Art of the Bay: Claes Oldenburg

Written by Richard Hay

Richard Hay looks at the beloved sculptures of Claes Oldenburg in the San Francisco Bay Area.

aNewDomain.netClaes Oldenburg is a well-known American sculptor whose works populate the globe. His installations, created and presented in conjunction with his late wife Coosje van Bruggen, are typically huge replicas of common objects.

Certainly the Running Eraser in the sculpture garden at the National Museum of Art in Washington D.C., the Clothespin in Philadelphia, the Field of Shuttlecocks and a strewn, Half-buried Bicycle are excellent examples of his work.

Oldenburg even has two sculptures on display here in San Francisco, both of which beautifully mark the landscape of the Bay Area. The first piece, called Cupid’s Span, stands with precise poise along the Embarcadero. The second installation, the Giant Safety Pin, rests precariously at the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park.

Cupid’s Span

Cupid's Span Claes Oldenburg

All image credits: Richard Hay

Cupid’s Span is an inverted bow and arrow, whose red feather and taut string stick high into the air. The arrowhead itself and part of the bow are buried underground. The piece was reportedly commissioned to celebrate San Francisco’s image as the City of Eros, or erotic love (hard sell, though there is a lot of love going around these days).

Its image reflects two other core themes of the city. The bowstring evokes the cables of the iconic suspension bridges on either side of the city, namely the Bay Bridge (as pictured above) and the legendary Golden Gate Bridge on the northwestern side of the city.

This next upside-down bow also takes the shape of a classically-formed sailing ship of old, like the kind that used to huddle around the piers on the Barbary Coast where the sculpture now resides. Below are two shots of this bow.

Cupid's Span Claes Oldenburg

Maybe you see something else in the upside-down bow and arrow along the Embarcadero? Feel free to share your thoughts, as I’d love to hear them. Art lies in the eye of the beholder, after all. How you or I experience the installations is as much a part of the art as the piece itself.

Cupid's Span Claes Oldenburg

Image of upside-down bow on the Barbary Coast.

The Giant Safety Pin

Below, the other Oldenburg piece in San Francisco is the Giant Safety Pin. This installation can be seen in the sculpture garden at the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park.

The Giant Safety Pin Claes Oldenburg

So, if your baby’s diaper comes undone, the museum has a spare safety pin to cover you just outside.

Seriously though, this piece is more like the installations typically associated with Oldenburg’s work. This and others feel similar to Andy Warhol and his paintings of Campbell’s soup cans.

Perhaps Warhol’s revolutionary concept influenced Claes and his longtime partner Coosje van Bruggen to create their sculptural masterpieces. The medium is quite different, but much of the style and effect feel the same.

Since the topic of this article is the sculptures of Claes Oldenburg, I have to mention my favorite piece, even though it segues away from the Art of the Bay theme. It has to be the three story binoculars in front of the Google Office in Venice, CA.

Binoculars Claes Oldenburg

My favorite part of this installation is the fact that there are meeting rooms in each oculus, which branch off into a break room on the second floor.

Inside Binoculars Claes Oldenburg

Be warned: bring your laptop with full charge though because there are no outlets to be found in the ‘nocs.

If you find yourself in the Bay Area (or Venice, CA for that matter), check out Claes Oldenburg’s pieces. They are free to see and always bring a strange, uplifting sense of style to their surroundings.

For, I’m Richard Hay.

Update: Thanks to a reader submission we have added the following page for Claes Oldenberg on Atsy.

Richard Hay is the senior science editor at  He’s a staff engineer in network testing at Google. Email him and let him know the sort of stuff you’d like him to cover here He’s and +Richard Hay on Google+.