'Cupid's Span' in S.F. reveals what Claes Oldenburg's Pop Art was all about | Datebook

2022-07-24 05:29:50 By : Ms. Emma Jiang

When the sculpture “Cupid’s Span” made its debut in Rincon Park on the Embarcadero in November 2002, I was delighted by it. The 60-foot-tall fiberglass and steel bow and arrow, by famed Pop artist Claes Oldenburg and his wife and artistic partner, Coosje van Bruggen, punctuated where the city meets the water in a way that felt both joyful and affectionate.

The visual pun, the idea that the mythical love god Cupid left his signature tool in San Francisco as so many people have left their hearts, was gleeful, and the golden curves of the bow and Valentine’s Day cartoonishness of the arrow had an amusing elegance. The work was accessible enough that even as an 18-year-old college student I “got” it when I saw the sculpture the first time while on holiday break from the East Coast. Maybe that was part of why I adored it; I’d also left a significant part of myself in San Francisco.

The triangular arch of the string on the bow was intended to reference the suspension cables of the Bay Bridge behind it; the articulation of the feathers at the end of the arrow move in the wind, responding to the environment. The bow and string frame the view of the bay and bridge on one side and the Financial District on the other, perfect for a city obsessed with its vistas.

It was another definitive work by Oldenburg, and the one that immediately came to mind when the 93-year-old artist died on July 18. It declared his brilliant ability to recontexualize objects and demonstrated why Pop Art was so successful as a movement. Most people have seen a bow and arrow, a safety pin, an apple core or the letter “Q” — to mention the subjects of a few of the artist’s best-known works in the Bay Area. Oldenburg, like Marcel Duchamp before him, used our familiarity with these items to twist our perceptions and disorient us, while also seemingly celebrating their forms, yet approaching them with skepticism, a la Andy Warhol. But there was a levity to Oldenburg’s work that was all his own.

“No viewer of American Pop art has ever felt compelled to have any intellectual framework to explain it,” said Timothy Anglin Burgard, the senior curator and curator-in-charge of American art for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “But what’s often missed in Pop Art is that (while) it can be accessed on a surface level, when you have artists like the Oldenburgs magnifying these objects to this monumental scale for site-specific projects, it becomes their own take on the object.”

Burgard added, “Especially with Oldenburg being Swedish and growing up initially in another country, there’s an anthropological element of an outsider perspective and an aspect of critique to postwar American life and consumerism.”

When “Cupid’s Span” was unveiled, The Chronicle recorded “strong reactions — positive, negative and quizzical,” including people who loved it and others who were confused about what the object was (one person speculated “a creature” and “a flower”). One simply thought it was “stupid.”

In their own statement about the work, the artists said the choice of bow and arrow was “inspired by San Francisco’s reputation as the home port of Eros,” and “the mythological account of Eros shooting his arrow into the earth to make it fertile.” And by placing the arrow point down, The Chronicle noted, it also essentially de-weaponized it.

The late Gap founder Donald Fisher, the major funder of the sculpture with his wife, Doris, told The Chronicle that he thought the work would become “an icon of the city. It will be tremendously photographed.”

When I went to visit “Cupid’s Span” after the news of Oldenburg’s death, there were the expected tourists taking selfies, but it was also clear how much the sculpture and the park are integrated into people’s lives. People gathered with dogs on the lawn and sat on benches near the sculpture; they also just stopped and took in the view of this absurd image of an oversize, archaic object partially buried as though fallen from some animated sky.

The work’s placement turns the park into a uniquely magical setting. I’ve seen people take wedding pictures in full gowns and tuxedos there. Once I watched a giggling child slide down the bow before the low barrier was put up, a “Visit San Francisco” commercial if I ever saw one. I remember walking home once after a disappointing date and thinking, as I strolled by this illuminated emblem of love: “Eat your heart out, ‘Sex and the City’s’ Carrie Bradshaw — this is a moment of visual irony found only in San Francisco.”

“Cupid’s Span” isn’t the only work by Oldenburg and van Bruggen on view in the Bay Area. The de Young commissioned “Corridor Pin, Blue” for the Barbro Osher Sculpture Garden, one of numerous works by Oldenburg in its collection. The placement of the work over the garden pathway, with the angle of the pointed end echoing the shape of the building, was intentional, said Burgard, and I’ve always enjoyed the ridiculousness of this gravity-defying position. At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Oldenburg’s “Funeral Heart” sculpture from 1961 is on view on the second floor. “Geometric Apple Core” was on display until recently.

“By elevating the everyday object, Claes Oldenburg inspired us to look more closely at the world around us,” said Janet Bishop, the museum’s chief curator and curator of painting and sculpture. She called his works, including the more than 20 in the SFMOMA collection, “lasting reminders of his playful and distinctive practice.”

The Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University also has several works by the artist, with 1977’s “Soft Inverted Q” among the most well-known.

For me, what has always been successful about “Cupid’s Span” and Oldenburg’s other works is both their surreality and their sheer ability to amuse. How often do we really get to be delighted in our world? Especially with public art, this is not a quality we should dismiss.

Burgard summed up the artist’s ethos best: “By enlarging and elevating everyday objects into the poetic realm of fine art sculpture, they dissolved the barriers between art and life.”

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