Stuart Wrede shares an encounter with Claes Oldenburg, the famed Pop sculptor who died in July at 93

Lipstick on a Tank

Stuart Wrede shares an encounter with Claes Oldenburg, the famed Pop sculptor who died in July at 93

The late Claes Oldenburg with Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks at Yale University. (Shunk-Kender © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2014.R.20)

“Strangely enough I think that [Oldenburg’s monuments] would indeed be subversive. If you could even imagine a situation in which this could be done you would have the revolution. If you could really envisage a situation where, at the end of Park Avenue, there would be a huge Good Humor ice cream bar and in the middle of Times Square a huge banana, I would say—and I think safely say—this society has come to an end. Because the people cannot take anything seriously: neither their president, nor the cabinet, nor the corporate executives. There is a way in which this kind of satire, of humor, can indeed kill. I think it would be one of the most bloodless means to achieve a radical change. But the trouble is you must already have the radical change in order to get it built, and I don’t see any evidence of that. The mere drawing wouldn’t hurt, and that makes it harmless. But just imagine it would suddenly be there.” —Herbert Marcuse, commenting on Claes Oldenburg’s proposed monuments for New York City in conversation with Stuart Wrede, as published in Perspecta 12 (1969).

My involvement with Claes Oldenburg came through the Lipstick project, a surprise gift to Yale University in May 1969, initiated by a small group of architecture and art students, including myself. Now more than 50 years later, when those events have largely been forgotten, it is perhaps worth telling the story again. It may have been one of the early high points of Oldenburg’s career, as it was his first built monument as well as a grassroots cultural-political happening.

The civil rights movement, the hippie movement, and the antiwar movement all were catalysts for attempting cultural-political-social transformation in the United States. Similar efforts with significant variations took place in Europe as well. The philosopher Herbert Marcuse, whose book One-Dimensional Man advocated cultural change as much as political change, was an important influence. Pop art was initially seen as engaging in a “send-up” of the prevailing consumer culture before it eventually became a reflection of that culture.

Claes Oldenburg, with his soft sculptures of everyday objects and proposals for colossal monuments in key urban locations, was seen as the most radical of the group. At Yale, inspired by the Herbert Marcuse quoted above, we figured a way around the catch-22 of the quote to get an Oldenburg monument built. We hardly expected to bring society to an end, but we knew we could mount an act of cultural and political protest.

Yale University relied (and relies) in part on gifts for its funding. Oldenburg, who was already famous, was a Yale alumnus. We would commission him to design a buildable monument, raise the funds needed, get it built, and then wheel it into the center of the campus (commonly known as Beinecke Plaza) as a surprise gift to Yale.

We contacted Oldenburg, who was very enthusiastic about the idea and offered to do it for free. Lippincott, a fabricator in nearby North Haven, offered to build it at cost. We set up a nonprofit corporation (The Colossal Keepsake Corp.) as the vehicle for the gift so that donors would get a tax deduction for their support.

We spent time with Oldenburg, going through his sketchbooks, which contained a wonderful array of ideas, but none of them quite fit what we were looking for. Not only did we want something that would subvert the stale classical environment of Beinecke Plaza as well as criticize what we saw as a conservative university, but we wanted an antiwar message given the ongoing war in Vietnam. Oldenburg understood and obligingly went back to the drawing board. The result, Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks, exceeded our highest expectations.

The 24-foot-tall lipstick on tank treads perfectly captured the combination of military aggression and seductive erotic commercialism that characterized America at the time, in addition to displaying an in-your-face critique of its conservative surroundings. It also took on some quite positive meanings we had not anticipated. For many it symbolized the crashing down of the gates of Yale’s male bastion as women entered the college for the first time in the fall semester of 1969. The still-fledgling gay movement also appropriated it as a symbol for its struggle. From our point of view, Oldenburg had hit the nail on its head.

During lunchtime on May 15, 1969, a motorcycle convoy accompanying a truck carrying the disassembled Lipstick arrived at the Yale campus, and Lipstick was wheeled into the center of Beinecke Plaza. Novum Organum (NO for short), a broadsheet produced by the architecture students, distributed a special Lipstick issue in the dining halls. Thousands of students came to see the installation. Given the enthusiastic crowd, the campus and New Haven police, who had been given no warning, would probably have had a major riot on their hands if they had tried to stop it. As Oldenburg inflated the original soft tip, a deafening cheer went up from the crowd.

An elaborate, hand-drawn “Deed of Gift” was presented to a confused and less-than-happy-looking secretary of the university, whom Vincent Scully (a coconspirator and Keepsake Corp. board member) had requested to be at the plaza at the allotted time without explaining why. Oldenburg’s comment to the hapless secretary was classic: “It’s a gift. You must be gracious.”

Yale was less than happy with the gift. We received no thank-you note. The school pursued a passive-aggressive strategy, as given the tumult on so many other campuses they did not dare remove it. The “Deed of Gift” stipulated Yale had to maintain the Lipstick and that they could not remove it from Beinecke Plaza. Gradually it became covered in graffiti and parts of the original plywood treads were stolen. After about a year the Lipstick had been so vandalized that we decided that Yale was clearly not living up to the agreement, so we removed the sculpture. The administration no doubt heaved a silent sigh of relief.

An alternate plan to send the Lipstick to Helsinki as a peace statue from the United States for a European security conference (to match the gift of a peace statue from the Soviets) in the end was unsuccessful.

In the meantime, the Lipstick had become famous thanks to its appearance on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in conjunction with a major exhibition at MoMA of Oldenburg’s work in the fall of 1969. The Lipstick also featured prominently in the catalog written by Barbara Rose, who had previously covered the original installation.

Pressure built on the Yale administration from the Yale University Art Gallery, the art history department (where Scully was a driving force), and informed progressive cultural opinion to ask for the Lipstick back. They did so a few years later, offering to fully restore it with a hard tip and Cor-ten steel treads. But they refused to put it back in Beinecke Plaza. Instead, they proposed to put it in the courtyard of Morse College, where Scully was the master, and offered that the Yale University Art Gallery would become the new owner.

While Oldenburg was rightly concerned and interested in getting the Lipstick restored and again put on public display, we, the (now-former) students who had originally commissioned the work, were hesitant to agree to the change of site. The Lipstick was a symbol of dissent against the Vietnam War (or, for that matter, any war), a conservative society, and a campus environment in need of renewal. It derived its meaning and strength from being at the symbolic heart of the institution. Oldenburg designed the Lipstick specifically to be placed in Beinecke Plaza (it can also be read as an upside-down classical column) and was quoted in our press release as saying “nothing would do but the central showplace—the Plaza.” In the Morse College courtyard, it lost its charged context and critical intent. In the end we reluctantly agreed and deferred to Scully’s and Oldenburg’s desire to have it resurrected.

In the decades since, the Lipstick has become a mascot for Morse College. Hardly anyone at Yale remembers its charged history, the cultural and political context that brought it into being, and its powerful critical message. An article refers to the “playful” Lipstick, which, due to its popularity, was remade in metal and moved to Morse College, a description that mischaracterizes the monument’s intent and obfuscates the reason for its move. For another piece, an informal survey found that only one out of ten Yale students was “vaguely familiar with the sculpture’s riotous history.” By moving it to Morse, Yale managed to completely emasculate the Lipstick.

In 2019, on the 50th anniversary of the gift of the Lipstick to Yale, Sam Callaway, a fellow Keepsake Corp. board member, and I, the group’s president, made an initial effort to convince the Yale community to return the Lipstick to its proper historic place. We got nowhere.

But we have not given up. The Lipstick, a positive symbol of dissent, historically belongs in the plaza. It’s strange that 50-odd years after its installation, Yale remains reluctant to reinstall it there. It would be a fitting tribute to Claes Oldenburg, perhaps Yale’s most famous artist, if the Lipstick were returned to the plaza for which it was created.

Stuart Wrede, architect, environmental artist, and author of numerous books, received his MArch from Yale in 1970. From 1985 to 1992 he was a curator at, and then director of, the Department of Architecture and Design at MoMA.