Blog: MCA DNA Index

Art Outdoors: The Oldenburg Murals

By Erin Matson

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The exterior of a brick building beside a museum features a billboard depicting a gigantic soda cracker.
Exterior view of 237 E. Ontario, work shown: Claes Oldenberg’s Poptart, 1967. Photo: David Van Riper, © MCA Chicago

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Art Outdoors is a series that explores the ways art can thrive beyond gallery walls—whether with murals, plaza projects, or other outdoor forms of creative expression.

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During a time where social gathering is discouraged, many of us are taking mindful walks through our local neighborhoods. Whether strolling alone, with family, or with roommates, these walks expose us to surprising instances of art outdoors: local architecture, chalk illustrations, or neighborhood murals. The temporary closure of the MCA’s building has our library and archives staff looking back on the MCA’s history to occasions when the MCA has shown art outside the walls of the museum.

From street murals and Happenings to the sculpture garden and Plaza Projects, the MCA has brought some pretty innovative projects to Chicagoans, all in public places. In a time when many of us are craving cultural stimulation, may it serve as a reminder that in a city like Chicago, art is everywhere.

Today we are looking back at what we are simply calling the “Oldenburg murals.” Beginning in 1967, this was a series of three murals painted by Claes Oldenburg (American, b. 1929) on the side of a building adjacent to the MCA’s original location at 237 E Ontario Street. Jan van der Marck, the MCA’s first director, took an experimental approach to the direction the new museum was to take. He believed in “artists who work with ideas, whose thinking is ahead of their audience, and whose experiments shape the art of tomorrow.”

Oldenburg attended the School of the Art Institute and spent his youth in Chicago. His strong connection to the city, combined with his innovative approach to his art work, made him a good fit for this project. Each mural was inspired by an everyday object or media image, a commonality that is seen in Oldenburg’s more well-known three-dimensional works.

The first mural was created in conjunction with the exhibition Claes Oldenburg: Projects for Monuments, one of the MCA’s inaugural exhibitions alongside Pictures to be Read, Poetry to be Seen. Projects for Monuments addressed topics such as urban beautification, commodity culture, and playfully critiqued the idea of public art. It featured drawings, collages, and sculptures that served as proposals for public monuments that were never to be realized. In keeping with these themes and Oldenburg’s playful style, the first mural was simply a painting of a Pop-Tart (pre frosting), painted at the colossal scale of 36 by 20 feet by Chicago’s Arrow Sign Company. The mural was unveiled on November 17, 1967, where “coffee and models of the monument” were served.

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Footage showing the fabrication of Oldenburg's Pop Tart and Frayed Wire, shot by David Katzive, the MCA's first curator.

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The second mural in the series was executed in 1969—and took on a notably different tone. The image on this mural was a visibly frayed, coiling red wire, which Oldenburg used to “describe more accurately his changed feelings toward Chicago.” Following the police violence that marked the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Oldenburg wanted an image that reflected the “tension and emergency” that came to define the city at that time.

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Claes Oldenburg’s Frayed Wire mural outside the MCA’s original building at 237 E. Ontario Street. Photo: © MCA Chicago

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Finally, in 1972, Frayed Wire was replaced with Emerald Pills. This mural was a “monumental blow up of emerald-colored aspirins loosely stacked within a space defined by the walls of the building.” The meaning of this last mural was less clear, largely leaving interpretation open to the viewer and the “changing seasons and moods.” As for Oldenburg’s intent, the press release does mention Oldenburg’s fascination with sleeping pills, but also notes that he was hoping to see the mural in a snowstorm. Oldenburg continued to explore the idea of these emerald pills in his sculpture work, creating a cast aluminum and stainless steel sculpture, Emerald Pill (1977), which the MCA holds in its collection.

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Claes Oldenburg’s Emerald Pill (1972) mural outside the MCA’s original building at 237 E. Ontario Street. Photo: © MCA Chicago

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The Pop-Tart mural was the first time that the MCA brought art outside of the walls of the museum. Over the years, the museum has shown an enduring commitment to bringing art outside of traditional gallery spaces and has been dedicated to increased accessibility to art for all. We look forward to sharing other examples of these artworks in our future posts on Art Outdoors.

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