Claes Oldenburg

Giant 3-Way Plug Scale 2/3


Not on display

Claes Oldenburg born 1929
Object: 1473 × 991 × 749 mm
Purchased 1971

Display caption

Many of Oldenburg’s sculptures transform household objects through radical changes of scale, encouraging the viewer to see ordinary items in a new light. This is one of a series of works, made in different sizes and using different materials, based on an American electrical plug. Others have been made in Bakelite, cardboard and masonite. This suspended, mahogany version was associated by the artist with the hanging lights inside the Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul.

Gallery label, February 2011

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Catalogue entry

Claes Oldenburg born 1929

T01266 Giant Three-Way Plug, Scale B, 2/3 1970

Not inscribed
Mahogany, 58 x 39 x 29 1/2 (147.5 x 99 x 75)
Purchased from the artist through the Sidney Janis Gallery, New York (Grant-in-Aid) 1971
Lit: Ellen H. Johnson, 'Oldenburg's Giant 3-Way Plug' in Arts, XLV, December 1970-January 1971, pp.43-5 (reprinted in Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin, Spring 1971, pp.223-33); 'A Schoenberg Foundation Gift' in City Art Museum of Saint Louis Bulletin, VII, November-December 1971, pp.4-6; exh. catalogue Claes Oldenburg: Object into Monument, Pasadena Art Museum, December 1971-February 1972, p.115, Detroit version repr. p.117 in colour

This is one of a series of works of different sizes and materials based on the transformation of an ordinary, 3-way electrical plug. The original plug was a standard American design made of Bakelite of a type also known in some parts of the USA as a 'cube tap'.

The plug theme made its first appearance in 1965 in a drawing of a plug floating in water. It was made to look like a buoy or tank floating in the water and suggested to Oldenburg the image of a floating cathedral. The next major step was to build later the same year a cardboard 'Three-Way Plug' 98cm high in order to improve his understanding of the form and to simplify it in an ideal way. In 1968 the cardboard original was destroyed at Documenta 4, when a workman fell on it. While reconstructing it in 1969, Oldenburg realised that the theme had further possibilities. So at the same time as he was remaking the cardboard (coll. Peeters, Bruges), he made with the help of his assistant Karl Ardo a larger version in masonite and wood. This work, which is still in his possession, afterwards served as the original model both for the large steel plug (Scale A) and for the versions in fine wood (Scale B).

The largest and most monumental version, 'Giant Three-Way Plug, Scale A' 1969-70 is in Cor-ten steel, with bronze prongs, 294.5 x 198 x 145cm. The first of the edition of three was commissioned from the artist in April 1970 by the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College, Ohio, and installed on a lawn outside the Museum in August the same year. Before deciding on the best way of installing it, Oldenburg made two sets of maquettes showing the plug partly sunk into the ground in different positions, some with the prongs protruding at various angles and some with them entirely submerged. In the end the sculpture was placed on its side, with the prongs tilted slightly upwards and the main form partly buried in the ground (an effect which suggests, among other things, a massive cannon as on a war memorial). The second version (2/3) was similarly installed in 1971 outside the City Art Museum of St Louis, Missouri, and the third version (3/3) now belongs to David Pincus and has been placed in the grounds of his house at Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. All three were fabricated on the same scale by Lippincott Inc. in North Haven, Connecticut, from the artist's patterns. There is also a soft version on the same scale known as 'Giant Three-Way Plug, Scale A - Soft' 1971 in blue Naugahyde (PVC), wood, plexiglas and Dacron, with a wire frame, which is owned by the Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa. It has sometimes been known as 'Prototype in Blue' because it was originally the artist's intention to have two more sewn in another colour, but these have not been started and may not be.

The work bought by the Tate, 'Giant Three-Way Plug, Scale B, 2/3', 147.5cm high, is the second of an edition of three in fine wood on this scale (half the size of Scale A and the same size as the version in masonite and cheap wood previously mentioned). The first (1/3), which like this is in mahogany, has been acquired by the Detroit Institute of Arts; the third (3/3) is in cherry wood and is the artist's copy. Though dated 1970, the Tate's work was not completely finished until February or early March 1971. Unlike the massive sculptures in Cor-ten steel, these are intended to be shown indoors and hung from the ceiling, which of course produces a very different effect. Oldenburg himself has spoken of an analogy with the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. There is also a soft version on the same scale made from the same patterns, in leather and canvas, wood, foam rubber and Dacron, with a wire frame, known as 'Giant Three-Way Plug, Scale B - Soft' 1970, which still belongs to the artist.

'Giant Three-Way Plug, Scale C - Soft' 1970 is half the size of Scale B and exists in two versions, one in stained canvas (a terracotta colour), the other in orange-coloured vinyl. They are shown in plastic cases as 'models for a giant balloon'. The canvas model is owned by the artist, and the vinyl one was sold to Joseph Rotman of Toronto by Sidney Janis in 1970.

Finally (the last to be made), there is 'Giant Three-Way Plug, Scale D - Soft' 1970, one and a half times Scale B, of which only one version exists, in denim canvas, foam rubber, plexiglas and Dacron, with a wire frame. It is owned by the artist, and is approximately 274cm long when hanging extended.

There are no hard versions in Scales C and D.

(The information about the various versions is based mainly on a letter of 23 April 1973 from the artist).

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.571-2, reproduced p.571

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