Cleveland Free Stamp's Controversial Past
“Free Stamp” is an iconic image for Cleveland, but people may not realize the large, public art piece came with a boatload of controversy.
A new book by art historian Edward Olszewski lays out the dramatic story, highlighting its sculptor, the world-renowned Claes Oldenburg, who built his reputation by making monumental versions of humble objects. He and his late-wife, Coosje van Bruggen, designed a building shaped like a pair of binoculars in Los Angeles, an enormous buried bicycle in Paris, and a gigantic collection of flying bowling pins in the Netherlands. In 1982, the artistic couple was commissioned to create a similar out-sized work for the new corporate headquarters of the Sohio Oil Company in Cleveland’s Public Square.
Architects for the Sohio building had designed a rectangular platform for the proposed work and Oldenburg said it reminded him of a stamp pad. Taking that cue, he and his wife created a huge hand stamp for the space.
But, when British Petroleum (BP) acquired Sohio's assets, the company's leaders rejected the idea of having a rubber stamp outside their building. Free Stamp sat in an Illinois warehouse for several years while negotiations took place between BP, the artists and the city of Cleveland to relocate the sculpture. The oil company donated it to the city and eventually, all parties agreed on Willard Park next to City Hall as a new home.
Oldenburg and van Bruggen redesigned the piece so that it laid on its side in the new location. Historian Edward Olszewski says the revamped configuration was done as a sly visual joke, implying that the artwork had been tossed from the BP tower, landing in the park. A dedication ceremony was held in 1991.
Over the past 26 years, the word "FREE" on the stamp's face has taken on a variety of meanings, says Ed Olszewski. For the artists, it was free of its former owners and the stamp pad. Some immigrants see it as the welcoming stamp on their passports. The Willard Park space has also been the site of numerous political and social rallies.
At a 1992 symposium at Case Western Reserve University, Oldenburg said he and his wife were pleased with where their peripatetic sculpture finally ended up.
"Despite all its adventures, we feel very warmly towards the reception in Cleveland, and we think that it's in the site that it should always have been."