All About Eats: Art and the American Imagination in Chicago

Our love of strong drink produced art in many forms, from fine silver by Amer­ica's most talented metalsmiths to decorated punch bowls from China. Rum punch, eggnog, and flip (a concoc­tion of rum and beer) helped fuel the Revo­lution and even after the war, Barter notes, Americans drank early and often, imbibing hard cider or beer at breakfast. Alcohol's use as a social lubricant is a theme of Nightlife, Archibald John Motley Jr.'s pulsing 1943 view of an African-American nightclub in swing era Chi­cago (Fig. 12), and Cocktail, a 1927 pastiche of the high life by expatriate artist Gerald Murphy.

Fig. 12. Nightlife by Archibald John Motley Jr. (1891-1981), 1943. Signed and dated "A. J. Motley / 1943" at lower right. Oil on canvas, 36 by 47 ¾ inches. Art Institute of Chicago, restricted gift of Mr. and Mrs. Marshall Field, Jack and Sandra Guthman, Ben W. Heineman, Ruth Horwich, Lewis and Susan Manilow, Beatrice C. Mayer, Charles A. Meyer, John D. Nichols, and Mr. and Mrs. E. B. Smith Jr.; James W. Alsdorf Memorial Fund; Goodman Endowment.

If one painting sums up the transition from nineteenth century to twentieth, it is Wrapped Oranges. The restrained formalism of Wil­liam J. McCloskey's 1889 oil on canvas speaks to an earlier era of still-life painting but with one significant difference: the oranges are packaged for travel. The invention of the refrigerated rail car in 1868 followed, one year later, by the completion of the transcontinental railroad, led ultimately to agribusiness and to a standardized, national market of which wrapped oranges were just the start.

"What is this place if not a landscape (manmade, it's true) teeming with plants and animals?" Michael Pollan asks about the American supermarket in The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. From the soup cans of Andy Warhol to sculptures of green beans, wedding cake, and a fried egg by Claes Oldenburg, Pollan's alien terrain of Pop Tarts and Lunchables is charted in Art and Appetite's final gallery. In the end, it is packaging graphics we harvest for supper in Richard Estes's jumbled Food City of 1967 (Fig. 17).

Fig. 17. Food City by Richard Estes (1932-), 1967. Oil, acrylic, and graphite on fiberboard, 48 by 68 inches. Akron Art Museum, Ohio, purchased by exchange with funds raised by the Masked Ball 1955-1963.

Art and Appetite leaves us wondering where the twain meet today. A menu from Chez Panisse, the high temple of locavore dining, suggests one direc­tion. Rising up against processed foods and empty calories, a renaissance of farmer's markets and farm-to-table restaurants has restored a segment of our food culture (Cronuts and BLT Quarter Pounders aside) to something like its nineteenth-century countenance.

The pleasure we take in thinking about food and drink is captured by a story about M. F. K. Fisher, the food writer who understood that eat­ing well is one of life's greatest arts. For Fisher's seventieth birthday in 1978, the staff of Chez Panisse prepared a meal to reflect the gastronome's taste for French-inflected California cuisine. The menu for the celebration, displayed in Art and Appetite, follows the titles of four of Fisher's books, beginning with Serve It Forth, her first, published in 1937. Pacific oysters on the half shell are a prelude to bitter lettuce salad with goat cheese croutons, the recipe for which is included in Art and Appetite.

In an appreciation published about Fisher in 1990, James A. Beard said, "For an art as transitory as gas­tronomy there can be no record except for a keen taste memory and the printed word." To that, the Art Institute of Chicago has added the visual realm.

If you can't make it to The Art Institute of Chicago for their "Art and Appetite" show (through 1/27/14), now you can see curator Judith A. Barter demonstrate her cooking chops online!

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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