An Almost Full Plate: Art and Appetite (A New Art Institute of Chicago Exhibit)

This review of a current exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago is an extension of the year-long Arts and Ideas series (2011-2012) Food for Thought, a program in which Lewis faculty and off-campus experts addressed a whole range of issues like genetically modified foods, food and ethnic identity, food journalism, and urban food deserts.


It’s fitting that Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture and Cuisine (opening on November 12 and running through January 27) debuts in the month of Thanksgiving. Indeed, the first gallery displays four paintings that roughly suggest the scope and ambitions of the exhibition’s curators. Here we find the homespun kitchen scene in Thanksgiving, Doris Lee’s 1935 depiction of the bustling household of earnest cooks, rambunctious children, meddlesome uncles, and unruly pets. To its right is Norman Rockwell’s iconic 1942 Freedom from Want (part of his Four Freedoms Series) that lives up to our images of the Depression Era more than does the Lee painting. In this perhaps overly familiar painting the extended family frames the table onto which the perfectly browned bird will be placed. But the “sides” of the meal are sparse: a few celery stalks, water in the glasses, and something – probably rutabaga – under the lid of the silver chaffing dish. One next encounters the cartoonish image of a turkey that fills the entire canvas. Roy Lichtenstein’s 1961 simulated comic book image comes as a shock after looking at the upbeat representational Rockwell. Completing the quartet is the definitely unromantic image of a quartered raw bird draining in the sink, done by Alice Neel in the mid-60’s. Despite the fact that Julia Child’s landmark Public Television Show first aired in 1963, for most of the decade and beyond, Betty Crocker was a name much more familiar in the American home than were the names of James Beard or Craig Claiborne. Nevertheless, I don’t remember food during this decade as being as unappetizing or food preparation as indifferent as Neel suggests.

The next galleries record the celebration of American abundance and the notion, from Thomas Jefferson, that one could have a wonderful garden without effort or expense. James Peale (brother of Charles Wilson Peale) and his nephew Raphaelle paint luminous food tableaux that confirm the idea that America, pushing westward after its independence, is the garden of the world. And the butcher shop too,  as is proclaimed by the 1876 lithograph-poster Porcineography, a tribute to the centrality of the pig in the American frontier diet. 135 years later the snout-to-tail pork revival is one of the restaurant industry’s big stories.

Two of my favorite paintings in the exhibition suggest the importance of food in our lives, one by the absence of the eater and the other by the absence of the meal. A contemporary and imitator of John Singer Sargent, Elizabeth Paxton creates a bedroom scene (The Breakfast Tray, 1910) in which the occupant of the crumpled bed has had a leisurely breakfast and disappeared off the edge of the canvas, perhaps to a morning bath. The sumptuous bed linens, their folds expertly painted by Paxton, the half-eaten grapefruit still on the tray, the high heels and lingerie scattered on the floor suggest indolence, perhaps even naughtiness. It’s the only work that suggests the connection between food and sex. Thomas Hart Benton’s 1926 The Lord in My Shepherd seems to be a forecast of the Depression, and Benton’s depictions of the dust bowl after he moved back from New York to his native Missouri. Two sinewy old people prayerfully lift their eyes to heaven and away from their near empty plates. I also like the small display of American commercial art, the kind that one would find on the decals on orange crate conveying citrus from California and Florida to Chicago, thanks to the discoveries in refrigeration. Alongside the recipe for Peach Snowdrift (taken from The Settlement Cookbook) is the advertisement for the Swell Peach, the farmer whose torso is in the shape of, well, a swell peach.

The exhibition ends more with a fruit cocktail infused jello-mold than with Bananas Foster. There are a few pieces from the 1960’s:  the obligatory Warhol soup can, the soft-sculpture fried egg of Claes Oldenburg, and gleaming plate glass window through which we look at the the fruits of agribusiness in photo-realist Richard Estes’ 1967 Food City. One is left to wonder whether the curators found it too daunting a task to convey the explosion in food culture post 1980’s, the celebrity chefs (RIP Charlie Trotter), the internationalization of the American palate, the popularity of the Food Network, the boldness of global food adventurer-anthropologists like Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern. Or are there few contemporary artists who want to compete with or even critically examine the inviting visuals of food and food-as-entertainment found in Gourmet or Saveur or even in any of the homemaker magazines that one finds at the supermarket check-out line?   Where is the 21st artist – the new Georgia O’Keefe – that can do for kale what 60’s pop artist Wayne Thibeaud, another exhibition participant, did for cakes. Half a loaf is better than no loaf at all!

About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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