In 2000, as a photography student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Caitlin Freeman went on a class trip to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. There, standing in front of Wayne Thiebaud’s 1963 homage to pastry, Display Cakes, she recalls thinking, “‘This is it!’ I knew right then I had to learn how to bake. I figured I would be inspired to make art once I knew how to make cakes—and then, almost by accident, making cakes became my art.”
Freeman’s confectionery creations have been offered in SFMOMA’s Blue Bottle Coffee Bar since it opened under her leadership in 2009, and they have sophisticated origins: all are based on artworks displayed in the museum. Slated for release this April by Ten Speed Press, her first cookbook, Modern Art Desserts: Recipes for Cakes, Cookies, Confections, and Frozen Treats Based on Iconic Works of Art, unites a selection of recipes with brief notations, by SFMOMA curator Janet Bishop, about the works that inspired each dessert.
Beyond detailing the twists and turns in Freeman’s career aspirations—including her dreams of becoming a dentist and her stints at Internet start-ups—the book offers some illuminating anecdotes. When her idea for a sweet based on Robert Mapplethorpe’s Man in Polyester Suit (1980), a frozen chocolate-covered banana, caused a stir among museum staff, she compromised by displaying the phallic treat in a white box with a peephole and a written warning: “This dessert may not be appropriate for all viewers.”
Other than her first invention, an iced layer cake that’s a dead ringer for Thiebaud’s original, Freeman’s desserts don’t strive for loyalty to their sources; in fact, they can be highly conceptual. For her Laskey Lemon Soda with Bay Ice Cubes, which took off from a woven linen work by Bay Area artist Ruth Laskey, Freeman thought about how “the colors interact but are separate at the same time—like soda and flavored ice cubes that melt into it.” But when she added pieces of thread that smelled like soda to the serving tray for a “wholly sensory” experience, “most people had no idea what I was talking about.”
Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park #122 (1980), meanwhile, inspired an old-fashioned trifle layered with cream and lemon mousse, and a bubblegum-raspberry sorbet float was a riff on a Cindy Sherman self-portrait as a clown. “Sometimes my interpretations seem literal,” Freeman explains, “but I of course could never make a Jackson Pollock cookie look as good as a Jackson Pollock. And I’m not trying to.”