Nothing in life is more fundamental than food. We eat it, we savor it—we depend on it for sustenance and pleasure. We also sometimes put it to good use in art.
Below are 12 works that engage food as a subject, a medium, or otherwise a notion worth appreciating.
Édouard Manet, Oysters (1862)
Painted by Édouard Manet and given as a gift to his wife, Oysters gets better the closer you look—which you can do via a helpful “zoom” function the National Gallery of Art’s website. The oysters and bits of lemon are bold and beautiful, but both are rendered in reality with what might seem like slapdash brushstrokes that coalesce in ways suggestive of all that can be wondrous and abstract in the act of wielding paint.
Antoine Vollon, Mound of Butter (1875–85)
There’s something at once intensely reverent and matter-of-fact about Antoine Vollon’s Mound of Butter. Its yellowness could not be more sumptuous, and the white cloth around the bottom seems to evanesce in front of a viewer’s eyes. As Washington Post art critic Sebastian Smee wrote about it in an appreciation: “In a kind of alchemical voodoo, Vollon has pushed—you almost want to say smeared—the illusionism we associate with great art into new territory, like a visual version of onomatopoeia.”
Salvador Dalí, Lobster Telephone (1936)
“Lobsters and telephones had strong sexual connotations for Dalí.” So reads a description of this classic Surrealist object on the website of Tate, the museum network in England that owns one of several versions of Lobster Telephone. As Dalí himself wrote about the subject, more than a little strangely: “I do not understand why, when I ask for a grilled lobster in a restaurant, I am never served a cooked telephone; I do not understand why champagne is always chilled and why on the other hand telephones, which are habitually so frightfully warm and disagreeably sticky to the touch, are not also put in silver buckets with crushed ice around them.”
William J. McCloskey, Wrapped Oranges (1889)
Simplicity and self-assurance are in high supply in William J. McCloskey’s Wrapped Oranges, a still life of the kind that can stop you in your tracks without even necessarily seeming like it wants to be looked at. The fruit is lustrous two times over, in their own flesh and in their reflection on the shiny table that props them up, and you can practically hear the crinkling of their paper wrappers rendered with great detail. As a line in the exhibition catalogue The Art of American Still Life: Audubon to Warhol puts it: “McCloskey creates an archetype of ideal ripeness that has a physiological impact on the viewer.”
Raphaelle Peale, Blackberries (1813)
Blackberries is one of many arresting still lifes by Raphaelle Peale, descended from the amazing Peale family that was foundational in the early history of American art. (Charles Willson Peale, his father, painted American Revolution–era portraits and also established one of the first museums in Philadelphia, and other Peale siblings proved prominent too.) What makes this painting stand out is the mysteriousness of the background, so dark and enveloping (but not fully so, given the bit of light creeping in from the left). From the same Art of American Still Life catalogue: “The berries glitter like stars against the darkness.”
Claes Oldenburg, Floor Burger (1962)
A sculpture that foretold the notion of “meatspace” decades before the term was coined to distinguish between the physical and virtual worlds, Floor Burger (pictured at top) was one of a few large evocations of foodstuffs—another was Floor Cone, with green ice cream on top—that figured in Claes Oldenburg’s historic installation The Store. As the eminent art historian Rosalind Krauss later wrote of the work (which measures four feet tall and seven feet in diameter) and others like it: “They are obstructions in the viewer’s space because they have become colossal variants on their natural scale, and because they promote a sense of interaction in which the viewer is a participant, their mass being construed in terms that suggest his own body—pliant and soft, like flesh. The viewer is then forced into two simultaneous admissions: ‘They are my things—the objects I use everyday’; and ‘I resemble them.’”
Wayne Thiebaud, Half Salmon (1961)
Wayne Thiebaud is best-known for his many, many paintings of desserts (ice cream, donuts, cakes—you name it). But better than those, for all its oddity and subtle seduction, is this painting of a piece of fish flopped onto a countertop and left to lie there on its own terms. The angles in it keep the eye active as it zigzags from bottom to top, and the range of blues in Half Salmon’s skin could reward hours of looking at just one small area.
Gordon Matta-Clark, Carol Gooden, Tina Girouard, et al., FOOD (1971)
FOOD was an actual operational restaurant conceived as a sort of art project in the early 1970s in New York, when the downtown neighborhood of SoHo played home to a migration of artists in need of sustenance to fuel their crazy ideas. It was one of the first restaurants in the city to serve sushi, and the menu hewed toward the natural and organic in a way that was prescient at the time. And it sometimes hosted themed dinners—though, unfortunately, not in a literal sense for an unrealized proposal by Mark di Suvero for a meal to be delivered by crane to patrons given utensils in the form of chisels and screwdrivers.
Carolee Schneemann, Meat Joy (1964)
To make Meat Joy, Carolee Schneenmann convened a group of eight performers (herself included) to flop around in the midst of raw sausage, chicken, and fish while filming the madness as it happened. As the artist later wrote of it in the context of the kind of “kinetic theater” she favored: “The materials I use in a painting or construction or kinetic theater evade their utilitarian context; deflecting, reflecting, expanding relationships—these materials become ambiguous as prehensile tools. … I want to find my work endlessly renewable, vitalizing the present but no longer the lineage, linkage between desires sought and fears captured.”
Darren Bader, chicken burrito, beef burrito (2012)
The component parts of this are pretty simple: two burritos sitting on a window sill, and speakers playing Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” on a loop. What connects them? Everything and nothing at once! No one who wandered into the room where chicken burrito, beef burrito was displayed during Darren Bader’s 2012 “Images” exhibition at MoMA PS1 could have been less than totally confused—a sensation not uncommon for an artist who, for another work, once injected lasagna with heroin.
Lawrence Abu Hamdan, A Convention of Tiny Movements (2015)
As part of a project commissioned for the Armory Show in New York, Lawrence Abu Hamdan made bags of potato chips that doubled as unsuspecting surveillance tools. Thanks to high-speed video that can measure minuscule vibrations on the surface of objects, patterns that caused those vibrations—such as, say, the sound waves of spoken language—can be deduced, turning things like silver snack bags into covert listening devices. On the back of bags given out for free at the Armory Show fair was a message describing a “new aural world that these emerging technologies are forging. It is a world in which our relationship to everyday objects and even our own voices will be different…”
Josh Kline, Skittles (2014)
Would-be wellness drinks bearing names like “Big Data,” “Tourism,” and “Anarchy,” Josh Kline’s surreal smoothies contain ingredients such as kale chips, squid ink, sneakers, phone bills, pepper spray, HDMI cables, latex gloves, Ritalin, self-tanner, Metrocards, and shards of Google Glass eyewear. They were displayed to unwitting passersby on the High Line in New York, and they now belong to the prestigious Museum of Modern Art—where they await the presence of palates that might be more than a little confounded in the end.