Palettes and Palates: Artist Cookbooks

[Claes Oldenberg, Spoonbridge and Cherry]

They paint food— from 17th century still life paintings to Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans.
They cook foodnot always as successfully; taste can be secondary, but it always looks good.

The French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists knew a thing or two about good food. You can recreate meals from Renoir’s Table, Matisse: A Way of Life in the South of France, Cezanne and the Provencal Table, Toulouse-Latrec’s Table, and Monet’s Table, which proves that the gardens at Giverny didn’t just look good. Vincent Van Gogh wasn’t known for domesticity, but Van Gogh’s Table explores the role of the cafe in the artist’s life with recipes from the Auberge Ravoux where he took his meals.

The Artist’s Palate looks at the private lives and appetites of artists from Michelangelo and Mary Cassatt to Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and Jeff Koons. It mixes family snapshots, artwork, and personal memorabilia with recipes created by contemporary chefs like Mario Batali, Ming Tsai, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

Frieda’s Fiestas is part scrapbook, part recipe collection, detailing the meals and events in the life of Frieda Kahlo.

A Painter’s Kitchen: Recipes from the Kitchen of Georgia O’Keeffe shows us that her cooking, like her art, tends to be compelling, over-blown, and not to everyone’s taste. Who’s up for a garlic sandwich with fried locust blossoms? Also specific in its appeal is the Futurist Cookbook. Dishes are provocative, tactile, and often bizarre: chicken stuffed with steel ball bearings (removed before serving), raw onion ice cream, and an appetizer of olives, fennel, and kumquat that is supposed to be eaten with one hand while the other caresses a progression of textures, from sandpaper to velvet.

Salvador Dali’s Les Diners de Gala is a gastro-surrealistic journey of surprisingly precise and well-grounded cooking. Who knew that Dali had once dreamed of becoming a chef? Recipes are full of luxuries and exotica like towering crustacean tableaux, veal stuffed with snails, and frog leg turnovers, and nearly every other dish is showered with caviar or encased in aspic.

Contemporary art museums will occasionally solicit recipes from their rosters of living artists. Often they are more notable for the artist selection process than for the food. One exception is the California Artists Cookbook, from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The food-centricism of the 1980’s Bay Area is reflected in both the artists’ work and the sophistication of their global recipe contributions. It appeared just a few years after The Museum of Modern Art Artists’ Cookbook, and the contrasting local scenes for both food and art is striking. More conversation about food than proper cookbook, some of the high points of the MOMA book include Helen Frankenthaler’s complaint about the dearth of red leaf lettuce in New York’s markets, Louise Bourgeouis railing against the provincial nature of American cookery, and Will Barnett taking us through his favorite bakery.

Food is another medium for artists to explore through color, form, texture, and visual presentation. The culinary arts, like the fine arts, can speak to history and culture, religion and ethnicity.  Each can be site-specific and performative, or solitary aesthetic experiences. Artists and cooking: it’s a natural crossover.


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