Butter makes everything better, I find myself thinking at least once a day. I love it warm, melting into a thick slice of soft sourdough, and cold, smeared onto a crusty baguette and topped with an anchovy. It’s hard to beat dipping hunks of lobster into its clarified form, and mixing it with powdered sugar and cream creates a luxurious frosting. This is an art publication, though, and we are here to talk about its appearances in that realm.
The greatest painting of butter that I know is Antoine Vollon’s Mound of Butter (1875/1885), which resides in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and shows a glorious pile that must weigh at least 20 pounds. More recently, Robert Gober has been a champion of the subject, using beeswax to create sculptures of sticks of the good stuff that can feel all at once vulnerable, menacing, tender, and even erotic. A stick of butter is a very fragile thing, Gober’s works make clear.
Butter as content is one thing, though. Butter as a medium is quite another, and to see its full possibilities, one has to look to the state fairs of the United States, those age-old annual celebrations of agriculture. The Iowa State Fair, to name one, has featured a display of sculptures made of butter since 1911—typically, a cow weighing more than 500 pounds and a companion piece on a political or pop-cultural theme.
Only five people have been the fair’s official butter sculptor. Sarah Pratt has served since 2006, offering up depictions of the Moon Landing, Harry Potter, and Star Trek characters alongside the regular bovine mascot. The fair’s most famous butter sculptor was Norma “Duffy” Lyon, who handled the duties from 1960 to her retirement in 2005. (The first woman to hold the title, she endorsed Barack Obama in the state’s 2008 caucuses, a move that some observers say was a key component of his victory in the state.)
While butter sculpting may sound like an only-in-America phenomenon, the practice actually dates back to ancient Tibetan Buddhist monks who made such works in order to ponder the transitory nature of life, as the Washington Post noted in a fascinating interview with Pratt last week. The Iowa State Fair’s butter sculptures are fleeting, too—the event runs less than two weeks—though the butter is recycled, often for more than a decade. Pratt said that her material of choice “smells a lot like blue cheese.”
The 2019 edition of the fair wrapped yesterday, and the team behind it was kind enough to share photographs of butter sculptures going back to the late 1930s. The range is remarkable, stretching from saucy caricatures of presidential candidates (such as FDR atop a donkey) to, my favorite, a loving depiction of superstar country singer Garth Brooks. Intriguingly, many share subjects with those taken up by contemporary artists: a Snow White tableaux overlaps with Paul McCarthy, and a Tiger Woods—no joke—could read as a riff on a classic Jeff Koons. Certain ideas float through the culture. Sometimes they emerge as sculpted wood, other times as churned cream, and sometimes as both.
Below (and above), butter sculptures (and a few of lard) from the Iowa State Fair.