An American Place: The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection
Executed in 1961, Claes Oldenburg’s Strong Arm is an early, iconic work from a key moment in Pop Art history. It was created at the same time as many of the most important sculptures and wall reliefs that featured in Oldenburg’s infamous pop-art installation known as The Store that debuted to the public in December of 1961. This exhibition featured nearly one hundred sculptural versions of consumer objects that Oldenburg found in the shops and bodegas of his Lower East Side neighborhood. Womens’ clothing, shirts, ties, sausages, slices of cake, and a multitude of other ubiquitous items were all re-made in the artist’s unique style and offered for sale. Oldenburg used materials like chicken wire, muslin and plaster to create these cleverly ironic objects, which he painted in bright enamel paints taken directly from the can. Strong Arm epitomizes this brief but incendiary moment in art history, in which the radical new Pop Art movement took the country by storm. The work was acquired shortly after its creation by the legendary collectors Burt and Emily Tremaine, and was later owned by the famous architect Philip Johnson; it has been in the collection of Barney A. Ebsworth for nearly three decades, and remains one of the most important works from this iconic artist still in private hands.
Strong Arm is likely based upon a vintage bodybuilding advertisement that Oldenburg culled from his personal archive of newspaper and magazine clippings. It illustrates an archetypal representation of 1950s and ‘60s era masculinity, calling to mind the oversized, cartoon-like muscles of characters like Popeye and Superman, or those popularized by the iconic ‘50s bodybuilder Charles Atlas. Atlas offered an illustrated mail-order pamphlet that appeared in the back pages of comics and magazines. This bodybuilding course offered the adolescent boy with an opportunity for self-transformation in return for a check or money order. Like Oldenburg’s Ray Gun, the Strong Arm muscle-man is capable of destroying his enemies by sheer force alone. It symbolically alludes to the meaning of the action verb “strong arm” and in doing so, might also refer to the domineering presence of American military force around the world that was a major concern of the counter-culture movement at the time. It certainly points to the fundamentally “American” notion of self-reliance, particularly the classically American paradigm of the “self-made man” and free-market capitalism. In doing so, Strong Arm dovetails neatly with iconic Pop representations of American culture, such as Warhol’s Coca-Cola bottles and Jasper Johns’s American flag.
It was late into the winter of 1961 that The Store became fully realized in Oldenburg’s new studio on East 2nd Street in New York’s Lower East Side, an actual storefront that he had rented for specifically for this purpose. The result was described by one reviewer as “a combination of neighborhood free enterprise and Sears and Roebuck” (S. Tillim, “Month in Review: New York Exhibitions,” Arts Magazine, February 1962, p. 36). The Store is arguably Oldenburg’s most significant project, and certainly the one that jump-started his career. Although they might imitate real-life objects, the sculptural reliefs that featured in The Store are humble and man-made—directly contrasting with their shiny, mass-produced factory equivalents. In doing so they offer Oldenburg’s shrewd commentary on American postwar consumer culture and its adulation of gleaming luxury goods. With the texture of its hand-formed craftsmanship and the bright and glossy enamel paints that drip in rivulets down its surface, Strong Arm is an important object from this unique moment in history.
Oldenburg’s art seizes upon certain aspects of real-world objects that somehow makes them seem more real—or perhaps hyper real—in their depiction. Critics have described their unique and uncanny depiction as a much-needed antidote to the overblown emotion and gesture of Abstract Expressionism, which had been the dominant art form of the 1950s. As the sixties dawned, an art loving public sort out something new, and Oldenburg’s brand of Pop was poised to delight and inspire. As one curator described, “Abstract Expressionism suddenly looked to him 'as corny as the scratches on a NY wall'; yet by accepting certain of its elements, if not its expressionist aesthetic, he felt that 'by parodying its corn I have (miracle!) come back to its authenticity!' …I feel as if Pollock is sitting on my shoulder...'" (B. Rose and C. Oldenburg, quoted in Ibid., p. 65).
“In the end, The Store was more than the sum of its many wonderful parts,” Sidney Tillim wrote in his review in the February 1962 issue of Arts Magazine. He summed up the effect of Oldenburg’s work in an era that had seen Abstract Expressionism reach its peak, writing, "[The Store] epitomized, artistically, an unconscious effort to draw everyday America into art which is desperate for substance and communicable experience…” (S. Tillim, op. cit., p. 37) Indeed, Strong Arm remains a key work from this important era in Pop Art’s history. It stands as a humorous antidote, but also offers a biting social critique, epitomizing the artist’s ultimate claim, that “the disguise of representational art is perhaps the ultimate masquerade” (C. Oldenburg, quoted in B. Rose, op. cit., pp. 65-6).
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. This is such a lot.
An American Place: The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection
with the artist's initials and dated 'C.O. 1961' (on the reverse)
Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929)
New York, Museum of Modern Art, Americans 1963, May-August 1963, p. 79 (illustrated).
Hartford, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, The Tremaine Collection: 20th Century Masters, The Spirit of Modernism, February-April 1984, p. 92 (illustrated in color).
London, The Mayor Gallery, American Paintings with Chinese Furniture, May-June 1987.
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art; Seattle Art Museum, Twentieth-Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection, March-November 2000, pp. 202-205 and 294, no. 52 (illustrated in color).
Seattle Art Museum, Pop Departures, September 2014-January 2015, pp. 47 and 102 (illustrated in color).
"New Talent USA; Sculpture," Art in America, vol. 50, no. 1, 1962, p. 33 (illustrated).
Claes Oldenburg, exh. cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1970, p. 77 (illustrated in color).
D. Miller, Americans 1942-1963: Six Group Exhibitions, New York, 1972, pp. 79 and 110 (illustrated).
Claes Oldenburg, exh. cat., Tokyo, Minami Gallery, 1973, n.p. (illustrated).
American Renewal, New York, 1981, p. 11 (illustrated).
K. L. Housley, Emily Hall Tremaine: Collector on the Cusp, Meriden, 2001, pp. 92, 207 and 210 (installation view illustrated in color).
D. Ngo, ed., Art + Architecture: The Ebsworth Collection + Residence, San Francisco, 2006, n.p. (installation view illustrated in color).
Green Gallery, New York, 1961
Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremaine, Meriden, 1961
Gagosian Gallery, New York, circa 1984
Philip Johnson, New York
The Mayor Gallery, London, 1987
Acquired from the above by the late owner, 1987