Chocolate was the medium of choice for Janine Antoni and Dieter Roth to depict—and deface—their own image
On the fifth floor, the young artist looks out from Lina Bertucci’s noirish black-and-white photo, part of a portrait series shot–of course–during the year that’s the theme of the show.
On the second floor, on a row of high plinths in the long gallery behind the elevators, are 14 more Antoni heads. These are her famous self-portraits, Lick and Lather, casts made in chocolate and soap that she modeled on classical busts and “re-sculpted” by the processes described in the title.
Standing nearby with choreographer Stephen Petronio—whose new piece, premiering at the Joyce Theater in April, features her as collaborator and performer—Antoni enjoyed watching visitors walk up close to the heads, and smell them.
She won’t allow vitrines on Lick and Lather, despite curators’ justly founded concerns.
“There’s not a lot of time between smelling and biting,” concedes the artist, whose heads have been attacked that way on several occasions. “It’s a funny thing when you make pieces about desire and people succumb to their desire.”
Antoni is happy to make replacement heads, which she does using FDA-approved latex molds: “Then I have to re-lick it, which is a bummer.”
Lick and Lather was shown (and bitten) in the Aperto Section of the 1993 Venice Biennale. It was a time, as “NYC 1993” documents, when various generations of women, including Hannah Wilke, Ida Applebroog, Nan Goldin, Sue Williams, and Nicole Eisenman (to name a few in the show) were making brazen and unflinching pieces that rendered the female body in confrontationally intimate ways.
Antoni, who turned 29 that year, threw her whole self into the process, using her lips, lashes, and hair in performative, arduous, and absurdist send-ups of female obsessions and macho art practice.
Gnaw, her manic feminist riff on the Minimalist cube, was also a big hit in 1993, when it appeared at the Whitney Biennial. The installation features 600 pounds of chocolate gnawed by the artist over a month and a half; 600 pounds of lard gnawed by the artist; a display with 150 lipsticks made with pigment, beeswax, and chewed lard removed from the lard cube; and 45 heart-shaped packages made from the chewed chocolate removed from the chocolate cube.
Gnaw’s current owner, MoMA, keeps the chocolate cube in a tightly sealed crate (the lard is recreated at every venue) and a stash of the original chocolate on hand for spot repairs. (The last time Gnaw was shown at the museum, says conservator Lynda Zycherman, someone stuck a fingernail in it.)
Of course Antoni knew that soap, lard, and chocolate don’t last forever, so the works would inevitably self-destruct. That said, she didn’t want it to happen right away. She researched the chocolate with the longest shelf life, said to be 100 years. This has more wax than fat, which is a less stable material. But she wouldn’t give up on the fat, despite offers of archivally safer recipes.
“I feel it’s not chocolate without fat,” she says. “By the time you take out the fat and the sugar, you might as well make it a bronze.”
But then bronze isn’t so lickable.
Like the ancient Americans, Antoni and other contemporary artists who employ chocolate as medium prize its mutability, mind-altering qualities, and inherent luxuriousness. Then, it was part of a religious ritual; now it might be used as a commentary on mass consumption. In the spectrum of cutting-edge chocolate art, few explored the territory between the delectable and the revolting as fiercely as Dieter Roth, the Swiss-born Conceptualist who strongly influenced Antoni.
Following forays by Duchamp and Beuys, Roth (1930-98) brought chocolate as contemporary-art tool to a new level– he used it like paint, cast it in molds, repurposed commercial chocolate bars, and squashed foil-wrapped chocolate novelties. Roth used good chocolate, but he was not concerned with making it last. “All of his works are wired to self-destruct,” says MoMA associate curator Sarah Suzuki, who organized “Wait, later this will be nothing,” the survey of the artist’s radical and often madcap editions that opened at the musem last week.
In 1968 Roth made a multiple self-portrait out of chocolate and birdseed, intending for it to be installed and consumed outdoors.
Basel on the Rhine (1969), a layer of liquefied chocolate brushed on a steel plate, is in constant flux: the metal is corroding, fat “blooms” on the surface, and small holes all over it mark the trails of Roth’s tiny collaborators, bugs. That’s why the work is under a vitrine, though MoMA curators and conservators know the artist probably wouldn’t have wanted it that way.
A catalogue essay, co-written by Suzuki and conservation-department colleagues Brenna Campbell, Scott Gerson, and Zycherman, explains MoMA’s strategy of “passive conservation” to handle Roth’s unstable materials like chocolate, meat, and cheese. That means that rather than letting nature take its course through decay or insect infestation—or, conversely, trying to restore the works to their original condition—the staff uses gentle tactics to maintain them in their current form.
So, for example, where larvae made tunnels, conservators set pheromone traps coupled with sticky platforms to ensure that no bugs live in the piece right now. They monitor the work often to make sure insects don’t return.
The one edition in Roth’s show that looks like it’s supposed to be made out of chocolate—isn’t. Instead, Bunny (conceived 1968, published 1972) is composed of rabbit droppings and straw rabbit food. Like several of Roth’s works, it plays off the similarity between chocolate and excrement. Also it might be a dig at Beuys (who had a thing for hares).
There’s more Roth chocolate at Hauser & Wirth’s new 18th Street venue, in the exhibition dedicated to the collaborations between Roth and his son Björn. For the show Björn and his own sons Oddur and Einar recreated Shokoladeturm (Chocolate Tower), Roth’s vertiginous construction of self-portraits, sphinxes, and lion’s heads, conceived in 1994 and realized since then a handful of times. The chocolate, cast in a kitchen right there in the gallery, is new, but of course there’s no telling how long the tower might stand.
“I tell clients one day it will collapse,” says the gallery’s Marc Payot. “It may be a hundred years. Or it may be two.”