Screw Arch

Compared to the trivial object it is based on, Screwarch by Claes Oldenburg standing in the gardens of Museum Boymans-van Beuningen has metamorphosed. The immense scale gives the form an abstract quality. The sculpture is also different from its source of inspiration in that the arch shape has changed the practical potential of a screw into an aesthetic ideal. While the shape contradicts a screw’s function, its alienation is further enhanced by the ‘matt finish’ which gives the object a rubbery appearance. The monumental work, dating from 1982, rounds off years of Oldenburg working with this motif. Accompanied by a cigarette butt, a lipstick and a doorknob, the bent screw already appears in a 1969 drawing in which Oldenburg grouped his stock of everyday objects according to category. In this quick, associative drawing, various domestic objects, released from their physical and functional restraints, appear to have unexpected, shared characteristics. It is not the choice of motifs like these that define Oldenburg’s artistic development, but how they were materially executed in different ways within his three-dimensional work over the years. This is evident from several works based around the bent screw. An early soft sculpture Study for a Soft Screw (1969), for instance, is the complete opposite to the 1982 Screwarch.

Compared to the perfectly executed Screwarch, the soft sculpture, from the heyday of Pop Art, appears almost impermanent. Canvas, wire and cardboard have made way for a perfect arch made from carefully cut pressed aluminium sheets. This change of appearances, in which an inconstant amorphous shape has given way to uncompromising architectural forms, runs parallel with the development of Oldenburg’s colossal monuments. The first Proposals for Colossal Monuments date from 1965 and are rendered in sketches of giant-size banal objects, devoid of their practical features, and conceived as monuments for a specific site. The environment for such sculptures not only a criterion for its size, but Oldenburg also seeks to establish a meaningful relationship between the site and the sculpture. Initially, these proposals were fantastical ideas only, but from 1969 onward, some seemed feasible as sculpture. An early example is the 12-metre high trowel, which was part of the ‘Sonsbeek buiten de perken’ exhibition in 1971, and which gained a permanent home in the sculpture park of the Kröller-Müller Museum.

With his colossal monuments, Oldenburg hovered increasingly on the edge of both sculpture and architecture. In 1971 for instance, a drawing of a giant screw, standing on its head, was proposed for a monument next to a cemetery in São Paulo, Brazil. In the same year he made a sketch of an immense saw which spanned the Rhine at Düsseldorf. In 1976 the arched screw began to acquire architectural dimensions in a big lithograph Arched Soft Screw as a Building, while in another lithograph from that same year Oldenburg had a colossal arched screw rising up on Times Square, New York. When he was approached by Rotterdam Council in September 1976, he considered the idea of a screw in relation to this city.

Impressed by Oldenburg’s design for the Batcolumn in Chicago –¬ a work that with its open construction and siting next to a wall appeared to be a playful answer to sculptor Naum Gabo’s construction for the Bijenkorf department store, Rotterdam – the council asked Oldenburg for a proposal to mark Coolsingel at Churchillplein. Taking the industrial image of the city into account, and partly at his wife Coosje van Bruggen’s instigation, Oldenburg chose the motif of a screw and drew this on the back of an envelope, with an immense arch bending across the left-hand side of Coolsingel. It quickly became apparent that the proposal was impractical. However, the screw motif continued to intrigue Oldenburg.

Fascinated by the many arched bridges in the Netherlands, including Rotterdam’s Van Brienenoordbrug, Oldenburg designed a bridge in the form of two arched screws which meet in the middle. During 1977 he elaborated on this design for a proposal for the planned Willemsbrug across Rotterdam’s New Maas river. No matter how outlandish the design appeared, the artist was convinced it could be executed technically. He was even more certain after visiting Kinderdijk in December 1977, where he saw an immense screw pump – a photograph of which served as the prototype for Screwarch. However, this proposal was never executed either.

In early 1979 Oldenburg was given yet another opportunity to associate his screw motif with the city of Rotterdam. Wim Beeren, who had just been appointed director of the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, asked him to make a number of works especially for the museum. This request was made possible by the fact that the city council had funding available for works by Andy Warhol, Walter de Maria, Joseph Beuys, Bruce Nauman and Claes Oldenburg – artists Beeren perceived to be the leading figures in art in the 1960s.
Between 1979 and 1982 Oldenburg made three etchings and a large model in bronze, steel and aluminium of his Willemsbrug design. In the summer of 1983 Screwarch was also presented. Its height of 3.86 metres is based on that of the upper rooms of the Bodon wing of the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen. Before the sculpture was agreed upon and placed there, there were talks with Oldenburg about a permanent spot for it in the museum garden. He chose a bank between two ponds. And unlike the original design, the sculpture did not have to absorb the pressure of traffic or the hustle and bustle of a waterway. Instead the arched screw has to make its presence felt in silence.

Hanneke de Man

Axsom, R. and D. Platzker, Printed Stuff, Prints, Posters, and Ephemera by Claes Oldenburg. A Catalogue Raisonné 1958-1996, New York 1997. / Blok, C., Claes Oldenburg: Het Schroefboog-projekt; een opdracht van Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam 1978-1982, Rotterdam (Museum Boymans-van Beuningen) 1983. / Oldenburg, C. and C. van Bruggen, Large-Scale Projects, London 1995. / Exhib. cat. A Bottle of Notes and Some Voyages. Claes Oldenburg, Coosje van Bruggen, Leeds (City Art Galleries)1988.

Publicatiedatum: 12/05/2015