A few years ago I took my kids (then 15 and 11) to Washington, D.C. to visit my brother. As we strolled past National Gallery of Art’s sculpture garden, my brother pointed to Claes Oldenburg’s giant Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, leaning jauntily on the lawn. “The day will come when nobody will know what this is,” he laughed.
“What is it?” asked my daughter, demonstrating that that day was already upon us.
“What does it look like?” I asked her in turn.
“I don’t know. A pizza wheel with a sperm on top?” (She’s obviously logged too many hours in high school health class.)
Now, I have no sentimental attachment to typewriter erasers. I did go to school and even begin a writing career in the B.C. (before computer) era, but that particular tool always struck me as fussy and overspecialized. Still, seeing the giant eraser in the Washington sculpture garden evoked certain sensory memories: the particular squeak of the eraser wheel followed by the scratchy swish of the brush over paper; the gray ash, bits of eraser mixed with rubbed-off ink, that the bristles swept away. And I realized that the giant eraser could well be the emblem of our age – at once example and metaphor. Technological innovation, demographic shifts, changes in social customs and habits, and the whims of the marketplace keep rubbing out and sweeping away the tangible evidence of our own past.
We all – no matter how old we are – can name a thousand things, the stuff of our childhoods, that now are virtually extinct. I’m sure I’m not alone in having felt an irrational pang for the passing of utilitarian objects that I never paid much attention to when they were commonplace. If it hasn’t already, the typewriter eraser will soon disappear – from desk drawers, from office-supply stores, from memory itself. It’s part of a vanishing ecosystem connected to the typewriter, swept away along with ribbons, carbon paper, Dictaphones.
What we do have is Oldenburg’s sculpture. Though when the typewriter eraser (and many of the other ordinary, utilitarian objects monumentalized by this Pop wag and sage) disappears, the monument’s meaning will change — from overblown mundane to inscrutable mystery.