A current exhibit at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art that’s proving palatable to tastes of all types is “Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture, and Cuisine.” A painting exhibit about eating, drinking, dining and food preparation, it opened Feb. 22 and will remain here until May 18, applying subtexts of consumerism, class, gender and politics to a familiar and friendly topic.
Some very famous paintings are part of the mix — Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup — and they shoulder a lot of art history baggage (i.e., the aforementioned class and consumerism subtexts), but they are a comfortable fit because people are familiar with food — procuring it, preparing it and consuming it.
That’s why no one is likely to stand in front of one of the 60 paintings and mutter, “I don’t get it.” More than anything, the exhibition is likely to spark memories.
I have a relationship with one of the paintings in the exhibit, Wrapped Oranges, by William McCloskey. It belongs to the Carter and is traveling with this exhibit. Usually it is hanging in a downstairs gallery to the right of the Carter’s information desk.
I often visit the tissue-wrapped citrus because the painting reminds me of the oranges my mother used to put in our Christmas stockings. I thought it was her way of postponing breakfast on Christmas morning. When my sisters and I were old enough to understand, she explained about the rarity of citrus when she was a girl growing up in the Northeast and told us that gifts of oranges and tangerines were special treats that usually came wrapped individually in tissue paper.
I tried to continue the family tradition with my own children and postpone breakfast. When my son was about 5, he emptied his Christmas stocking, found the orange and announced in a horrified voice, “There are groceries in my stocking.” He tossed the orange over his shoulder and it rolled under the couch. That was the end of the oranges-in-the-Christmas-stockings tradition at my house.
Still, I like to visit McCloskey’s oranges and be reminded of times when foods were not available every day of the year, when seasonal specialties were a treat, when food wrapped in crinkly white tissue paper was a gift, and when my son found groceries in his Christmas stocking.
Culinary professionals also have strong feelings about images of food, and their specialized knowledge probably comes with even stronger memories. I visited several and asked them to look at certain paintings or the entire “Art and Appetite” exhibit, to share their thoughts and reimagine a contemporary version.
Jean ann Bybee, photographer, and Brad Rogers
Dallas-based commercial photographer Jean Ann Bybee, the co-author of Food Styling for Photographers: A Guide to Creating Your Own Appetizing Art and More Food Styling for Photographers & Stylists: A Guide to Creating Your Own Appetizing Art, initially reviewed many of the artworks in the exhibition.
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She works with her husband, Brad Rogers, who handles the technical aspects of their photography studio, and together they were drawn to pieces that tended to abstraction. Bybee wasn’t interested in recreating a still life, she says, but she was looking for a challenge. Rogers persuaded her to tackle Gerald Murphy’s Cocktail, an abstraction that looks like a collage of the artist’s cocktail table. So, the question was: Could they recreate an oil painting that looks like a collage, using photography?
They gathered the elements: cocktail shaker, wineglasses, cigars, lemons, corkscrew and background felts and papers. “The painting combined abstract images such as the lemons and wineglass, then highly realistic images like the cigar box, the wood and the cigar stamp, and even the wine opener. There were surreal elements and realism in the same image,” Rogers recalls. “The most difficult piece to find was the simple corkscrew. He fashioned one using a stained dowel and a corkscrew from another wine opener.
Bybee shot 26 photographs, one for every element and each background material. Then Rogers took the digital files and scanned them to size. “We wanted it to be all our own and without using any Photoshop,” Bybee says. “Whatever came out of camera is what we used in the collage.”
Rogers printed the photos to scale but says the results were not the exact size as Murphy’s. The original is about 30 inches square. “I downscaled to 10 inches,” Rogers says.
After printing the images, Rogers began laboriously cutting out the pieces and then mounting them on a board. Some pieces have been slightly elevated to get a shadow line underneath for more depth. “It was really very difficult,” he says. “Laying it out and interweaving the elements - some go under, some on top - was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle in 3-D.”
The process, he adds, gave testament to “the strength of the painting.”
“It made me stop and look, made me study it. It was mesmerizing how this guy thought,” he says.
After the various images were assembled and mounted, Bybee photographed the collage one last time. At first glance, the two finished works look almost identical. The lemon is the only obvious ingredient that differentiates which is the photograph and which is the painting.
Todd Phillips. chef
There are several meat-centric paintings in the exhibit. Raphaelle Peale’s Still Life With Steak, Roy Lichtenstein’s Standing Rib (Meat) and Tom Wesselmann’s Still Life No. 15, a grilled, seared slab of steak accompanied by a big bottle of bourbon. An American flag is waving and George Washington peeks over the plate’s edge, framed by a background of purple mountains majesty. It’s a veritable star-spangled banquet.
I took the latter to Todd Phillips, the executive chef at J.R.’s Steakhouse in Colleyville, who has a way with steaks and a great attitude. It hardly takes him a moment to render a review of Wesselmann’s painting: “Mid-century American. You can tell by the portion size of the steak and the way it was cooked.
“Plus the alcohol places it in the U.S.,” he adds. “You don’t even need the flag. Who else is going to drink bourbon with a big 30-ounce steak? Only Americans drink liquor with their food. All this needs is maybe a piece of pie or a baseball in it to be completely American. When I look at food art, I understand the art behind the food itself. Most food shots are a snapshot into history. This one had to be American about 40 or 50 years ago.”
We discuss what he might do if asked to put together a steak plate as illustrative of this time as Wesselmann’s was for 1962, and a week later, he invites me back for a viewing of his made-to-order State-of-the-Steak assembly : a grilled 24-ounce T-bone stacked on truffle fries and topped with a fresh egg. Supporting this tower: a hand-painted flag plate.
But, why the egg?
“First off, it’s trendy, but any time you can break that rich, fatty egg yolk on a steak or hamburger, there is nothing better,” he explains. “It’s just basic, simple American fare, but you gotta put something on top - more fat, more protein, more richness.”
I thought his salad had what looked like a whole link of kielbasa under a sprinkling of artichokes, plus pear tomatoes drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette, but I was quickly corrected.
“That’s the bacon,” Phillips says. “There has to be bacon. Bacon has overrun our industry.”
To meet the demands and palates of his customers, Phillips does bacon in a very big way, buying an entire slab, smoking it and cutting it in thick, 1-inch slices — a move that gives serious credence to thick-cut. Bacon of such magnitude, he says, is well understood in cities like Chicago and New York, where they are serious about meats other than beef. Some of his Fort Worth customers appreciate big bacon, he adds, but others shy away from it.
To wash it all down, Phillips offers a bottle of Booker’s, a small batch brew from Jim Beam. “It’s good American bourbon that has become big in the last five to seven years,” he says.
Paula Lambert, cheesemaker
Paula Lambert has been bringing us mozzarella and various cheeses from the Mozzarella Company in Dallas for 32 years. One glance at Late Night Snack by Albert King, and she is off and running.
“This is a Swiss cheese. You can tell by the holes in it,” she explains. “Now it might taste like a Gruyere, but a true Gruyere doesn’t have holes like this. I love the jam or the jelly jar on the side. It would go wonderfully with the cheese. Salty, hard cheese is offset very well with jams or chutneys. And then the combination of the beer with the cheese; that’s excellent.
“Another thing to think about is the history of cheesemaking in the United States,” Lambert adds. “Cheesemaking was something that was done at home. The first cheese factory in the United States opened in the mid-1800s, so since this was painted around 1900, it was probably a manufactured cheese. Those holes in the cheese come from a gas from a certain kind of culture, and I don’t think the normal person would have that type of culture.”
Noting that the edge of the cheese had been cut off, perhaps because someone might have taken a bite, Lambert also observes that the painting depicts cheese that is “well-aged by the dry edge,” and it is accompanied by hard biscuits that remind her of oyster crackers. She also notes the reflection of the skylight in the glass cheese dome.
What does all this detective work mean?
“Cheese is supposed to be served at room temperature, so this indicates it is being served at the correct temperature,” she explains, adding that the beer depicted was probably a home brew.
When asked if she would make a late-night snack that resembled King’s still life, Lambert admits she’d likely opt for a glass of wine and pass on the cheese, simply because she’s on a diet.
“So I don’t have late-night snacks. It’s not in my vocabulary,” she says. “I will have a glass of late-night wine, though.”
Her recommendation for a contemporary version of a late-night snack (left) is similar to King’s. “For me, I like the combination of textures — the creaminess of the cheese, the crunchiness of the cracker, the gooey sweetness of the jelly and the effervescence of the beer. All these things make wonderful complements.”
Pressed for some particulars, Lambert adds: “I think this would be delicious with a flavorful cheese — nothing mild — something like my Blanca Bianca. That is an assertive raw mild cheese, with a glass of port or late harvest wine. That is the same thing that is going on in the painting. An assertive taste balanced with a sweetness.”
Garold LaRue and Jimmy Story, coffeehaouse owners
“I love this. This is simple American coffee,” says Garold LaRue looking at Edward Hopper’s iconic painting, Nighthawks. Most people react to the late-night setting and the sense of isolation. But not LaRue, a fifth-generation coffee brewer and co-owner of Avoca Coffee Roasters in Fort Worth.
LaRue sees the coffee.
“This is where the term ‘a cup of joe’ came from. This was good coffee,” he says. “I’m trying to make coffee like this.”
He senses my skepticism. “This was good coffee, then the politics and economics of the coffee trade ruined coffee,” he says. A detailed discourse on the decline of coffee ensues, then a few hopeful notes about the positive effects of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent loosening of embargoes that opened up the African coffee trade and brought many more varieties to the coffee cup.
LaRue is intent on turning all the coffee-with-cream-and-sweetener drinkers into black coffee drinkers. “We want people to drink black coffee again,” he says. Not that there is anything wrong with the additives. He just believes they aren’t necessary because coffee has gotten so much better. He points out that’s the way the generation of Americans in Hopper’s painting drank their coffee — black — and notes the absence of creamers on the countertop in Hopper’s painted diner.
“You can have a cup of American coffee and it can be excellent,” he says. “It will taste good. You don’t need to mask the flavor. There are coffees now that taste like bourbon and honey or apricots. That’s how subtle the flavors are. You don’t have to put milk in it, or you shouldn’t.”
LaRue doesn’t discern much difference between the coffee culture of the past and that of today. There has always been a place to gather around a cup of coffee, he says, from the time of the early Colonists, who favored coffee over tea. Then, it was in homes, basements or churches, and now it is more commercial. But the goal of chatting over a cup of coffee remains the same.
“It’s about the ritual, a social and personal ritual you can have with yourself and share with another,” LaRue says.
So, what are the Nighthawks doing in Hopper’s painting?
LaRue and his partner, Jimmy Story, have probably overheard every kind of conversation that could be had in a coffee shop. Story suggests, “Well, the couple aren’t looking at each other, but they are touching hands. Maybe it’s a first date or they are an old married couple. She’s wearing red. That might mean something.”
“If it was today,” adds LaRue, “that guy by himself, he’d be playing on his phone.”