The Strange Story Of ‘Lipstick On A Caterpillar’

by Daisy Alioto

With another election cycle upon us, it’s inevitable that the phrase “lipstick on a pig” will be trotted out amidst the political rhetoric. According to Slate, the exact idiom was coined in 1985, relatively recently so far as idioms go.

But before there was “lipstick on a pig,” there was “Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks”: a sculpture commissioned by a small crew of Yalies behind their administration’s back. It was, and is, as far from the ivy and brick aesthetic as an artwork can veer. And it too has something to teach us about American politics.

In 1969, a group of Yale faculty, students and alumni calling themselves the Colossal Keepsake Corporation worked with pop artist Claes Oldenburg on a “gift” for the campus. Their plan was to design something which the school could not politely refuse, however outlandish.

The result was a 3,500 pound and 24 foot high depiction of a tube of lipstick on tank-style caterpillar tracks. It was unveiled on May 15th, 1969 in front of the school’s Beinecke Library in front of a crowd of onlookers.

Over the years, much has been read into the sculpture. Some have said the lipstick’s red tip is a blood-dipped bullet, signifying America’s involvement in the Vietnam war. Others have said that the artwork’s timing was meant to herald the co-education of the college in Fall 1969.

Members of the Colossal Keepsake Corporation vehemently denied the sculpture was either peaceful or militant, saying that they’d simply wanted to thwart the administration by creating something ridiculous to rally around. An event in and of itself.

As enthusiastic as the other students were about the festive occasion of the sculpture’s arrival, it quickly fell into disrepair– becoming an ad hoc bulletin board for “actual” political causes.

Yale neglected the statue so badly that in 1970 Oldenburg himself removed it. The Yale University Art Gallery petitioned for its return, and welcomed it home in 1974 with an exhibition appropriately titled “The Lipstick Comes Back.”

The exhibition catalogue, authored by Susan P. Casteras, is my chief source for this article — although I have seen the sculpture myself in its new home among the European-style pathways of the school’s Morse College.

The red tip, once inflated vinyl, is now fiberglass. Its tracks — originally poised to roll at any moment across the plaza — look solidly parked on the flagstones.

In Casteras’ account of the artwork’s history, the graduate student who initiated the commission was inspired by the philosopher Herbert Marcuse, who called satire “one of the most bloodless means to achieve a radical change.”

There was, and is, a place in the political process for humor that blows up human folly until it’s impossible to ignore. Maybe, like Yale, the electorate needs to lose their sense of proportion in order to fight back for it.

Regardless, the school never did formally thank Oldenburg for the endowment. Perhaps they didn’t want to look a gift caterpillar in the mouth… but that’s another idiom entirely.

Top photo: Claes Oldenburg, Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks, 1969, reworked in 1974. Painted steel, aluminum, and fiberglass. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of the Colossal Keepsake Corporation. Copyright Claes Oldenburg/Pace Gallery. Photo courtesy Yale University Art Gallery

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