Occupying a prominent position in Willard Park, a grassy sward that greets traffic and pedestrians arriving in Cleveland’s downtown from the lakefront via Interstate 90/State Route 2 and East Ninth Street, sits the 50-foot-long bright red ‘Free’ stamp.
Designed by renowned sculptors Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen, this piece of public art is a grotesquely oversized replica of a typical bureaucrat’s desktop rubber stamp, tipped on its side to reveal the word ‘FREE’ in pinkish capitals the size of a person.
The artists’ stated themes of free speech and civic freedom are subtly satirized or undercut by the scale of their art. (Do we need such a bold icon to remind us that we are in fact free?)
Originally intended to occupy a prime position at the planned new headquarters building of Sohio (Standard Oil of Ohio), the sculpture was commissioned in 1982. By the time of that building’s completion in 1985, however, Sohio had been acquired by BP (formerly British Petroleum), and had become BP America.
The headquarters, then known as the BP America Building, was designed with no good location for the sculpture. The artwork was therefore warehoused by BP, until it was eventually donated to the City of Cleveland. After consulting the artists and public opinion, and considering a number of possible sites (including The Cleveland Museum of Art), the Free stamp was finally installed in 1991 at its present location adjacent to Cleveland City Hall.
Since the late 1960s, the Free stamp’s creators have specialized in large free-standing public sculptures, often of mundane everyday objects inflated to gargantuan proportions. Their other works include Pickaxe, Clothespin, Trowel I and II, Flashlight, Batcolumn, Garden Hose, Split Button, and Spoonbridge and Cherry.