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Sweden born 1929

  • United States of America from 1930

Soft alphabet 1978 Description: a soft alphabet comprising 41 sandfilled, sewn-cloth pieces in a wooden box
Materials & Technique: multiples, wood, cloth, sand, stencil wooden box with sliding lid containing 41 pieces, including 19 sewn-cloth letters and 22 sewn-cloth pieces filled with sand and brushed with talcum powder; drawing of soft alphabet screenprinted on box lid Support: wood, cotton, sand
Impression: 16/16
Edition: edition of 16 plus 11 proofs
Publisher: MULTIPLES, INC.
Place Published: New York
Date Published: 1978

Primary Insc: signed, in black pen "Oldenburg" [verso of box]
Secondary Insc: numbered, in black pen "16/16" [verso of box]
Tertiary Insc: screenprinted, in black ink "A B C D/ G H I J K/ L M N O P Q/ R S T U/ W..." [on box lid]
Dimensions: box (closed) 74.2 h x 56.4 w x 7.2 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1982
Accession No: NGA 82.1270.1-43
Image rights: © Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen

Claes Oldenburg studied art and literature at Yale University before becoming a reporter in Chicago. Renouncing journalism, he attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and began publishing illustrations and comic strips in magazines. The influence of this early graphic career is obvious in Soft alphabet, where Oldenburg’s fascination with letters and language is evident.

Consisting of individual canvas pieces filled with sand and contained in a wooden box, the work seems straightforward at first. Plump, rounded, cartoon-like letters fit together snugly, according to the stencil outlined on their box’s lid. The gentle contours of the stuffed letters are rounded like a mouth as it forms a word, bringing tangibility to the abstract notion of sound, of words on a page. The work invokes pleasant connotations of both childhood alphabet games and a box of chocolates or sweets; the letters are the perfect size for the palm of your hand, seemingly encouraging you to touch or choose one.

Yet on closer inspection it becomes apparent that several of the letters are missing. The places of the E, F, N, V, X, Y and Z have been taken by odd, bean shaped objects. The bright, primary colours that are expected of children’s toys and confectionery wrappers are replaced with the bland, neutral colours of undyed canvas and unpainted wood. Suddenly the rather cutesy letters seem a bit sinister: why are they kept in a box, and where are the missing letters?

Emilie Owens
Administrative Assistant
International Art
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: National Gallery of Australia exhibition SoftSculpture (reference )