The title was blown to the top The Philadelphia plaintiffMetro section of November 3, 1975: Here Comes 4-Story Clothespin. “A four-story, almost Gothic-looking clothespin, which the artist proclaims as an updated version of ‘The Kiss,'” wrote art critic Victoria Donohue, “should become a new monument of Philadelphia in 18 months.”
It was to be one of many works of art built in the new Center Square office complex, directly across from City Hall. There was an artistic requirement, because it was built on land purchased from the city. Developer Jack Wolgin, the former head of the city’s art commission himself, reached out to artists big and small to fill the space. There was also supposed to be a statue of a Philadelphia mommer, but that fell through, leaving Center Square to buy the Mummer-like Milord la Chamarre (My Lord of the Fancy Vest) by Jean Dubuffet.
The Fancy Vest Lord is still there, just like Clothespin—a silly and simple giant sculpture of Claes Oldenburg, who died yesterday at 93. Clothespin was Philadelphia’s finest piece of public art. This might be my favorite public art anywhere.
Oldenburg was born in Sweden and worked in New York. He began with depictions of his Lower East Side neighborhood in the early 1960s, inspired by all the bustle and charm of the neighborhood. Later in the decade he was doing hippie performance art: a work titled placid civic monument featured gravediggers shoveling a 6ft by 3ft rectangular hole in the ground behind the Met. In 1969, he installed Lipstick (Crescent) on Caterpillar Tracks at Yale University, a giant lipstick tube became a site for anti-war protests. A Yale alumni magazine story says that all of this “has been kept secret from Yale authorities.”
It was Oldenburg’s first major work, and exactly the kind of thing he had become best known for. He called these giant versions of everyday objects “large-scale projects”. There are so many! Billiard balls, a pickaxe and a toothbrush, in Germany. Binoculars in Venice, California. A needle and thread in Italy. A ‘FREE’ stamp outside the Cleveland Free Library. A flashlight at UNLV. Many of his works, such as Umbrella in Des Moines, Iowa, were made in collaboration with his wife Coosje van Bruggen. They married in 1977. She died in 2009.
There are several works of Oldeburg in Philadelphia. His most recent work is Paint Torch, a giant paintbrush with poo-emoji paint. This one is OK. One of my favorites is Three-way giant plugwhich is behind the art museum here and also at Oberlin College.
But Clothespin is the best. When installed, it immediately split. In a defense of the project before its construction, the ApplicantTony Auth wrote that “many were appalled”. Other staff members were even less enthusiastic. “We need a symbol to show that we are not the sleepy mossbacks of the stereotype – to show that we are what Macriarose would call ‘with this’ or ‘today’,” wrote Bob Lancaster. “And the symbol we’re going to get is a clothespin.” On the day of its installation, the newspaper said it received mixed reviews. “What does that mean,” said construction worker Jerry Cannon. “Do you think it has to do with being between two banks?”
Some people still hate it. In 1982, the Applicant called him “the champion of controversy” in a future story Black Hawk Down writer Mark Bowden. “You think about all the great things that have happened in this city, and someone who for some ungodly reason wants to put something like this in place that makes us the laughing stock of the rest of the world,” said Art Gorman, a man who led the successful campaign for the city to display the Rocky statue. “I mean, what kind of town do people think it is, with a giant clothespin in the middle? It’s in bad taste, you know?
I won’t talk about the kind of city people think of Philadelphia, but I will admit that the big clothespin might not be as good a tourist attraction as a famous movie prop. No matter. Clothespin is clearly the best public art. I first fell in love as a teenager, during my early years exploring downtown on my own. I’m old enough that those years preceded the widespread use of cell phones. Therefore, if friends came separately, we would need a meeting place. We didn’t meet at the eagle, the department store sculpture that was also known as the meeting place. We met at the clothespin. It was bigger. It was more recent. It’s a better landmark than the eagle, which is a sculpture that I still love so much that I proposed to my wife in front.
It is important to emphasize the size of this sculpture. Clothespin stands 45 feet tall. It sits on a pedestal in the middle of the entrance to the underground section of Center Square and at the intersection of the two Philadelphia subway lines. (Oldenburg said that if placed on the ground it created a wind tunnel.) This height is important. This is a heavily developed area, and the clothespin creates a friendly middle ground between the tall buildings and the tiny people scurrying below. This makes the downtown landscape a less alienating space. If you’re wondering if I took that previous sentence from my friend with an art degree, I absolutely did.
There is more too. The pins on the clothespin look like a “76,” an important Philadelphia number, and if you walk behind it, the clothespin lines up perfectly with the City Hall tower. And, yes, it refers The kiss, a sculpture by Constantin Brâncuși. I see it a little. My friend from art school is a bit more confident about this one than me.
But you don’t even need all these explanations to love Clothespin. It’s a big clothespin in downtown Philadelphia. What else should I tell you? He reigns. Here’s to the man who built it.