Giant Soft Fan–Ghost Version, 1967
Claes Oldenburg, American, born Sweden, 1929
Canvas, wood, and polyurethane foam
120 × 59 × 64 in. (304.8 × 149.9 × 162.6 cm)
Gift of D. and J. de Menil
Habits of Mind
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
Giant Soft Fan, Ghost Version
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
- Understand Oldenburg’s use of uncanny subjects and materials
- Imagine a public artwork using familiar materials
- Create an original collage to serve as a rendering of a public artwork
Connecting to the Work of Art
Claes Oldenburg was born in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1929, but he spent the majority of his early life in Chicago, where his parents moved in 1936. From 1946 to 1950 he studied art and literature at Yale, returning to Chicago in 1950 to work as an intern reporter. He attended classes at the Art Institute of Chicago on and off from 1952 until 1954, and in 1955 he worked as an illustrator. He moved to New York in 1956 and began to associate with a group of artists who were using recognizable forms to challenge the work of the Abstract Expressionists and who used installations, theater productions, and performance art pieces called “happenings” in place of traditional painting and sculpture.
In 1959, Oldenburg had his first one-man show at the Judson Gallery on Washington Square. He then began using representational art to express his own personal experience with his environment. This led to the installation of The Street in which he staged his first “happening”, Snapshots from the City. His creation of canvas props at these installations led to his exploration of the large scale sculptures for which he is known. He began to envision outdoor monuments, making scale models such as Giant Soft Fan, Ghost Version. He was soon able to produce the fullscale version and continued to create public art almost exclusively thereafter. In 1976 he began collaborations with art historian and writer Coosje van Bruggen, whom he married a few years later. Their monumental sculptures can be found in many major cities across the United States and Europe. By making art for the public on such a grand scale, Oldenburg creates democratic art for contemporary society.
Oldenburg uses familiar objects, often placing them in an unfamiliar context by changing their size, material, and environment. Giant Soft Fan, Ghost Version is a large-scale model of a sculpture he envisioned in 1967 of a huge fan on Bedloes Island in place of the Statue of Liberty. His idea came from a combination of thoughts: the visual similarities between the statue’s crown and a fan, the size and shape of Statue of Liberty souvenirs, and the need for a cool breeze on Long Island. He created two large-scale models of the fan, allowing him to experiment with issues of mass, perception, and function using quotidian objects. The two fans, one of shiny black vinyl (Giant Soft Fan, now at the Museum of Modern Art, New York) and the other of white canvas, both have the form of a fan, but are made from soft materials that droop and sag when suspended from the ceiling. Oldenburg’s fascination with the effect of gravity on form is evident. His subjects are not simply the objects that he portrays, but his own and his viewer’s understanding and experience of these objects.
Oldenburg’s sculpture is exciting in the novelty of the materials and subject matter, and he continuously takes into account setting and audience in order to make his sculptures relevant. His use of canvas gives the fan a soft, dry, almost pillow-like appearance, especially when juxtaposed with the shiny black vinyl of the New York version. Oldenburg stated: “I have a shiny black fan and a dry white fan— like two angels, those winged victories that walk beside you, the white angel and the black angel. One for day, one for night; turn to the left, turn to the right. If people want to find things, they are probably there.”
- Look closely at this sculpture, noting its many detailed joins and intertwined appendages. Note the sculpture’s size—about 10 feet tall. What strikes you most about this object?
- Though this sculpture is called a fan, in many ways it does not resemble one. Which parts of the fan are recognizable, and which are less so? How does Oldenburg balance the real and the fantastical?
- How does Oldenburg’s use of white canvas impact the feel of the sculpture? How might a different material—like the black vinyl on the New York analog to this piece—change your reaction to the artwork?
- How does gravity impact the form of this sculpture? Imagine if it were not hung from the ceiling. How would its form and impact change?
- Oldenburg designed these fans to replace the Statue of Liberty, providing a much-needed cool breeze to the surrounding area. A soft fan, of course, cannot provide a breeze. How might this sculpture interact with the island environment?
- This particular fan is called the Ghost Version. How does Oldenburg create a sense of ghostliness or otherworldliness in this sculpture?
- Why might Oldenburg have chosen such a familiar, mundane subject matter for his proposed monument?
- Rather than designing a perfect replica of a fan for his monument, Oldenburg designed this pair of odd, uncanny almost-fans. Why do you think he chose to alter the fans?
- The image in this Curriculum Connection shows Giant Soft Fan installed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. How might it have been installed if it had ever replaced the Statue of Liberty? Would the effect of the sculpture change?
- If installed in place of the Statue of Liberty, what effect would the Giant Soft Fan have on its visitors? What message would it send, as an emblem of the United States?
In class, compare Oldenburg’s fan with a normal, functional desk fan. Discuss the differences in mass, volume, and form between the two models. Prompt students to theorize why Oldenburg may have made the changes he did.
You can also guide students to explore Oldenburg’s large, uncanny sculptures. Create a collage by placing a photograph or drawing of a familiar object into a landscape or interior setting. Encourage students to play with scale and to strategically alter the objects, as Oldenburg did. Discuss why they chose their objects, and how the scene would appear to viewers if constructed in real life.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.