"Paint Torch" by Claes Oldenburg is being installed Saturday at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The prestigious art school and museum founded in 1805 commissioned the celebrated 82-year-old artist to make the outdoor sculpture for its new public plaza, located two blocks north of his celebrated "Clothespin."
"It reflects the site in that it refers to the museum and the school," Oldenburg told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his New York studio. "It's a school where they use brushes a great deal, at a time when art schools are moving away from that."
The mammoth steel-and-fiberglass paintbrush, roughly the same height as PAFA's exquisite Victorian Gothic museum next door, will tilt at a dramatic 60 degree diagonal over Broad Street and point toward the newly expanded Pennsylvania Convention Center. The brush tip will illuminate at night in changing tones of red, resembling a torch, and a 6-foot-tall sculpture resembling a dollop of red paint also will glow on the ground below.
Months of coordination were necessary to orchestrate the sculpture's trek to Philadelphia from the California studio where it was constructed, including assurances to the local transportation authority that Broad Street and the subway line below could support the weighty work being trucked in.
"Paint Torch" conveys action - specifically that the brush has just picked up what Oldenburg calls a "blip" of paint from the "glob" below and is raised to begin painting.
"It's unusual in a city to have diagonals," he said in explaining why the piece will stand out so dramatically when it's installed. "Cities are all verticals."
The 51-foot-high sculpture will be the centerpiece of a plaza under construction between PAFA's 133-year-old Frank Furness building and its loft-like exhibition galleries opened six years ago in a 95-year-old former car showroom next door.
"I had tried it first with the brush down, and that wasn't such a good idea," Oldenburg said, "because the site gets very, very narrow at one end."
The Swedish-born, American-raised sculptor first gained fame in New York's 1960s pop art scene with his "soft sculpture" fabric renderings of commonplace objects like table fans, typewriters and light switches. He is perhaps best known for creating about 45 colossal outdoor works over three decades - most in collaboration with his wife, Coosje van Bruggen - that replicate everyday items from trowels and bowling pins to shuttlecocks and a flashlight.
This is his first major project without the involvement of his Dutch-born wife, who died in 2009, but Oldenburg said she still played a part in its creation. A year before the couple married in 1977, they traveled to Philadelphia to oversee installation of Oldenburg's now-iconic "Clothespin," a 45-foot-tall steel landmark adjacent to City Hall.
"One reason I took this commission was because it reminded me of my wife," he said. "It was her first visit to America when we came to Philadelphia. I took her to the Furness museum and we spent some time in there, so I was thinking about her a great deal."
The arrival of "Paint Torch" will bring the number of Oldenburg outdoor sculptures in Philadelphia to four, which he said was more than any other city in the world. Besides "Clothespin" (1976), two smaller outdoor sculptures, "The Split Button" (1981) and "Giant Three-Way Plug" (1970), are located respectively at the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
"I always think of Philadelphia as the home of sculpture. It's amazing how many you have," he said of the city's trove of outdoor works by artists including Jacques Lipschitz, Henry Moore and three generations of Philadelphia's Calder family. "You also take good care of what you have."
He said "Clothespin" was possible only because of the city's Percent for Art city ordinance, begun in 1959 and duplicated by dozens of cities, that requires large-scale developers to set aside 1 percent of their construction budget for public art. It was commissioned, along with a Jean Dubuffet sculpture and a group of Alexander Calder banners, to fulfill the 1 percent requirement for a downtown office high-rise that opened in 1973.
Oldenburg sculptures have a tendency to turn the sites where they're installed into meeting places - "Clothespin" and "The Split Button" both serve that purpose in Philadelphia - and the new piece may well do the same, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts curator Robert Cozzolino said.
The plaza will be used for public events and to showcase a changing rotation of works by established and emerging artists who will also enliven the space.
"It's good that Oldenburg's voice won't be the only voice on the plaza," Cozzolino said. "By pairing them with this monumental, well-known sculptor ... it will give these other people an opportunity to play off it, to push back, to parody it, to do all sorts of things. It sets up that competition to balance it or potentially subvert it."
"Paint Torch" will be lighted for the first time to cap off a daylong festival Oct. 1 to celebrate the plaza's completion.
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is the country's first museum and school of fine art. Its alumni include Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt, Maxfield Parrish, Charles Demuth, Louis Kahn, Bo Bartlett and David Lynch.