work. For example, the first three pieces - Snapshots, Blackouts [December, 1960], and Fotodeath/Iron works [February, 1961] - are limited in color to black and white, and they have a great deal to do with darkness. This would also describe my work at that time, when I worked entirely with materials from the street and paper, as well as used no color. These three pieces also have a quality of desperation and misery about them; they deal with events of the street and its inhabitants, beggars and cripples. The sculptural pieces from The Store [December, 1961] and Ray Gun Theatre , by contrast, are very colorful and warmly lighted - intimate.
After that, starting with Sports [October, 1962], which followed The Ray Gun Theatre, you get a group of performances where the place, the actual place, becomes very important. Examples include Moviehouse [New York City, December, 1965], the automobile parking lot of Autobodys [Los Angeles, December, 1963], and the farmhouse in Dallas for Injun [Dallas, 1962], and the swimming pool of Washes [New York City, 1965]. The Store was a store of course; but it was used very metamorphically - every week the mood and set were changed - whereas the later pieces always take into account a particular place.
Washes deals with what you can do in a swimming pool. There is a limit to how big a thing I can make; but if I go out and find a place like a swimming pool - which was one of the most marvelous settings I've discovered - then I can use it for my own purposes. Now, the difference between Snapshots, and Washes is that in the earlier piece I attempted to construct a street; but as I was unable to construct an actual street, I did an "art" version of the typical street. In Washes, I simply went out and found a swimming pool. I had the feeling, while I did the piece, that I had really taken possession of nature for my own purposes. Similarly, my sculpture after The Store tends to be rather objective.
In the recent pieces, the biggest object is the place itself, and the people in it tend less to be stereotypes or symbols, but just people moving naturally and doing unaffected things. The parallel in my sculpture is the period I call "The Home," where I made toasters, chairs, ironing boards, plugs. This was the period after the food sculpture, which is connected with The Store. In "The Home" period, which started toward the end of 1963, the colors are limited not to drab black and white but to rich textures of those colors with one other color, blue. A washstand, for instance, is black, white, and blue, as is the bedroom. The pieces here are very neat and clear. That expressionist element becomes entirely the action of the material-, my choice of soft material, not my manipulation of it, makes the pieces "expressive
KOSTELANETZ: Why do you create your pieces, both theatrical and sculptural, against a deadline?
OLDENBURG: I have read somewhere, probably in some pop psychology, that if you put in your mind a date for a task and are not afraid then when that date comes all the things will be ready. That's the way I operate in my theatre. Here are these people, my players, and the first thing that happens is that I am overwhelmed by the presence of so many people. As I spend most of my time alone, happenings become a way of meeting people - of getting out into the world. It's like coming back to New York after you've been away for a month; when you take your first ride in the subway, you can hardly get out of the car, because there is so much going on there.
First thing, I have to give my people something to do. After the first rehearsal, or the second rehearsal (if I have an exceptionally large cast), something begins to emerge and much of it, a great deal, is made by the people themselves. Some of the best parts of a happening occur in the "rehearsals" when the piece takes shape. That thing with the bicycle [one of the last sequences in Moviehouse], which really made the whole piece, was a complete improvisation by Domenick Capobianco, who carried the bicycle ...
KOSTELANETZ: ... from the front of the theatre to the back, stepping over the rows of seats. Some people thought it stood out too much from the piece - it was so eccentric it was affected.
OLDENBURG: I don't agree with them. I know it stuck out awkwardly, but I liked it for that reason. For me, that was an important thing. It was a kind of ripping of the fabric of the setting.
KOSTELANETZ: In another sense, it was also too climactic a conclusion for a consistently flat structure. After you see several incidents that are faintly odd, then you see something that is really odd or odder; for that reason it is somewhat painful.
OLDENBURG: I am not a purist. However, the fact that Domenick, motivated by who knows what, went down and grabbed the bicycle and started climbing over the seats all by himself is sufficiently factual for me to use it in the piece, to find it irresistible. I think that I was seduced by a visual notion there too; I got so carried away by the correspondence of fans, wheels, and film reels that the bicycle seemed like the proper climax. If the elements of a happening can be wrenched out and classified, this could be called a "dance." I often hand a person an obstacle and supply him only with a terrain and a direction. The resulting dance creates itself, as a sculpture takes its own shape when I substitute a soft material for a hard one. Domenick took a bike and crossed the terrain of the seats, which was very difficult and likely to hurt him. In one performance his foot stuck in a seat and I had to come along the floor and free him....
KOSTELANETZ: You created certain visual illusions in Moviehouse. To convey the illusion of a movie projector flickering, I remember that you put a slow fan in front of the light from the empty projector.
OLDENBURG: I was trying to make the movement of this machine more feelable; to call attention to the character of the machinery.
KOSTELANETZ: It also established a ground bass rhythm for the piece. The second more various bass rhythm came from the usherettes moving back and forth across the rows, even though, as you say, their actions were not precisely timed. The third source of rhythm was, of course, the thumpety-thump of the piano. At the same time that the rhythms of Moviehouse were always present and identifiable, its visual sense was at once everywhere and nowhere - there was always something to see, and there was nowhere special to look, except at the end when Domenick carried his bicycle across the rows to the back of the theatre.
OLDENBURG: Everybody looked at him; he riveted attention. The event was unique in the desert of ordinary action - the sort of fantastic event you might find only in a movie, but here it was climbing out into real space. The silhouette of the bicycle moved and got bigger as he got closer to the projector; his image resembled film action in the lighted rectangle. When he got to the end, he put the bicycle down, and once he walked out the door, light came into the theatre. The lighted door in the darkness resembled the screen. As the theatre was drawn inside out, the piece ended.
It's characteristic of all my pieces to want to put the responsibility upon the individual eye. You see whatever you choose to see. People are always saying, "Look over there," while someone else is looking somewhere else. In photos taken of the audience during my performances, everyone is usually looking in different directions.
KOSTELANETZ: Isn't individualized response also an effect of your sculpture?
OLDENBURG: Yes. With the soft sculpture, for instance, the collector must arrange the piece himself.
KOSTELANETZ: In this sense, your work demands perceptions similar to those demanded by life. On Fourteenth Street, there's nowhere special to look. As our individual responses to such unpatterned activity are subjective and various, any meanings we attribute to such perceptions are apt to be personal and ambiguous.
OLDENBURG: Right. You have to makeup your own mind.
By the time I had decided that theatre was, from my point of view, as well as that of the performers and the spectators, a choice of what kind of emotion or attitude to feel toward something, my attempt was to make the actions deliberately ambiguous whenever possible; so that you could either get terribly involved with them or you could be rather indifferent to them....
KOSTELANETZ: In some of your pieces there is a clear preoccupation with American history, both the facts and the myth; how would you define your attitude toward the American past?
OLDENBURG: In The Store you have a hamburger and baked potato; these are stereotyped objects. The equivalent in theatre would be stereotyped figures and stereotyped events. A hamburger would be similar to an "Injun."
I value stereotypes, conventions, because they are "frozen" in time, objectified. All my objects are typical; that is, they are antiques, situated a bit back in time, so that while you observe what I do to them you have a clear idea of the original model. It's not a matter of nostalgia. I am not sentimental about America, or nationalistic. If, in painting, you take a familiar subject, that gives you a certain freedom. Nonetheless, the stereotypes of every nation creep into the minds and imagination of its citizens, but what they mean once they get there may be very personal. They may be masks, externalizations of personal dramas. In the period when I used historical figures, my theatre, I think, was too personal to be considered a conscious play with U.S. history. Though I did refer to the Ray Gun Theatre series as a "history of the U.S. consciousness," I think now it might have been more a history of my consciousness. Where I started with an outside idea, as with Injun, to represent "man's savagery" in the "pop" conventional way, the contact with actual materials turned the spectacle into an intimate personal account, maybe too much so....
KOSTELANETZ: What were your ideas in, say, Moviehouse?
OLDENBURG: I had a clear recollection of a pickpocket working in a theatre late at night in Milwaukee years ago, among the people who were sleeping. I was interested in watching him work. In Moviehouse, Domenick, the fellow who carries the bicycle at the end of the piece, is known in the script as "the pickpocket," and his actions consist of going through the rows from back to front, looking under the seats. He's the timer of the piece; when he reaches the front of the theatre and picks up the bicycle, he signals that the piece is entering its last stages. He times the piece by how quickly he moves among the aisles; thus, it is he who actually decides how long the piece will be.
KOSTELANETZ: Speaking of Moviehouse, do you ever plan to work film into your pieces?
OLDENBURG: What I've been looking for in film I haven't yet found. All the films I have made have been very unsatisfying. Lately, I have begun to believe that in working with the visual image 1 started at the wrong end. I feel that sound is comparable to sculpture; it touches me. Sound is an invisible sculpture - think of thunder. It is possible that I'd have better luck if I started a film with the sound.
KOSTELANETZ: How, specifically, would you do that?
OLDENBURG: In my Stockholm performance of Massage, the base was a recording I made of myself typing the notes to the catalogue. I became aware of how spatial and physical the sound of a simple thing like that could be, and I used it in the performance, highly amplified. The sound really took possession of the space. That was the first time I ever used tape. Up to now, I've avoided tape-recordings to rely on a phonograph, because the tangibility of putting a record on and taking it off is more of a sculptural feeling.
KOSTELANETZ: How did this sound influence your use of space?
OLDENBURG: The space was a room of the museum; and in that situation, the sound, highly amplified, produced an effect something like that of a battlefield, creating a great deal of expectation about when the next sound would come. You had an almost visual picture of some kind of control of the sound; if you could recognize the sound as a typewriter, you would imagine a man typing. It produced a sense of large scale. I knew it was a typewriter, and I think most people did. One reviewer referred to it as a giant typewriter, which suggested that I was using sound to represent a sculptural object - a visually giant typewriter - I'd previously made. It fascinates me that he felt I was evoking through sound a giant image. What added to the effect was the fact that the sound was coming from a structure, inside the museum, where I had my studio; so the actual location of the typewriter was precisely where the sound was coming from. Also, this structure in the museum had the appearance of a giant typewriter.
KOSTELANETZ: What kind of structure was it?
OLDENBURG: You would need to seethe thing to know exactly what I'm talking about. The structure was placed in one corner of a large room inside the museum, so that it appeared to be a big block inside another room; with a little imagination, you could read this as a typewriter.
What might happen is that I could get so involved with the sound that I might eliminate the film. Or I might wind up using a very weak image and let the thing come through as sound.
KOSTELANETZ: Or, you might make a film about something because you liked the way it sounded.
OLDENBURG: That way the image would be rather inert; yet there would bean image. Or I might let your own eyes provide the images and take over your ears with sound, in a transistor sculpture, say, to be worn around town.
Excerpt, "Claes Oldenburg." The Theatre of Mixed Means, New York: The Dial Press, 1968: 134 ff.