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Claes Oldenburg’s Proposed Giant Cincinnati Soap Bar

By Steven Rosen · July 25th, 2012 · The Big Picture
ac_bigpic_i have cutline and creditClaes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, "The Colossal Soap on the Ohio River, in Moonlight" 14 1/8x18 7/8 inches - ©1990 Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

If you want to learn about one of the biggest and most unusual public-art projects ever proposed for Cincinnati, see the display related to “The Soap at Baton Rouge” at Carl Solway Gallery’s current Thanks: 50th Anniversary Celebration. 

Beginning in the 1970s and continuing into the 1990s, Solway and famed sculptor Claes Oldenburg tried to get Procter & Gamble interested in building a giant bar of Ivory soap to float down the Ohio River from here to Baton Rouge. And Solway hasn’t washed the idea out of his system yet. 

“It would be fantastic if that could finally happen,” Solway said. “And now would be the time, following all the attention from the World Choir Games, to do something like this.” 

Among the objects in Solway’s current show is a beautiful 1990 drawing — using graphite, color pencil and watercolor on paper — by Oldenburg and his late wife, Coosje Van Bruggen, called “The Colossal Soap on the Ohio River, in Moonlight.” 

Adjacent to it is one set from a 250-edition multiple that Solway and Oldenburg produced in 1990, “The Soap at Baton Rouge.” There is a small cast resin bar of worn soap, with Oldenburg’s initials and an edition number etched onto it, atop an aluminum-silicate-filled vinyl version of a cracked, dry riverbed. (The set also includes a serigraph and a catalog of Oldenburg’s multiples.)

These certainly make you want to know more, and Solway shared his recollections during a recent interview.

He had been thinking about a project on the Ohio River when he had dinner with Oldenburg as the 1976 Bicentennial was coming up. He also recalls that he’d heard about the pending centennial of Ivory soap, which was introduced in 1879. 

“I said to Claes that it would be great to do some public art around it,” Solway said. “What about the idea of doing a 400-foot inflatable bar of Ivory soap? You make a big inflatable balloon-like structure that you can blow up. It wouldn’t actually be real soap.” It would, he explained, sit atop a barge that could guide it.

Solway said he got nowhere with P&G. But he tried again after the artist Christo in 1983 surrounded 11 islands in Miami’s Biscayne Bay with pink fabric, to worldwide acclaim. And, he said, he approached P&G again after he and Oldenburg released the multiple of “The Soap at Baton Rouge.” (Contacted by this writer, P&G archivist Shane Meeker searched his files and found nothing, but said a former archivist told him the company has no material because the proposal never moved forward.)

Oldenburg’s 1990 published recollections on the project are included in the exhibit — and appear to differ from Solway’s. “What sprang to mind … was a combination of a floating soap bar and an old-fashioned paddlewheel riverboat — in other words, a colossal bar of soap…” As it dissolved and got smaller, it would reach Baton Rouge as just about the size of the bar made for the multiple edition. 

If that sounds like a totally impractical idea, it might have been. Oldenburg, writing to me in an email (excerpted here), recalled, “My late wife and I collaborated on 40 or so Large-Scale Projects, as we called them. The ideas often came as a fantasy. In the late ‘70s, we thought of building a colossal soap and floating it down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Of course, the project was impossible, as was the translation of this idea into inflated balloon copies of soap of different sizes to be released along the trip to give the effect of shrinking. We went on to other projects.”

When the time came to write a description of “The Soap at Baton Rouge” for the catalog, Oldenburg said he let his imagination flow. “The description in the book is written as if the project’s first soap form had been realized, not tongue-in-cheek, but a fiction, made as convincing as possible.

“To answer your question, if someone would have come up with the money and means to create the giant ‘Soap’ or its balloon double, of course Coosje and I would have responded, and given it a try. The impossible was always an inspiration to us.”

As it should be to all of us who believe that public art should think big.

Solway’s THANKS exhibition is up through Aug. 11 at 424 Findlay St., West End, 513-621-0069, www.solwaygallery.com.



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