Sawn in Three

BY TOM JOHNSON

Appearing to lie discarded on the top floor of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam is a large sculpture of a saw. Made by the Pop artist Claes Oldenburg in 1971, the work is divided into three pieces. The end of the saw lies flat on the ground, while the middle of the blade rises sharply, and the handle rests on the wall. This play of angles, horizontal, diagonal, and vertical, works with the architecture of the gallery space, in which the floor, wall, and right hand corner of the room are subtly emphasised.

Photo by Tom Johnson
Saw- Hard Version II by Claes Oldenburg, Photo by Tom Johnson

In transforming the scale of the saw and dividing it into three pieces the artist makes the flatness of the blade more three dimensional, moving the object from an everyday tool to a series of geometric lines. The effect of the sculpture’s zig-zagging shape is to emulate the sharp teeth along the blade edge which perform a cut, and to convey movement: the diagonal action of a saw sawing.

The sculpture is also playful in terms of its placement in the context of an art gallery. A saw is a tool to be picked up by its handle and used, but that function becomes lost in a space where touching art is not permitted. Similarly, when handling a saw you have to take care not to touch the blade as it could cause injury: a danger which is playfully elevated with the transformation in scale.

Left unattended a saw can also have potentially destructive consequences. Might the sculpture have cut up Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘As I Opened Fire’ (1964), which hangs next to it, in three separate panels?

Photo by Tom Johnson
As I Opened Fire by Roy Lichtenstein, 1964, Photo by Tom Johnson

This placement of the saw next to Lichtenstein’s work prompts a new way of seeing the sculpture. Like the image of the comic strip it is divided in to three and can be seen as a triptych. The triptych is a series of three paintings that work together as one. The triptych is a form which has been used throughout the history of art, particularly in religious works, but in the context of Pop art, in which everyday and commercial objects are transformed, it becomes a parody.

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