Artists Contemporary art USA

Oldenburg's eternal flame

Paint Torch is lit in Philadelphia—a monument to the city's public art programme and the artist's late wife

Paint Torch by Claes Oldenburg sits in Philadelphia's newly dedicated Lenfest Plaza

philadelphia. Paint Torch, a new 51-foot public sculpture by the artist Claes Oldenburg, punctuates the recently dedicated Lenfest Plaza at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), and on Saturday was lit for the first time by the artist. Placed between the academy’s school and museum, the work features a larger-than-life paintbrush that juts out onto the street and is topped with illuminated bristles.

“This sculpture is quite site-specific. The school still carries on the tradition of using a paintbrush,” said Oldenburg, speaking from his New York studio days before the unveiling. “Many people make art without using paintbrushes now.“

The piece is tilted at a 60-degree angle and appears poised to dip into the six-foot drop of paint that rests on the ground below. It is a work “in action”, said Oldenburg. “The brush has just completed an arc. There’s a sense of movement that makes it rather alive,” he continued.

This is the first public project that the artist has worked on without the assistance of his late wife, Coosje van Bruggen, who died in 2009. The couple created 41 large-scale collaborative pieces following their marriage in 1977. “Of course I have a very good memory of her and how she would see things, what she might say. I don’t see that she’s not part of it,” he said.

The school commissioned the Swedish-born artist in December 2010 for the $1.5m project. The plaza was funded by a gift from the Lenfest family, with additional financial support from the city of Philadelphia. The city holds three other public works by Oldenburg: Clothespin (1976), Split Button (1981) and Giant Three-Way Plug (1970). Philadelphia now displays more public Oldenburg works than any other city, something the artist credits to its Percent for Art programme.

In 1959, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority adopted the US’ first One Percent for Fine Arts programme. It stipulates that for each project built on land acquired from the redevelopment authority, the developer must allocate no less than 1% of the total budget toward commissioning original, site-specific works of public art.

But more drew Oldenburg to Philadelphia than just its public commissioning programme. Van Bruggen came to the US for the first time to celebrate the 1976 inauguration of Oldenburg’s Clothespin, which sits at Philadelphia’s Centre Square office development. During that visit, the two toured the PAFA museum together, Oldenburg snapping photos of his future wife. “I have always had a very special memory of that particular museum and that helped me to take this job. The spot makes me think of her,” he said.

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5 Oct 11
15:3 CET


Unlike too much public art, Oldenberg's is joyful and fun. He cheers up a space. They are superbly conceived and executed. Philly is indeed lucky.

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