Born in Stockholm, Claes Oldenburg moved to Chicago with his family in 1936, where he studied at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1950 to 1954. He relocated to New York in 1956, where he became a key figure in performance art and Happenings. Between 1960 and 1962, Green Gallery, New York, hosted numerous shows of Oldenburg’s work, including two solo exhibitions, four group exhibitions, and multiple Happenings/performances.
In a September 1962 review of a Wayne Thiebaud show, Donald Judd wrote of Oldenburg that he “has done something artistically new, as Max Kozloff in Art International says he and the others have not, makes his cakes and pies and other foods and articles actual objects, which is different epistemologically from illustration.”1 Oldenburg and Judd met around 1965, when Oldenburg was living in the same apartment building as their mutual friend the artist Yayoi Kusama.
Oldenburg said in a 1965 interview, “My intention is to make an everyday object that eludes definition.”2 Soft Ceiling Lights at La Coupole is modeled after ceiling light fixtures at a historic bistro in Paris. Oldenburg frequented the restaurant at the time of his 1964 exhibition at Galerie Ileana Sonnabend.
In an oral history interview with Judd Foundation in 2013, Oldenburg described Judd’s first encounter with Soft Ceiling Lights at La Coupole: “I got a new place in New York, in SoHo—and there was a wonderful wall to hang this piece. And so we hung it there. Don would come over quite frequently. By this time, ’71, of course he had his own residence not far away. He liked it very much.”3
Throughout the 1960s, Oldenburg made a variety of works related to lights, primarily “hard” and “soft” sculptures of light switches, as opposed to light fixtures proper, as referenced in this sculpture. The transformation of hard objects into soft objects and vice versa is a recurrent theme of his practice.