An Outsize Oldenburg Cuts a Wide Swath at the Guggenheim

updated 01/26/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/26/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

It's not every day that you come across a 40-foot Swiss Army knife, let alone one with two motorized blades, a 26-foot corkscrew and a set of eight oars that make it look like a boat. That's why people appear somewhat shocked when they find such an object filling the main floor of New York City's Guggenheim Museum. Surrounded as it is by an exhibit of comparatively staid paintings by expressionist Oskar Kokoschka, the giant knife looks even more bizarre. Nonetheless, sculptor Claes Oldenburg, 57, and his wife, Coosje van Bruggen, 44, think the sculpture they created for display until Feb. 16 looks just right in the circular museum. "We thought it would fit into the Guggenheim," says Oldenburg, "like a screw into a threaded hole."

For perplexed viewers Oldenburg explains that he wants his works to reveal the many symbolic meanings in familiar objects. "The Swiss Army knife had always looked to me like a ship," he says. "The blades look like sails and the corkscrew like a mast." The blades and corkscrew also juxtapose "the rational and completely screwy sides" of the Swiss personality. In 1985 Oldenburg floated an identical sculpture (now in storage) on a Venice canal. There, the blades were meant to mimic and clash with Venetian towers.

Since he became a Pop Art star in the '60s, Oldenburg has designed such odd objects as ceramic sandwiches, a 48-foot clothespin and a 24-foot lipstick. But the knife ship (which will move permanently to L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art) may have been his most painstaking effort. In Venice, Oldenburg and van Bruggen spent months creating a motorized barge that would steer the knife. "We kept bumping into the side of the canal," he says. Last month they had to remove a huge window and line the Guggenheim with a plastic bubble to keep out the cold weather while installing the sculpture. Now, as he sees the surprise on viewers' faces, he knows it was worth the trouble.

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