Claes Oldenburg, Shelf Life, Number 15, 2016–17. Mixed media.
An exploration of how ideas regarding artistic process, product, and practice resonate across time, this exhibition juxtaposes contemporary sculpture by Claes Oldenburg (born 1929) with a selection of 17th-century Dutch still life paintings from the MFA’s collection, recently enhanced with promised gifts from Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo and Susan and Matthew Weatherbie. Oldenburg’s Shelf Life (2017) is a set of 15 mixed-media sculptures, each comprising a custom-made shelf upon which the artist has arranged a display of miniature objects that reference his most iconic works—many of them outsized sculptures or large-scale public art installations created over the past six decades. Each intimate vignette of objects in Shelf Life was carefully choreographed by Oldenburg, much in the way that the objects and foodstuffs in Dutch still lifes appear haphazardly composed but are, in actuality, meticulously arranged. The installation features a group of monochromatic “breakfast pieces” by Pieter Claesz. (1597–1660), in which the same items appear again and again, organized differently from composition to composition. This use of repetition is echoed in Shelf Life, in which Oldenburg refers to motifs that have surfaced in his practice over the course of years, varying in material and scale. Also included are vanitas still lifes, including one by Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts (active in 1659–1675), filled with symbols of the transience of human life. Exemplifying the concept of ars longa, vita brevis (“art is long, life is short”), such a painting also resonates with Shelf Life, a retrospective project from a late stage in Oldenburg’s career—in his words, “a time to decide what one keeps.”
(Photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery. © 2018 Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen)