2.5 / Review

In Defense of Food: Recent Explorations in Contemporary Art

By Christian L. Frock November 15, 2010

Food and drink—vital life sources that they are—have played key roles in creative movements throughout history: images of both abound in every possible medium. Even in its most unassuming forms, sustenance is densely layered with significance relative to personal and broader cultural memory, larger politics, and, of course, sensory response. Food and drink lend themselves well to the production of artworks that plumb our intellect, emotions, and senses. Perhaps the most iconic still-life images of the past one hundred years are Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962), thirty-two individual paintings that straddle a significant shift between representational renderings and conceptual artistic processes. Recognizable to the point of commercial perfection, these works also propelled Duchamp’s notion of the readymade toward greater acceptance by virtue of Warhol’s choice of subject: while no one may have ever waxed rhapsodic over a urinal, many a heartwarming memory is attached to comfort food.

Food and drink have also been central elements in the contemporary evolution of alternative and conceptual artistic practices, such as performances, happenings, and interventions. Artists have expanded beyond representational imagery to explore the physical properties of nourishment as materials in art production. They have also pursued conceptual investigations of food’s inherent characteristics, as well as the social constructs of its distribution and consumption. 

The following timeline offers an incomplete survey of salient artworks that incorporate food and/or drink in conceptual explorations. Each work, though not “public art” per se, goes beyond the limitations of a conventional exhibition to engage a broad public through socially engaged actions, interventions, and media. All of these works instigated dialogue in their time—the trend of which continues to resonate across a spectrum of contemporary public practices today.


1920s and ’30s: F. T. Marinetti establishes Tavern of the Holy Palate, or rather La Taverna del Santopalato (1929), in Turin. No fan of pasta, Marinetti’s peculiar dishes require the consumption of certain foods, such as olives and kumquats, with the right hand, while the left hand strokes textures such as sandpaper and velvet. These food-based experiences are compiled into The Futurist Cookbook in 1932.

1950s: Yves Klein serves blue-tinged cocktails in an otherwise empty gallery. Gallery goers literally consume the artwork The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility, The Void (1958), and piss blue for days afterward.

1960s: Joseph Beuys creates Fat Corners (1960), an installation of pork fat piled into a corner and left to turn rancid. A well-intentioned cleaning crew accidently destroys the work.

Carolee Schneemann first improvises the performance Meat Joy (1964) in Paris: Eight semi-nude figures dance and engage with sausage, raw fish, and chicken, among other materials. The work is described as a “celebration of flesh as material.”

John Latham, a part-time teacher at St. Martin’s School of Art, in London, invites his students to participate in an “event-based” artwork wherein they chewed pages from a library copy of Clement Greenberg’s Art and Culture. The masticated pulp is dissolved, distilled, and fermented in glass bottles before the artist attempts to return the overdue tome. Chew and Spit: Art and Culture (1966) is rejected by the librarian but acquired by the Museum of Modern Art.

1970s: For the performance Catalysis (1970), the artist Adrian Piper soaks her clothes in vinegar, eggs, milk, and cod liver oil before she spends a week navigating the city of New York in her odiferous outfit.

Tom Marioni instigates The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art (1970) by, well, drinking beer with friends at a private party in the Oakland Museum of California. Residue from the gathering—empty bottles and overflowing ashtrays—was then put on public display. An early practitioner of socially based artworks, Marioni has said, “I wanted to make art as close to real life as I could without it being real life.”1

Gordon Matta-Clark, together with Carol Goodden, founds FOOD (1971–1973), a restaurant in the New York neighborhood of SoHo run by and for artists. The restaurant’s unusual ingredients and open-plan kitchen—common by today’s dining standards—were novel for the time.

Peggy Diggs. The Domestic Violence Milk Carton Project, January-February, 1992. Courtesy of the Artist and Creative Time, New York. Photo: Peggy Diggs.
Agnes Denes. Wheatfield--A Confrontation, Battery Landfill Park, Downtown Manhattan, 1982. Courtesy of the Artist and Public Art Fund, New York.

As an experiment in sustainability tactics, it provided the precedent for more recent alternative funding models that incorporate food, such as InCUBATE (Chicago) and FEAST (Brooklyn).

Judy Chicago’s installation The Dinner Party (1974–1979), a triangulated table with thirty-nine place settings for mythic and historic female figures, travels the world despite withering criticism in the art discourse.

Martha Rosler’s feminist parody video and performance Semiotics in the Kitchen (1975) mimics the posturing of a cooking demonstration and emotes the barely concealed rage of domestic boredom.

1980s: Agnes Denes creates a landmark environmental art project with Wheatfield—A Confrontation, Battery Landfill Park, Downtown Manhattan (1982), a two-acre wheat field in a vacant lot in downtown Manhattan. The artwork yields one thousand pounds of wheat.

Headlands Center for the Arts, a disused military base in Sausalito, California, commissions artist Ann Hamilton to restore the original kitchen and dining room. The resulting work, Mess Hall (1989), becomes a vital community gathering space for the artists-in-residence program.

1990s: Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ untitled candy spills, Untitled (1991), engage generosity as a method of art production during the height of the AIDS crisis. Visitors are encouraged to take candy from the installations, effectively dismantling and simultaneously dispersing the work, while undermining rampant misconceptions about the spread of the disease through ingestion. 

Creative Time produces Peggy Diggs’ The Domestic Violence Milk Carton Project (1992) an activist print intervention located on commercially produced milk cartons in grocery stores. This type of experiment, with packaging serving as a platform for artistic intervention, engages a broad, unsuspecting audience. In the same way that Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans borrowed imagery from quotidian life, work of this nature is parlayed within quotidian life.

Rirkrit Tiravanija, an artist known for producing dinner parties, or rather, relational aesthetics as theorized by Nicolas Bourriaud, collaborates with a group of artists to initiate The Land (1998–ongoing), two working rice fields in Thailand cultivated as a space for social engagement. 

Janine Antoni literally gnaws away two six-hundred-pound cubes, one chocolate and one lard, to create Gnaw (1992), a work that addresses materiality, process, and cultural perceptions around feminity. She uses the chewed-out pieces to fashion lipsticks and chocolate boxes for display in a fake storefront. 

Marina Abramovic receives the Golden Lion Award for Best Artist at the 1997 Venice Biennale for her video and performance piece Balkan Baroque, which features the artist scrubbing the remaining shreds of flesh from thousands of bloody beef bones in reference to the war in Yugoslavia. 

Minerva Cuevas creates Mejor Vida Corp. (1998–ongoing) and through this entity, distributes trompe l’oeil barcode stickers on food packages to falsely reduce prices in the supermarket.

2000s: Roz Chast, Maira Kalman, Cary Leibowitz (a.k.a. Candyass), Larry Miller, and Tom Tomorrow, in collaboration with Creative Time, create DNAid (2000–2002), a series of interventions commercially printed on disposable coffee cups and distributed by Manhattan vendors. 

Critical Art Ensemble, with Beatriz de Costa and Shyh-shiun Shyu, present Free Range Grain (2004), a live performative action that uses molecular biology techniques to test for genetically modified ingredients in food brought to them by the public. (During preparation for the exhibition at MASS MOCA, CAE founding member Steve Kurtz calls 911 upon the death of his wife by natural causes. The police, after observing standard biology equipment, suspect Kurtz of bioterrorism and contact the FBI. A protracted legal battle ensues.)

Bill Talen presents The Reverend Billy Starbucks Interventions (2004), a performance with gospel-like intensity that derides the consumption and consumerism of Starbucks coffee products in various store locations.

Zhang Huan dons a suit made from raw meat as part of the public performance My New York (2007), included in the Whitney Biennial. (Lady Gaga wore a similar costume at the 2010 MTV Music Awards. Like many of her actions, it has yet to be decided whether the performance is public practice or simply entertainment.)


Ed.Note: For more on the role of food in conceptually-based practices, see "Interview with Terri Cohn" in this issue.



  1. Hamlin, Jesse. “It’s really art – drinking beer and gabbing with friends.” San Francisco Chronicle, February 13, 2004.

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