To celebrate the wedding of a favorite curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the sculptor Claes Oldenburg made a party favor that looked good enough to eat. His white plaster multiple resembled a slice of double-layered cake, preserving the festive occasion by setting the moment in eternal state of expectation.
Even today, fifty-five years later, Oldenburg’s Wedding Souvenir appears to await a belated guest. And should that wayward guest encounter the slice currently on view at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, he or she will find plenty of other ersatz comestibles to accompany it. The Art of Food is quite literally a feast for the eyes.
Food has tempted artists for at least the past 45,000 years, when prehistoric painters depicted warty pigs on the walls of a cave in present-day Indonesia. According to Pliny the Elder, the ancient Greek painter Zeuxis demonstrated his greatness by depicting grapes so realistically that birds came to feed on them, initiating a tromp l’oeil tradition that continues to serve as shorthand for skillfulness with a brush. Given that our survival depends on food, we’re all natural connoisseurs, attuned to the slightest indication that something is rotten.
However the prevalence of food as an artistic subject cannot be fully explained by the need of painters to demonstrate their artistic prowess or even the need of societies to engage in magical thinking. Many of the works included in the exhibition at the University of Arizona Museum of Art suggest other motivations, ranging from the sensual to the intellectual.
The sensuality of food is apparent in the etchings of Sherrie Wolf, who juxtaposes famous nudes with fresh fruit. A porcelain sculpture by Chris Antemann makes the connection even more explicit, while also problematizing it. Expertly crafted in the Meissen tradition, her miniature shows a table laden with delicacies, one of which happens to be a scantily-clad woman. The food is teasingly eroticized in the same space that the female figure is pointedly objectified.
Damien Hirst captures a very different view of food in his Last Supper series of screenprints. Omelettes and sandwiches and salads are given the packaging of pharmaceuticals, evoking an emphasis on functionality and preference for artifice in contemporary society: food to serve a purpose. In this framing, appetite is an extravagance.
Of course the logic underlying Hirst’s ironic proposition is as rational as his graphic design. The sensuality of fruit may entice humans and other animals to consume it, and pleasure may more generally provide a motivation for heterotrophs to seek out needed calories, but an omelette or sandwich or salad is most fundamentally a bundle of energy fortified with nutrients that the body cannot synthesize by itself. Few works of art capture that ground truth as succinctly and wittily as Joseph Beuys’s Capri Battery, a small multiple comprising a bright yellow lightbulb plugged into a lemon. Picked as an energy source, the citrus ostensibly powers an artificial sun that can supply the energy for lemons that will ultimately replace the original citrus battery.
With his Wedding Souvenir, Oldenburg provides a sweet riposte to Beuys and Hirst. Although it’s manifestly inedible, his fake slice of cake offers a visual treat that may synesthetically activate the pleasure centers denied by food in its primordial state. Perhaps this is the best explanation for the insatiable allure of art inspired by food. Simply put, we hunger for it.
Full Disclosure: I am a research associate at the University of Arizona’s Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill.