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  • Rainey Knudson

The Art of Trading Places: Oldenburg's Clothespin (531 words)

The 1983 movie Trading Places is one of my favorites. Like many films I love, it's full of visual art. As an adult, I now wonder: was this some kind of stealth cultural education on the part of the filmmakers? Subliminal pearls tossed before us kids who were there for the raunchy humor and Eddie Murphy's trademark laugh?

The opening credits show a montage of famous bronze statues in Philadelphia, along with scenes of the divide between rich and poor that is the movie's main theme. (The overture of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, also a story of the poor scoring off the rich, plays over.)

One of the most interesting shots from cinematographer Robert Paynter looks up at Jamie Lee Curtis, playing the prostitute Ophelia, from the perspective of Dan Ackroyd, as the disgraced Louis Winthrop III, who sits on the ground after spending the night in jail and being thrown out of his bank.

It's a great shot. Curtis, flamboyant in a curly red wig and cheap fur jacket, stands at the vertical intersection of two unremarkable glass and concrete buildings. Claes Oldenburg's monumental 1976 sculpture Clothespin mirrors her from behind, a looming shadow or sentry.

Clothespin is one of Oldenburg's many sculptures of everyday objects crafted on a huge scale. In 1961 the artist famously said, "I am for an art that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum." Oldenburg also said, "any art that is successful in projecting positive feelings about life has got to be heavily erotic."* Clothespin is certainly phallic. It's a nice counterpoint to Curtis's sexy, powerfully feminine Ophelia, whom we will soon see in a jaw-dropping ruched minidress. (And then without it.)

Oldenburg had kicked around the clothespin idea previously, considering it at one point for a public sculpture at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. In the context of Trading Places, the clothespin can be read as a symbol for Ophelia and Louis, who team up romantically with each other before they team up with Eddie Murphy's Billy Ray Valentine to overthrow the callously rapacious Duke brothers in a commodities trading scheme involving frozen concentrated orange juice. The clothespin could also be read to represent how Ophelia will help Louis hold it together—she will save him when he sinks into despair, she will press herself literally against him to keep him warm as he shivers with a fever in bed.

In Trading Places, we only see Clothespin briefly from one direction, with the drab office buildings behind it. But viewed from the other direction, the sculpture stands in stark contrast to the ornate facade of Philadelphia's 1901 City Hall.

From this view, Clothespin's scale is inverted, itself shadowed by the famous City Hall Tower. It can be read—if you wish—as a symbol of The Old and The New held together; or as a symbol of Philadelphia's brotherly love; or just as an everyday object made big and therefore funny in the anti-transcendent, nothing-means-anything ethos of much of the 20th century generally, and Pop Art specifically.


Postscript: My old publication Glasstire did a nice roundup of Oldenburg's works in Texas when the artist died in 2022:

* Both quotes appear in Harriet F. Senie, Contemporary Public Sculpture: Tradition, Transformation, and Controversy (Oxford University Press, 1992).

(The ass-sitting quote is ironic, given that Oldenburg's massive Stake Hitch at the Dallas Museum of Art is off view, having sat on its ass in storage somewhere for over 20 years. I imagine the artist would rather his work be seen in a museum than not at all.)


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