The son of a Swedish diplomat, Oldenburg was born in 1929 in Stockholm. When he was an infant, the family moved to the United States, settling for a time in New York but eventually moving to Chicago.
After attending Yale University from 1946 to 1950, Oldenburg returned to Chicago, where he worked as a cub newspaper reporter and took courses at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1956, he moved to New York City, where he came into contact with Jim Dine, Red Grooms, Allan Kaprow, and others, whose theatrically based art posed an alternative to the prevailing influence of Abstract Expressionist painting.
The radical experiments of these artists involved the creation of environments for their performances, called Happenings, which were partly scripted, partly spontaneous theatrical events that, Oldenburg says, broke down "barriers between the arts and something close to an actual experience."
"Theater is the most powerful art form there is because it is the most involving.... I no longer see the distinction between theater and visual arts very clearly... distinctions I suppose are a civilized disease."
Oldenburg's practice of situating objects within an environment, sometimes created as a context for theater, has remained to the present day a mainstay of his artistic approach.
Coosje van Bruggen