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Know Your Art: Claes Oldenburg's "Flashlight"
Story by Kirsten Swenson and
Photography by Ryan Weber/Radiant photography
Flashlight, the monumental site-specific sculpture on UNLV's campus, is this city's most significant public artwork. And I might say the same if Flashlight were in Los Angeles, Seattle, or any number of other cities with reputations for fostering public art. Claes Oldenburg is a towering figure in the postwar art world, and Flashlight exemplifies the large-scale public sculptures for which he's best known. Flashlight was the first major project to bear the names of both Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, curator, art historian, and Oldenburg's spouse and collaborator from the late 1970s until her death in 2009.
Iconography: A Flashlight is an ephemeral, historically specific object. This form of the Flashlight is already obsolete - it's barely recognizable as a Flashlight to my 18-year-old students. Oldenburg loved turning fleeting technologies bound for obsolescence (consider also his Typewriter Eraser at CityCenter: My students have never heard of such a thing) into monuments that speak of the here and now - that are decidedly not eternal (though the form of Flashlight is also a play on the classical Doric column).
Interactivity: Oldenburg started his career in the early 1960s by staging "happenings"-events or actions in public spaces that integrated the audience as part of the artwork. This interactivity remained a hallmark of his best public sculpture. Flashlight beckons viewers to squeeze inside its steel compartments-instead of a smooth surface, the artist designed corrugated niches, great for hide-and-seek. You will see it in use any time kids are around. Flashlight is also a classic "weenie," to use Walt Disney's term for a landmark or focal point that becomes a gathering place.
History: Oldenburg's first major large-scale project was Lipstick Ascending (1969-1974) on the campus of Yale University- a tube of lipstick atop tank treads intended as a platform for speeches against the Vietnam War. UNLV commissioned Flashlight in 1978. This was a daring move: Oldenburg's work was irreverent and controversial. As a woman who was a student at the time recalled to me, the campus and community were divided over the Flashlight commission. To some it was foolish and inexplicable; to others, it signaled UNLV's transition from a provincial university to one that was engaged in international dialogues about art and culture.
Site: Flashlight has an oppositional relationship to the light spectaculars of the Strip. It is an anti-spectacle of sorts: The Flashlight shines downward, with light panels set into the cement plaza surrounding the sculpture. Flashlight sits between Judy Bayley Theatre and Artemus Ham Concert Hall, and it was intended to illuminate intimate gatherings of people before or after a performance.
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