Claes Oldenburg, the Swedish-born artist whose monumental renderings of everyday objects – a clothespin, lipstick, binoculars and, of course, steering wheels – made him a major force in pop art, died July 18 at his New York home. He was 93 years old.
To remember him, we revisit some of The Star’s earlier coverage of these 18ft badminton birdies, who got their start outside the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in 1994 to mixed reviews locally and are now a beloved icon of the city.
They weren’t always going to be fliers.
Husband and wife team Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen took one look at the Nelson-Atkins Museum – beautiful, symmetrical and serious – and immediately knew they wanted to lighten it up.
Early sketches reveal concepts for socks, long underwear, and Mickey Mouse. The pair then moved on to play, playing with a basketball as it fell through a net. The two New Yorkers explored Kansas City and the Midwest, dreaming of a sculpture that would capture feelings familiar to the region. Words scribbled on coffee-stained stationery read “comet”, “tornado” and “basketball”.
The family of Kansas City businessman and philanthropist Morton Sosland had commissioned the couple to produce artwork for the Nelson grounds. It was up to the sculptors to come up with an idea.
After an exhausting day of brainstorming, van Bruggen (who died in 2009) was relaxing in the museum and found herself drawn to a Painting by Frederick Remington American Indians. Specifically, she was drawn to feathers.
From there, the creative process exploded.
Bringing ruffles to life
Oldenburg and van Bruggen examined all things flight and the feather, drawing inspiration from the winged sphinxes outside the Liberty Memorial, Amelia Earhart, windmill blades – and badminton birdies. Once they decided on the ruffles, the artists talked about calling the sculptures “Yardbirds,” the nickname of jazz legend and Kansas City native Charlie Parker.
Artists have become obsessed with shuttlecocks, photocopy pages from different dictionaries, buy a badminton kit, and cut out the picture of the shuttlecock from the box. They plucked the feathers from a regulation tournament shuttlecock. They made models using found objects such as coffee filters, clay and polystyrene.
The couple began to factor in a soft net – right where the Nelson-Atkins building is. Suddenly, a breakthrough: the rigid and old building is the net, the game has just ended on the 22-acre court, and four shuttlecocks have been scattered on the side.
Where and how to place the shuttlecocks was the next order of the day. Keen to avoid symmetry and precision in the building, they opted for three ruffles on the south side and a fourth on the north side of the building. The lone shuttlecock No. 1 which is perched on the tiptoes of two feathers was a point of contention. The artists had originally spread it evenly over its feathers like a teepee, but – as with the museum itself – they deemed it too static.
When it came to building the shuttlecocks, art was forced to give way to pure science. The designs reveal precise angles, lines and balances that are rarely considered when admiring such beautiful giant objects from afar.
Artists and engineers worked together to make the four 5,500-pound sculptures as light and airy as the real thing. Three different feather molds were cast with varying slots, each perfectly measured. In total, there are 36 feathers, each weighing 450 pounds.
The giant molds were created in New Haven, Connecticut. From there, the castings were made by a familiar Rhode Island yacht factory with durable, lightweight materials that can withstand the high seas or any Kansas City weather.
Ordinary. Superficial. Disorder.
So many words used to describe the shuttlecocks during their debut on the lawn of Nelson.
After two years of dispute between museum directors and the Board of Parks and Recreation, it took just five days to install the shuttlecocks in the hot sun of late June 1994. At 546 times the height of a standard shuttlecock and made of fiberglass, plastic and aluminum, they changed the aesthetics of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art forever.
The Nelson held a housewarming party for the sculptures, “Shuttlecock Sunday”, on July 10, 1994. Hundreds attended the event, which included live jazz, parades and celebrity badminton.
Many visitors were surprised to learn that the frills were permanent.
The sculptures met with the approval of many. But others, including members of The Star’s editorial board, had campaigned vehemently against it. Star readers called them “stupid” and “dumb” and compared them to “putting a Ferris wheel in front of Versailles.”
But what happened in the pages of the newspaper was supremely civilized compared to the mail in the museum.
“There were letters for me and the Soslands,” Marc Wilson, then museum director, told The Star in 2006. “Some were mean and got personal. A mother in Independence sent a note with a soiled diaper saying it was her daughter’s artwork and (she) felt it was comparable to ruffles.
But from the start, Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s “Shuttlecocks” were well received in the art world.
Articles on “CBS Sunday Morning”, The Sunday Times of London, The Boston Globe, The New York Daily News and Art in America have helped put the Nelson on the national and international map.
It took many Kansas Citians a few years to prepare for the big birdies.
“Once they were there and the shock of the news was over, people started falling in love with them,” Wilson said. “I knew it was a fantastic hit when people started playing around them.” But the turning point, he said, was when the ruffles appeared on Monday Night Football as “one of KC’s iconic logos.”
Ruffles are now a favorite for wedding photos, family picnics and Instagram influencers.
Back when the artwork debuted, the Sosland family said they just wanted to give Kansas City something to enjoy.
“Each of us, I suppose, has a very different reaction to ruffles,” Morton Sosland (d. 2019) said during a preview of the new sculptures that summer of 1994. times, I find each time a whole new perception.Yet there is always this incredible invitation to look up, to scan the sky and to wonder where these wonderful pieces come from.
“It is this uplifting of our vision and our spirit that I – and my family too – hope to be one of the many happy benefits of this gift. We invite you to smile and even laugh, how wonderful, when you contemplate now the park of this museum and its new inhabitants.
Compiled by Sharon Hoffmann of The Star from stories by Alice Thorson, Rachel Skybetter and Laura R. Hockaday.