Makeup as Muse: Claes Oldenburg
October 17, 2019
Welcome to a very special edition of Makeup as Muse! On this day 45 years ago1, artist Claes Oldenburg's Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks was re-installed at Yale University. This sculpture has always fascinated me and I wanted to find out more about it. There's a ton to unpack here so away we go!
There is quite a long history behind this piece. Oldenburg had previously used lipstick as a central element in a work he created during his first visit to London in 1966. According to the Tate, Oldenburg had designed a single oversized lipstick for Piccadilly Circus intended to rise and fall with the tide. He also made a collage of a postcard of Piccadilly Circus and a cut-out of magazine advertisement for lipsticks. The lipstick "monuments" in both pieces were designed to replace the statue of Eros. "To replace the Victorian statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus with lipsticks lifted from an advertisement was, therefore, to update one vision of sexuality with another." Oldenburg remarked at the time, "For me, London inspired phallic imagery which went up and down with the tide - like mini-skirts and knees and the part of the leg you can see between the skirt and the boot, like the up-and-down motion of a lipstick, like the cigarette butt..." I'll discuss the "phallic" nature of Oldenburg's lipstick later but for now let me just say that I find it very off-putting when men presume lipsticks are somehow reminiscent of male anatomy. Can't a lipstick just be a lipstick?
(image from tate.org.uk)
As soon as I read that Oldenburg had cut the lipsticks out of an ad I went on the prowl to see if I track it down. Alas, I did not succeed in identifying what lipsticks were used. The bullet shapes and cases look close to those of Max Factor, Yardley, Avon (I don't even know if Avon was available in the UK) and Clairol lipsticks that were sold at the time, but weren't an exact match. Coty's lipsticks seemed to be the most similar.2
(images from retrocards.co.uk and pinterest)
Anyway, Oldenburg continued expanding on the idea of a large lipstick sculpture intended to be a monument of some kind. By 1969, the basic design for his sculpture at Yale was sketched in a drawing and shared later in a magazine published by Yale architecture students to celebrate the gift of the sculpture to the university. I find it interesting that Oldenburg changed the lipstick bullet to a beveled shape rather than the conical ones he used for the collage of Piccadilly Circus. Oldenburg also notes that while the lipstick had become part of his visual language3, the concept for the sculpture was partially influenced by Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International tower. "It became very strong in my mind at the end of the sixties. It led more or less directly to Lipstick."4
(image from tate.org)
In early 1969 the artist mobilized a group of faculty and students at his alma mater, who called themselves the Colossal Keepsake Corporation, to assist in the creation of a mixed media monument that would serve as a form of protest against the Vietnam War as well as a platform/gathering area for public speaking and student demonstrations. The group, lead by architectural student Stuart Wrede, raised roughly $5,000 to build Lipstick and kept the plans hidden from Yale officials. The lipstick bullet was constructed of inflatable vinyl and required a mechanical pump to extend it to its full height, while the tank portion at the bottom was made out of painted plywood. The tube itself was meant to unfold telescopically. The end result, weighing 3,500 pounds and rising 24 feet, was unveiled in front of Yale's Beinecke Library on the first day of final exams: May 15, 1969.
(image from mitpressjournals.org)
In the selected location, the sculpture overlooked not only a World War I memorial but also the university's President's office. Talk about sticking it to the man!
(image from yale.edu)
Within just a week of installation, the vinyl tip was punctured and replaced with heavy-duty aluminum.
(image from lippincottsculpture.com)
So what did the sculpture mean for both the Yale community and the public at large? There are many interpretations and I will do my best to summarize them as succinctly as possible. First and foremost, Lipstick is considered Oldenburg's way of playing with traditional gender iconography. In his 1969 "Notes", the artist remarks that Lipstick is a "bisexual object". The lipstick is a symbol of femininity as well as consumerism, while the tank, through its connotations with war and the military, is a stand-in for masculinity. By combining these stereotypes into a singular entity, one could argue it's a symbol of gender equality. But the way the elements are juxtaposed indicates additional meanings. The fact that the lipstick is sitting on top of the tank, in a sense dominating it, was occasionally construed as a feminist stance, especially given that Yale had announced plans to accept women students starting that fall.
On the other hand, as noted in his previous lipstick collage, some perceived the lipstick bullet as a phallic object. Bridging these interpretations was the underlying subtext of the Vietnam War. "[The] large lipstick tube is phallic and bullet-like, making the benign beauty product seem masculine or even violent. The juxtaposition implied that the U.S. obsession with beauty and consumption both fueled and distracted from the ongoing violence in Vietnam." However, given that in its original form the lipstick bullet was often deflated, perhaps it was Oldenburg's tongue-in-cheek way of dismantling the gender binary. The flaccid lipstick bullet no longer wields the same masculine power it did when, um, fully upright. "The wonderful thing about it is that it will never stay up," he said in a recent interview with the New York Times.
(image from nytimes.com)
However you interpret Lipstick in terms of gender, it's undeniable that it simultaneously represented a sort of a joke as well as a place to protest. The student group that organized the sculpture's acquisition maintained that Lipstick was intended as nothing more than a silly monument. According to Bust magazine, "Members of the Colossal Keepsake Corporation vehemently denied the sculpture was either peaceful or militant, saying that they’d simply wanted to thwart the administration by creating something ridiculous to rally around. An event in and of itself." The protests that took place on campus throughout 1969 attest to the fact that while humorous, Lipstick was also meant to be a site of political action for a variety of important causes - of course protesting the war in Vietnam, but also feminist rallies, student strikes and Black Panther gatherings.
Oldenburg himself confirms the dual meanings. "There’s an element of humor in whatever I do...but it also can be turned into something pretty serious." This goes back to his 1961 manifesto in which he claimed, "I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum...I am for an art that imitates the human, that is comic, if necessary, or violent, or whatever is necessary." In a 1996 interview with The Guardian, he cites Lipstick as being one of his more political pieces. "That one did have a political purpose to it; I think it was a lot to do with the fact that it was commissioned by the students...I would do works for various causes, and in that sense I've always been political."
(image from stuartwrede.com)
The story of this remarkable piece doesn't end in 1969. Lipstick was removed by Oldenburg in March the following year and sent to the New Haven-based Lippincott metal foundry for repairs, which was the company that had fabricated the few metal components of the original sculpture. Obviously, the other materials were not the sturdiest and couldn't withstand the elements or the frequent usage by students. The wood of the base had become warped and rotted, covered in graffiti and posters, and the metal had started to rust. In 1971 a new plan was hatched by Yale art history faculty as well as the art gallery director to restore and bring the sculpture back to campus. "The original members of the Colossal Keepsake Corporation voted to donate the work to the Yale Art Gallery. With the gallery making a permanent loan of the work to Morse, the lipstick was restructured by Lippincott, at a reported cost of $14,000. (Mr. Oldenburg himself donated a lithograph edition of the Lipstick, with the proceeds of its sale to provide a permanent fund for maintenance.)"
On October 17, 1974, another version of Lipstick was installed at Morse College. This one maintained the dimensions of the original sculpture but was constructed of hardier Cor-Ten steel.
The installation was quite a celebration, and it solidified Lipstick as a bona fide piece of artwork. Here's a fun little excerpt from an account of the evening's festivities by the New York Times.
"To music, speeches and some exuberant student shenanigans, a peripatetic monument made a comeback on the campus of Yale University last night. Kingman Brewster, Yale's president, who reportedly is not captivated by the lipstick's esthetic appeal, was not on hand for the ceremony. 'It's a great event. The first time, we didn't have music,' said Mr. Oldenburg, who, with rousing accompaniment by the Yale University Band, addressed the crowd in his stocking feet from a perch on the lipstick's base. “I'm taking off my shoes to demonstrate that the piece should be treated with some respect since, among other things, you'll find it useful as a speaking platform. And hope you'll take your shoes off when you do.' Though its sponsors denied that their intention was political, it was seen at the time by many students as an anti‐war monument and also a refreshing dig at Yale's stuffiness, both architectural and social...Mr. Scully, an art and architectural historian, took a long, admiring look at it. 'You notice how that orange color brings down the blue of the sky?' he said. 'And how the form makes you read the verticals of the Morse tower?' Later Mr. Oldenburg, surrounded by students, said he was glad the work was 'now a qualified art object.' 'Lots of people got so involved in the content they didn't see the piece as a form,' he said. 'I also like the fact that it now embodies a history, like the obelisk in Central Park.' And, gazing fondly up at the rocketlike structure, he added, 'I think it will be very uplifting.'" Indeed!
(images from yale.artgallery.edu)
While there has been a recent effort to move the sculpture back to its original, more prominent location on campus, Oldenburg is content with Lipstick's current site, where it continues to inspire students today.
Naturally I feel the need to share my thoughts on Lipstick. I concur that it's two things at once: a vehicle intended to help affect serious social change as well as a sort of gag artwork. While I haven't seen it in person, I imagine Lipstick looks quite majestic and powerful rising above the plaza. At the same time I bet I would snicker walking by it - the inherent silliness of oversized objects never fails to make me giggle. However, I'm not really on board with the outdated, gendered meanings associated with Lipstick. If we accept the lipstick/tank to read as stand-ins for women/men, it does seem as though the tube is stomping all over traditional masculinity, and thus could be interpreted as a feminist statement or the rise of women's rights. But I feel that lipstick shouldn't, in 2019, still be a marker of femininity or women, as I believe makeup is for everyone regardless of gender. Plus dominating or defeating men isn't what feminism is about anyway - it's not an "us vs. them" mentality, we just want to be equal. I'd also like to take the notion of the lipstick as phallic symbol completely out of the conversation. I understand there is a vast history behind this concept and that it's still being used to sell lipstick. But once again, I don't think lipstick should be a gendered or hyper-sexualized object in this day and age. To acknowledge that a lipstick's design can be sexy is one thing; to interpret it as a substitute for a phallus is something else. Perhaps 50 years ago it made more sense.
Overall, I think Oldenburg's Lipstick is an important artwork that captures the turbulent political atmosphere of the '60s while also serving as a reminder not to take art, or even ourselves, too seriously. What do you think about this sculpture?
1 This post was supposed to be published way back on May 15 to mark the 50th anniversary of the original installation, but of course nothing is going according to plan this year so I had to post it on a different anniversary of the sculpture...and even that was late so I had to massively back-date it. Sigh.
2 While I couldn't discern what lipsticks were used in the collage for the earlier Lipstick collage, the finished sculpture drew a comparison to a specific brand: the 1974 New York Times article mentions Lipstick's "Tangee-like tip of glowing orange". Still, none of the bullets I could find in Tangee ads seemed to have Lipstick's beveled shape.
3 I couldn't find an installation date, but apparently Oldenburg created another gigantic lipstick sculpture for the opera in Frankfurt, Germany. It's interesting to compare this one, the Lipstick at Yale, and the earlier collage to see how they interact with each other and how they can be perceived as a cohesive body of work. In short, Oldenburg's lipsticks don't exist in individual vacuums. The Tate explains it better than I can:
"A sculptor who moves between performance and graphic art, Oldenburg treats his work as a totality in which key themes and motifs interweave in a variety of media. Taken as a whole, his graphic works represent a number of themes that have structured his practice throughout his career (see, for example, System of Iconography – Plug, Mouse, Good Humor, Lipstick, Switches 1970–1, Tate P07096). These motifs range across media, from performance and sculpture to the graphic arts, and include a shifting sense of scale, size and location, as well as exchanging hard for soft and organic for machine-made materials. Oldenburg sees this activity not as a series of discrete and isolated pursuits, but as a totality through which he engages with and represents the reality that he encounters every day. As the historian Martin Friedman explained in 1975:
Oldenburg’s art is a totality. The themes, each manifested in different media, are intimately related. Detailed drawings of objects, hastily scrawled notes, fragments of poetry, cardboard models, muslin and vinyl soft sculptures, and the recent large industrially fabricated steel pieces are elements of a total view. His ‘performance pieces’ that continued into the mid-1960s and combined people, objects and environments are essential to this view.
(Friedman in Oldenburg: Six Themes, exhibition catalogue, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis 1975, p.9.)
Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks – and the larger body of graphic works of which it is an example – represents one piece within a constantly evolving oeuvre; a ‘total’ work that responds, in multiple media, to the variety and ephemerality of the everyday, material world."
4 The Guardian, May 24, 1996. Accessed at newspapers.com.
5 You can see more of the installation in this video around the 35-second mark.