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Oldenburg, Floor Cake

Claes Oldenburg, Floor Cake, 1962, synthetic polymer paint and latex on canvas filled with foam rubber and cardboard boxes, 58.375 x 114.25 x 58.375 in. (148.2 x 290.2 x 148.2 cm) (MoMA) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

SPEAKER 1: We're once again at the Museum of Modern Art in the room devoted to Pop Art. And we're standing in front of, sort of walking around Claes Oldenburg, Floor Cake from 1962. And both of us are smiling because it's just a hilarious work of art. SPEAKER 2: What's really funny to me is that when we get up close, it really doesn't look like cake at all. It looks like, actually the giant cherry on top looks like a piece of poop. SPEAKER 1: Yeah, in fact, the closer you get to it, the less appetizing it becomes. It's this piece of canvas that's sort of disgusting and filthy. And it's wonderfully not edible. We should just describe it first. It's gigantic. SPEAKER 2: Eight feet long. SPEAKER 1: A young woman who was just in the gallery just a moment a go was walking by and said, I want to lay down and go to sleep on it. It actually kind of looks like a gigantic bed. It's preposterous to have food this large. But it's not just that it's large because in no way is it an accurate representation of a piece of cake. In fact, it's sort of wonderfully sloppy. And the thing that I find incredibly endearing about it is the way it's listing to the right. It's this gigantic, soft series of pillows. SPEAKER 2: You know cake is a floppy thing. It's a messy, gooey, sensual experience. And the squishiness of this reminds me of digging into the frosting and having it smooshed down. SPEAKER 1: Right, right. But it's not sensual. I mean it is from a distance-- SPEAKER 2: From a distance. SPEAKER 1: And the association is. Defiantly. But as you said, when you get up close to it, it looks dry, and it's fabric, and it's sort of badly painted fabric. And it's got all these competing associations that are completely at odds with each other. SPEAKER 2: It has, to me, associations with over sweetness, with saccharine, and American culture burying itself in sweetness and mass produced foods. SPEAKER 1: It's looking at what we as a culture will fetishize. This is 1962. It's incredibly early. If you think about where Pop is at this moment, it's just being really born in the U.S. Warhol is just creating his first soup can. Lichtenstein is just at the early stages of his cartoons. SPEAKER 2: So the pleasures of American consumer culture, do you think? SPEAKER 1: Absolutely. SPEAKER 2: But it's sort of undermined, really undermined. SPEAKER 1: Yes. And a tremendous sense of humor as well. But you're right. There is a kind of critical aspect here. Not only critical towards American culture, but about what art can and should be. There was that great quote, what Lichtenstein said, by the early '60s after Abstract Expressionism, you could take a rag that had been soaked with paint and hang it up on the wall-- SPEAKER 2: Right, and that would be art. SPEAKER 1: And it would be considered art. So we just needed to find something that was still difficult. It also raises questions about what representation is supposed to be and what representation is. If you think about representation as something that traditionally, at least coming out of the 19th century, is meant to refer to in some very direct ways. This is really sort of pushing against. I mean it identifies what it is. But then in so many ways it's at odds with what it's meant to represent. It is still maintaining central identity as slice of cake. But when you look at it in any way other than sort of that broad identity, it refuses to be that. SPEAKER 2: What it also reminds me of is this sort of heroic tradition of sculpture. You know, it's not this hard bronze or marble thing. It's this smooshy thing. SPEAKER 1: But not only that, it's not this idealized human body. It's not this body of a god. SPEAKER 2: Right, or something heroic. SPEAKER 1: Now we're looking-- SPEAKER 2: It's the exact opposite. SPEAKER 1: It's hilarious. SPEAKER 2: It's the everyday, it's the mundane, it's the lowest. SPEAKER 1: So it is the lowest brought up to this absurd height. [MUSIC PLAYING]