Ever wonder why artists across cultures and centuries have depicted food in their paintings, sculptures, and other works? Learn more about this aspect of art history with Gilbert Vicario, the Museum’s Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs and the Selig Family Chief Curator, who also offers insight on two of the most delectable artworks in the Museum’s contemporary art collection— Tom Friedman’s seriously Big Mac and Wayne Thiebaud’s infamous ice cream cones.
“While food may seem like a strange subject for art, it has actually served as artistic inspiration for centuries, as a defining feature of what makes us human. In western art history, we only need to look back to the Flemish Baroque tradition of the ontbijtje, or “little breakfast,” of the 17th century. This type of still life was popular in both the northern and southern Netherlands, showing various eating and drinking vessels and foods such as cheese and bread against a neutral background. Related to the Vanitas tradition, which reminded us of the fleeting transience of life, sumptuous arrangements of expensive foods such as shellfish, game, and exotic fruits and vegetables also served to exemplify the vast amounts of wealth that were being accumulated in the Netherlands during the height of the Dutch Golden Age.
Although the depiction of food often suggested wealth and cultural refinement through the ages, in the 20th century, these narrow and elitist terms were cleverly redefined by modernist artists who often used food to symbolize moral decay and materialism.
By the mid-20th century, however, American artists used food and its ubiquity to critique the mass-marketing practices and consumer culture that emerged in the United States after World War II. Pop artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Claes Oldenburg often featured soup cans, hot dogs, sliced bread, and soft drinks. Because these artists were raised after the Depression and were undoubtedly affected by its aftereffects—namely frugality and deprivation—they understandably became critical of post-war America and the proliferation of supermarket culture.
The work of Wayne Thiebaud, who was born in Mesa, Arizona, has become synonymous with Pop art, with the use of food central to the artist’s practice. Slices of cake with luscious, technicolored frosting, creamy pies and scoops of multi-flavored ice cream are painted in thick impastos that mimic the textural qualities of the icing and frozen custard. He uses an illustrational technique he called “halation,” or halos of complimentary colors that outline the individual object to make them stand out on the canvas. In most cases, the desserts are isolated against a flattened background and grouped in rows and grids. This, more than anything, connects these works with a particularly 1960s moment. “Painting a row of cakes the way they are displayed on a lunch counter suggests some rather obvious notions about conformism, mechanized living, and mass-produced culture,” says Thiebaud, thereby firmly placing them within the ethos of post-war American culture. He has also spoken of the inherent loneliness and regimentation of these formal compositions—something that has permeated all aspects of contemporary American culture, from music to film to literature.
Tom Friedman’s Big Big Mac (2013) is a faithful reproduction of the McDonald’s double-decker hamburger that made its debut in 1967, albeit made completely out of Styrofoam and enlarged to a Brobdingnagian scale. Like much of contemporary sculpture, which is strongly indebted to the Minimalist and Conceptual art tradition, Big Big Mac is isolated, decontextualized, and placed within the white cube frame of the fine-art gallery. Part of the visual impact of this piece is the fact that it does not conform to the viewer’s expectations of what constitutes fine art, but rather plays with our visual perception of scale as much as it elicits associations with childhood nostalgia. Connections to the work of Claes Oldenburg is undeniable; however the story of McDonald’s as one of the most successful business franchises, connects directly to the legacy of mass production and the consumer culture that has come to define the American way of life.” – Gilbert Vicario