Claes Oldenburg to sculpt a towering paintbrush in Center City Philadelphia

Claes Oldenburg gestures toward a drawing of his planned sculpture at a media gathering. "A paintbrush," he said, "is a symbol of a type of art that has kind of gone out of fashion."
Claes Oldenburg gestures toward a drawing of his planned sculpture at a media gathering. "A paintbrush," he said, "is a symbol of a type of art that has kind of gone out of fashion."
Posted: July 09, 2010

A light-filled paintbrush angling more than 50 feet into the air and thrusting its flaglike bristles toward Broad Street will be created by sculptor Claes Oldenburg to mark a new plaza planned by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

At a media gathering Thursday, Oldenburg said he wanted to construct "an object that in some way relates to the site," a closed-off block of Cherry Street from Broad to 15th Street and between the academy's two buildings - the Hamilton Building on the north and the historic, Frank Furness-designed museum building to the south.

The sculptural subject seemed obvious, said the 81-year-old creator of the iconic Clothespin, installed in 1976 on Market Street just west of City Hall, four blocks away.

"What suggested itself here was a paintbrush because a paintbrush is a symbol of a type of art that has kind of gone out of fashion," Oldenburg told about 30 reporters and officials gathered on the second floor of the Hamilton Building. He contended that no one paints anymore, that artists perform or make objects and installations instead.

But fortunately, he added, there are art schools and museums where the idea of the paintbrush remains "something in the minds of many."

The academy is preparing to transform the block of Cherry Street west of Broad into a $3 million space called Lenfest Plaza, after H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest and his wife, Marguerite, donors of two-thirds of the necessary funds.

The plaza is scheduled for completion by next spring, which roughly coincides with the planned completion date for the Pennsylvania Convention Center extension, directly across Broad Street.

Academy president David R. Brigham and other officials at the art school and museum said they believed the plaza would unify the academy's buildings - fanciful Furness and no-nonsense Hamilton - and also serve to draw conventioneers across the street, funneling them out into the city toward the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where the new Barnes Foundation gallery and museum is slated to open in 2012.

The Oldenburg sculpture - which will have two parts, the second being a large dollop of paint that ostensibly has dripped from the brush onto the plaza below - will rise directly in front of the Convention Center's entrance.

Mayor Nutter, on hand for Thursday's announcement, emphasized the significance of the project from the city's perspective.

"Lenfest Plaza will be a great gateway to 'museum mile,' " he said, referring to the Parkway, and "will dramatically improve the sense of public space here in Philadelphia. Residents are just going to love it."

Many paintbrush details remain to be worked out, however, including how high it will rise and what the exact nature of the dollop of paint will be. Oldenburg said that the brush would be about the same height as the Furness building's roofline, 53 feet or thereabouts, and that the piece would jut over the Broad Street sidewalk at about a 60-degree angle.

"That's scary," he said.

But not to worry. "We'll be careful" - although Oldenburg likes the sense of danger the angle imparts. The angle also allows the brush to be visible up and down Broad Street, and "that's very important," he said.

The piece will be made of steel and fiberglass, and the brush's bristles will be illuminated. Oldenburg is working with the idea of embedding LED lights inside, making the brush resemble a torch or beacon. Color is still being pondered.

Whether lights would also be embedded in the paint on the ground is another matter. In fact, the nature of it is a nettlesome problem.

"It's not exactly a dab," said Oldenburg. "It's more like a glob." How big will it be? The artist is not sure. Globs are tough.

The paintbrush will be the third Oldenburg public work in the city. The first, which also was the artist's first monumental piece of public art, was Clothespin, installed in front of the Centre Square office towers. Its installation marked the beginning of major office development west of City Hall, though no one knew that at the time, and it announced a new era of public art in the city.

In 1981, Oldenburg's Split Button was installed at the University of Pennsylvania. The artist, who largely worked in collaboration with his wife, Coosje van Broogen, has created about 45 monumental renderings of ordinary objects since Clothespin. Van Broogen died last year.

"Clothespin was the first city monument on a large scale that could compete with the architecture around it," said Oldenburg. "That's what we were trying to do."

The paintbrush has different problems, he said.

"It's a very difficult site because it's so narrow," he said. "A lot of people will be in there and you don't want to be in their way."

Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594 or

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