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Maartje Oldenburg Explains the Significance of Bringing Her Parents’ Work to Rockefeller Center

By Emmie MurphyMar 28 2022

It takes a certain kind of panache to cause a stir in New York City. And while it’s hard to compete with a horizon full of skyscrapers, Rockefeller Center’s latest addition holds its own. As if by magic, a monumental gardening trowel rendered in bright blue has planted itself at the Fifth Avenue entrance to the Channel Gardens. The sculpture – Plantoir, Blueis one of the many collaborations between Claes Oldenburg and his late wife, Coosje van Bruggen. It embodies the hallmarks of the couple’s work – enlarged everyday objects infused with a hint of whimsy and pop of color.

Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s creative partnership, which began in the 1970s, has produced a famous body of work. Public spaces all over the world have been transformed by colossal renderings of the unexpected. Whether it be a jumbled matchbook the size of a house in Spain, an upside-down ice cream cone on the roof of a shopping mall in Germany, or a giant safety pin in California, the renowned duo’s sculpture is famed for its playful and compelling presence. Their exploration of the boundaries of public art is epitomized in Plantoir, Blue, a piece that shows their evolution as a collaborative team.

“When Coosje came, already from the get-go, you [could] see how they started bouncing ideas off each other, and she was both embracing and challenging those approaches,” says Maartje Oldenburg, the couple’s daughter. “One of her big contributions was the element of color. Color immediately signals what the sculpture is about as much as what everyday object has been pulled and put into a new context.”

Weighing in at 2,300 pounds and measuring over 23 feet tall, Plantoir, Blue is arresting not just for its size and cobalt coloring, but also its dynamism. It is a work meant to be both looked at and engaged with. “It changes in scale and profile when you walk around it, which you find in the best examples of large-scale sculpture,” says Steve Henry, senior partner of Paula Cooper Gallery, which is presenting Plantoir alongside Rockefeller Center. “Your relationship to the work shifts as you move around and away from it.”

Not only does it engage with the viewer, but it also relates to the setting, and the Channel Gardens represents an ideal location. Though Midtown Manhattan is decidedly urban, the Channel Gardens is a famed green space, and also happens to be on the site of the former Elgin Botanic Garden, the first botanic garden in the United States, and the perfect place to ring in the spring season.

Beyond just the gardens, there is a lively interplay between the Rockefeller Center campus as a whole and the work itself. “I think it’s really an apt placement both in terms of timing and also because Claes’ work is always engaging the themes of art, architecture, and landscape,” says Oldenburg. “Where better to really bring that to the fore than in Rockefeller Center, with its storied Art Deco style?”

It is also a rare opportunity to bring one of the couple’s pieces to a city they have long called home. Though van Bruggen and Oldenburg’s artworks have been installed and displayed across the globe, their local installations have been infrequent. Plantoir, Blue is the first public display of an Oldenburg-van Bruggen sculpture in over 20 years.

While a Big Apple appearance seems well overdue for an artwork by the husband-and-wife team, the timing is apt in other ways as well. As we pass the two-year mark of Covid, embrace spring and look ahead, the arrival of Plantoir, Blue takes on additional significance. “We’re all ready for and excited about a kind of reawakening of the city,” says Henry. “The notion of Plantoir being this symbol of engagemnt with living things in the garden, and the fact that this is going to be the launching pad for how we encounter the Channel Gardens… I think, as a metaphor, you can’t ask for a more meaningful symbol of rebirth.”

The work not only signals a post-pandemic resurgence but also underscores what we have all learned over the last two years: There is beauty in the everyday. As our normal routines were disrupted by Covid, many of us were forced to reflect on the everyday occurrences we took for granted. Plantoir, Blue highlights this by elevating a simple tool into an arresting art object. It’s a monumental reminder to indulge in life’s small pleasures, and though its presence will be fleeting, its message is timeless.

Plantoir, Blue by Claes Olderburg and Coosje van Bruggen is on display at the Channel Gardens until May 6, 2022.

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