Plastics and pathos: The making of Oldenburg’s Airflow

by David Greenhalgh, Curatorial Assistant, Kenneth Tyler Collection

Moving backward, moving forward

In the early 1930s a box-shaped car with a curved rear luggage compartment took to the streets of Detroit and began to turn heads. It was an early Chrysler that had been reengineered so that the driver could easily drive it backwards – its curved rear gliding headlong through the traffic, dragging behind it the spluttering, angular hood and engine. This was urban theatre designed to stoke the intrigue of the public. It was to herald the impending arrival of Chrysler’s Airflow automobile: the first streamlined car in the United States. This new car had a curved design that reduced drag when driving at high speed, and when it was released, it struck people as both futuristic and biomorphic, with advertisements billing it as the ‘creation of nature and man working hand in hand and side by side’[1]. The Airflow was a commercial failure. Its curvilinear body was too unusual for public taste and it was discontinued after three years of production. Despite this, the Airflow changed the course of automobile history, with aerodynamic design becoming integral to all future cars.

A Gemini employee inspects the newly re-cast Profile Airflow. Photo: Peter Balwan, 1972

The Ideal American Sculpture

For Claes Oldenburg, the car was an ‘inexhaustible’ source of subject matter for art.[2] The significance of the Chrysler Airflow was not lost on him: he saw the Airflow as a kind of ideal American sculpture shaped in equal measure by functionality and aesthetics. He also thought of the car as a mobile art gallery containing smaller sculptural parts – the engine, the fender, the furniture – all works of art that possessed both personality and libidinal connotations.

This elevation of the car as subject matter was part of his broader philosophy: Oldenburg saw himself as a ‘social artist’[3]. This meant remaining responsive to the facts of life, particularly, reflecting the context and environment in which his work was made, and being guided by chance encounters. One chance encounter was to bring into the world his 1969 three-dimensional multiple Profile Airflow, an artwork produced in collaboration with master printer Kenneth Tyler at Gemini GEL in Los Angeles: As a young child, Oldenburg was the proud owner of a toy Chrysler Airflow, and later in life Oldenburg had formed a close friendship with sculptor and actor Robert Breer. Robert’s father was the automobile designer and engineer Carl Breer – the brains behind the original Airflow design.

At Carl Breer’s home, Oldenburg was given access to the original designs and sketches for the Chrysler Airflow, and he was able to take detailed photographs of one of the first Airflow cars[4]. This would have been a significant moment for the artist, closely examining what he considered the ideal American sculpture, shaped by both physics and the human imagination in equal measure. Carl Breer had drawn upon the advice of aircraft pioneer Orville Wright in the creation of this car, creating a delicate thread which linked Oldenburg’s forthcoming work and the momentous occasion of powered human flight. From 1965, the Airflow automobile became a fixation for his practice. It was an inexhaustible source of inspiration.

Claes Oldenburg at work with Airflow sketches, Gemini GEL, 1968. Photo: Kenneth Tyler

Auto-eroticism

Oldenburg had said that through studying the work of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud ‘a curtain lifted’ in how he thought about his artistic practice. Sexual symbolism and childhood memories were posited as central to the work he created, with Oldenburg proclaiming:    

Everything I do is completely original – I made it up when I was a little kid[5]

The coincidence of befriending the Breer family, along with a fixation on his childhood Airflow toy shaped the course of his work for the next four years: At first, Oldenburg attempted to reconstruct the whole Airflow car in soft vinyl wrapped around a wooden armature. It was a failed first attempt, which, according to art historian Barbara Rose, sat gathering dust in Oldenburg’s studio “looking like some great primitive beast in hibernation”[6]. Following this, Oldenburg turned his attention to the components, producing engines out of sewn and stuffed fabric which would sag under the pull of gravity when he suspended them from the ceiling. In 1966 he observed that “the soft car must not be too soft… gravity almost wins out completely” followed closely by the term auto-eroticism[7], a play on words that pointed to both his love for the Chrysler Airflow and self-love, or a union of man and machine. Such terms reflected Oldenburg’s belief that all art “is the disguise of Eros… art is always erotic but never obviously erotic”[8]

Later in 1966, Oldenburg was asked to work with Kenneth Tyler at his print workshop, Gemini GEL (Graphic Editions Limited). Here he saw an opportunity to revise his project in what he called the ‘Industrial paradise of Los Angeles’[9] and the birthplace of Carl Breer, where surrounded by aircraft and aerospace firms there were plenty of small industries to create a work that was as polished as the streamlined body of an Airflow. Arriving in California with his partner and fellow artist Pat Muschinski, they were greeted in the parking lot of the print studio by a maroon-coloured Chrysler Airflow, the same colour as his childhood toy. The couple posed for photographs crouching in the luggage compartment at the rear of the vehicle. For Oldenburg, to be in the vehicle was to be inside a sculpture, just as he imagined being within an urban environment to be within “a piece of man’s mind. To live in the city is to live inside oneself”[10].

Claes Oldenburg works on the original wooden relief, 1968. Photo: Kenneth Tyler

Artist as object, object as artist

Oldenburg had always strived to make work that reflected his surroundings. His exhibition The Street (1960) used a palette of dirty greys and browns along with charred and torn edges in his sculptural work to mirror his experience of New York City[11]. It was only appropriate that Los Angeles, in all its rich and carnal character be reflected in the production of the new sculptural work Profile Airflow. He stated that this work should ‘be clear in colour, transparent like a swimming pool but with a consistency like flesh’[12]. The idea of achieving metamorphosis by changing the materials of everyday objects preoccupied Oldenburg, who viewed the car as ‘the most touching’ subject for exploring this idea[13]. The city could be reflected in the car and the human too. Oldenburg increasing saw his subject matter as porous, with objects, their environment and the self as capable of crossing between one another:

The artist in the form of the Airflow. An object in the shape of an artist[14]

In the catalogue essay for Oldenburg’s Profile Airflow multiple, Barbara Rose saw the modern-day equivalent of a Centaur[15], an extension or augmentation of man – a myth intwined with the notion of modernity and progress – and one that Oldenburg seems to have shied away from. He saw his Airflow production as comical, not mythical. It was a parody of Industrial mass-production and an opportunity to role-play the American archetypal manufacturer[16], but instead of steel, his automobile was soft, bodily, and small.

Claes Oldenburg (1969) Profile Airflow. Molded coloured polyurethane relief over 2 colour lithograph. Editioned at Gemini GEL, 1969. Acc. no.: NGA 1973.908.2

Oldenburg’s diary from his time at the Gemini GEL workshop highlights how this parody of the automaker was integral to his understanding of printmaking, as “printmaking, like car-making, is an analytic activity, a matter of separation of elements in order to put them back together again, in a condition of mass production”[17]. Diary entries also makes clear that the car was integral to his experience of the Industrial paradise of Los Angeles with continuous banal entries such as:

Pick up Pat who has been shopping for food, and we drive around looking for a place to eat… Return to Gemini… pick up Pat + drive fast + windy[18]

Workers press together the mould for Profile Airflow, 1969. Photo: Malcolm Lubliner

Plastics and pathos

The production of Profile Airflow was not simple. The entire project took over two years to complete, one year of which was dedicated to Oldenburg carving a wooden relief of the Airflow in perfect profile[19]. Experiments with vacuum forming the design in plastic were unsuccessful at capturing the depth that Oldenburg was striving for. A myriad of experiments conducted by Oldenburg and master printer Kenneth Tyler saw polyvinylchlorides, polyurethanes, polyethylenes, polyesters and silicon all trialled for the permanent and stable, yet fleshy and organic quality he was after. This program of work, partly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, stretched on for so long that the entire program resulted in a loss for the print workshop. Oldenburg was later to write of a certain pathos in seeing his artwork’s commercial failure as a parallel to the original Chrysler Airflow, writing that ‘what is important is not usually what sells’[20]. Kenneth Tyler pointed out that “one could have purchased a real Chrysler Airflow in the 1930s for less than it was going to cost for the Oldenburg Multiple in 1969”[21]. One of the major complications of the project saw the editioned and sold work yellow with age due to unstable chemicals provided by an outside collaborator. Just like a real automobile, the decision was made to recall the entire edition remake it in a more stable plastic. A report produced after the edition of Profile Airflow made it clear that despite the multitude of plastic specialists in Los Angeles, the highly secretive culture in this industry ‘amplified’ the problems associated with the work[22].

For all the difficulty in producing Profile Airflow, it remains a unique achievement in Claes Oldenburg’s long career. Profile Airflow is a two-sided monument: thought of as erotic, yet rendered in a lifeless, inert material; an homage to Industrial innovation yet a restaging of a historic commercial failure; a childhood memory, intimate and playful yet recreated by a team of more than a dozen engineers. It captures Oldenburg’s desire that “a work of art be constantly elusive, mean many things to many different people… always on its way between one point and another”[23].


[1] Chrysler Sales Corporation, (c. 1934). Fashioned by function [sales film]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AG55Bf9nWHk

[2] Oldenburg, C. (1966). Skulpturer och teckningar. Moderna Museet: Malmö. p. 41

[3] Johnson, E. H. (1971). Claes Oldenburg. Ringwood: Penguin. p. 37

[4] Kinsman, J. (2015). Workshop: The Kenneth Tyler Collection. NGA Publications: Canberra. p. 171

[5] Tate Gallery. (1970). Claes Oldenburg [exhibition catalogue]. The Tate Gallery, London 24 June – 16 August 1970. p. 6.

[6] Rose, B. (1970). Profile Airflow [edition ephemera]. Gemini Graphics Editions Limited: Los Angeles.

[7] Oldenburg, C. (1966). Skulpturer och teckningar. Moderna Museet: Malmö. p. 41

[8] van Bruggen, C. (1977). The realistic imagination and imaginary reality of Claes Oldenburg. p. 13

[9] Oldenburg, C. (1991). Multiples in retrospect. Rizzoli: New York. p. 84

[10] Tate Gallery. (1970). Claes Oldenburg [exhibition catalogue]. The Tate Gallery, London 24 June – 16 August 1970. p. 21.

[11] Johnson, E. H. (1971). Claes Oldenburg. Penguin: Ringwood. p. 14

[12] Kinsman, J. (2015). Workshop: The Kenneth Tyler Collection. NGA Publications: Canberra. p. 171

[13] Sidney Janis Gallery. (1966). New Work by Oldenburg. Sidney Janis Gallery: New York. p. 2

[14] Ibid. p. 2

[15] Rose, B. (1970). Profile Airflow [edition ephemera]. Gemini Graphics Editions Limited: Los Angeles.

[16] Oldenburg, C. (2013). Writing on the side 1956-1969. p. 317

[17] Ibid.p. 317

[18] Ibid.p. 317

[19] Gilmour, P. (1986). Ken Tyler: Master Printer and the American Print Renaissance. National Gallery of Australia: Canberra. p. 74

[20] Johnson, E. H. (1971). Claes Oldenburg. Penguin: Ringwood. p. 40

[21] Gilmour, P. (1986). Ken Tyler: Master Printer and the American Print Renaissance. National Gallery of Australia: Canberra. p. 74

[22] ‘Three-dimensional graphic program’ report. (n.d.). From Kenneth Tyler Collection Archive, National Gallery of Australia. Location: B67.101

[23] Tate Gallery. (1970). Claes Oldenburg [exhibition catalogue]. The Tate Gallery, London 24 June – 16 August 1970. p. 6

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