The Free Stamp

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One of the most controversial works of art displayed in the City of Cleveland is Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s Free Stamp. Located in Willard Park to the East of City Hall, this massive aluminum and planted steel sculpture is difficult to miss with its large red handle sprawling across the lawn and metal base sinking into the ground displaying the word “FREE” in backwards letters to passersby on Lakeside Avenue. Some people see the Free Stamp as an inspiring work of Pop Art that represents our liberty as American citizens and reflects our City’s industrial progress. Others view it as an eyesore that is inappropriate for a location at the heart of the City’s Civic Center. This debate has been going on since the piece was first commissioned in 1982 and still echoes throughout the City today.

Artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen designed the Free Stamp at the request of Standard Oil and admit that it was one of the most difficult works of art they have ever created. The controversy began soon after Standard Oil was awarded permission to tear down the old Standard Oil of Ohio (SOHIO) building located on Public Square. As construction of the new building began, SOHIO decided that it wanted a fresh work of art to display outside its doors, directly across from one of the City’s historical landmarks, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. After seeing the “pad” of land with which they had to work, Oldenburg and van Bruggen, who are famous for making large replicas of common objects such as spoons, ice cream cones, and bowling pins, proposed the idea of creating an enormous stamp.

The original design for the sculpture was an upright, self-inking stamp, with a red handle which looked like a giant exclamation point. The first design allowed access so that people could actually walk around inside the stamp, but management at SOHIO soon agreed that such a structure would require a lot of maintenance. The design was then restructured to look like a hand stamp on an ink pad. The question was then raised as to what word would be placed on the stamp. The artists wanted a word that would serve as a statement, like a one-word poem, but could also be found on a real office stamp. The physical dimension of the work was also a consideration as the diameters of the Free Stamp left room for only 4 letters. Van Bruggen suggested the word “Free” to represent liberty and independence and to make a positive statement in the heart of the City.

Just as construction on a revised design began, SOHIO underwent a change in management. The new managers did not like the idea of placing a massive piece of pop art on Public Square, especially a 50-foot stamp. Several opponents of the Free Stamp feared that the message conveyed by the work would invite jokes about the condition of Downtown Cleveland, which during the 1980s was in need of revitalization. SOHIO gave Oldenburg and van Bruggen the opportunity to relocate the stamp, but the artists did not want to move it. The location at Public Square added to the artistic expression of the work in a way other locations could not.

Production of the Stamp was halted for several years and pieces of it were placed in storage in Indiana. As BP America assumed management of SOHIO, executives wondered why the company was paying so much to house a huge stamp. Interest was renewed in the work of art and Mayor George Voinovich invited Oldenburg and van Bruggen to Cleveland in hopes of selecting another site to display their work. Although the Cleveland Museum of Art was considered, the artists wanted their work to be seen in the heart of Downtown and set their sights on Willard Park for its proximity to Public Square and because of its location to Cleveland’s government offices.

Placing the Free Stamp in Willard Park immediately drew opposition from Council President, George Forbes, who did not support the idea of the City of Cleveland accepting a rejected work of art and displaying it right outside of City Hall. Once again, the artists had chosen their location as part of their artistic statement and were unwilling to compromise their artistic integrity. This time, they threatened to destroy the work entirely if the City did not want to display it.

Before the artists could act on their threat, Election Day 1989 had passed and newly elected Mayor, Michael R. White, and Council President, Jay Westbrook, expressed their interest in this unique work. BP America finally decided that it would donate the Free Stamp as a gift to the City and offered to maintain it in its new location. City Council accepted this generous gift and the Free Stamp was brought out of storage and redesigned to accommodate its new space.

The lawn at Willard Park inspired Oldenburg and van Bruggen to alter the position of the Free Stamp so that it would lie on its side, as if it had toppled over on someone’s desk. Van Bruggen felt that the new design reflected the Free Stamp’s history as it was “flung” from Public Square only to “land” in Willard Park. Production on the Free Stamp resumed and it was brought to Cleveland in pieces to be assembled in its current spot.
The Free Stamp was officially inaugurated on November 15, 1991. The Dedication reads:

Free Stamp
Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen
1991- Planted Steel and Aluminum
Gift of BP America
To the City of Cleveland
Michael R. White- Mayor
Jay Westbrook- City Council President
Dedicated 11-15-1991

Source:

Oldenburg, Claes and Coosje van Bruggen. Large Scale Projects. Martacelli Press, Inc.
New York, NY, 1994. pp 486-499.

Oldenburg, Claes and Coosje van Bruggen. www.oldenburgvanbruggen.com 05/02/01

Staudek, Tom. Claes Oldenburg. www.popart.com 05/02/01

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