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Burger-to-go

March 13th, 2017

Photo Courtesy of @agotoronto.

Claes Oldenburg’s iconic sculpture Floor Burger, one of the highlights of the AGO Collection of modern art and a visitor selfie hotspot, has gone back into storage for our major reinstallation project Look:Forward. But this isn’t “Goodbye,” it’s “See you later!” Floor Burger will make its return next year. For more updates on what is open and closed in the Gallery, visit Look:Forward.

The Floor Burger wasn’t always the visitor favourite it is now; in fact when it first arrived at the AGO, the Gallery found itself in a “pickle.”

The AGO purchased the Floor Burger from the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York on Jan. 27, 1967, for $2,000. The work, created in 1962 by pop art pioneer Claes Oldenburg, was initially titled Giant Hamburger.

The Globe & Mail photo and headline, from Feb. 4, 1967.

Perhaps already worried about potential controversy that would ignite regarding the acquisition of a giant canvas hamburger, the original AGO press release from Feb. 4, 1967, includes a quotation from then-director of the AGO, William J. Withrow, which states, “The Giant Hamburger has been bought with funds donated and ear-marked specifically for the purchase of contemporary Canadian and American Art. Never in the history of the Art Gallery has one cent of tax money ever been spent on the purchase of a work of art.”

Contemporary art purchases can often lead to public debate, and sometimes it takes time for the general public to “ketchup” to a work’s value. Floor Burger was no exception. Students from the art department at Toronto’s Central Technical School created a nine-foot-high ketchup bottle to protest the acquisition of Oldenburg’s work. Fifty students, along with their teachers, then cheerfully paraded the bottle in front of the Gallery. They then tried to donate the bottle to the AGO.

Brydon Smith, the AGO’s curator of modern art at the time, told The Globe and Mail that “the students’ action was marvelous. This sort of art should be controversial,” adding that the Gallery could not accept the bottle because it was not considered an important and original work of art.

In an interview published in The Toronto Telegram on Feb. 9, 1967, Withrow explained, “A museum attempts to document various turning points in history. The Hamburger represents Oldenburg’s introduction of soft sculpture. You’ll find the first plane ever made in a museum, but if someone made a plane like it today, no museum would want it.”

The artist himself even commented on the student protest: “This doesn’t hurt my feelings at all. My work is going to get old soon enough. Perhaps they will come my way.” Oldenburg also added: “They should have made it [the ketchup bottle] out of something soft.”

An early photo of Floor Burger from the Sidney Janis Gallery.

Last week our conservation staff packed up Claes Oldenburg’s Floor Burger for storage. See the behind-the-scenes process captured in these photos from the Toronto Star.

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