Ever since “art for art’s sake” became a symbol of bohemian credibility in the late 19th century, the spectre of the starving artist has haunted the general public. Driven by an unquenchable desire to create, artists are often at the vanguard of the culture, decades ahead of their contemporaries, and largely unrecognised.
Here, the struggle to survive is vividly underscored by the very real challenge of putting three meals on the table, every single day. For those who spend the better part of their lives consuming, the decision to pursue a career in the arts is met with wonder and confusion: Why would anyone want to live like that? But for those who must, there simply is no option at all.
American artists Paul Lamarre and Melissa P. Wolf, better known as the art duo EIDIA (“Everything I Do Is Art”), understood that artists make tremendous sacrifices in their lives in order to feed their creative addiction, whether they become financially successful or not.
While living at the Chelsea Hotel during the 1980s, Lamarre remembers, “I was making what I call ‘Starving Artist Beans and Onions,’ and I was asking myself, ‘I am so bored with this. I wonder what other artists are cooking? I want to get the recipes.’ Then Melissa said, ‘We should videotape other artists [cooking].’”
They let the idea marinate for a few days before it began to take shape as The Starving Artists’ Cookbook, a series of recipes, images, and cooking videos made between 1986-1991 featuring more than 160 artists including Peter Beard, Louise Bourgeois, John Cage, Gilbert and George, Taylor Mead, Jonas Mekas, Marilyn Minter, Carolee Schneemann, and Lawrence Weiner.
Each artist was given a 5 x 8” piece of rag paper to draw a sketch and a 5 x 8” piece of pink and green cardstock to write “recipes” for their dishes, both real and imagined. For example, William Wegman offered “Popped Vitamin C,” wherein he advised, “As you would pop popcorn, pop vitamin C,” which wouldn’t be problematic if you considered the act of popping akin to eating, rather than cooking – although not everyone did.
Over the years the book has become a collector’s item, and the artwork a way to recapture the glory of the East Village scene during this pivotal era in art history. Now, a selection of 32 works is currently on view in the exhibition FOOD SEX ART: The Starving Artists’ Cookbook at Ryan Lee Gallery, New York, through August 10.
“You sit around with people and you break bread, and it immediately breaks down all these barriers,” Lamarre explains. “The simplicity of an artist cooking is a rarefied and complicated action. As artists, we know the complicated process of how to bring something out of nothing. I knew that cooking would simplify these barriers and that the videotape would undo the artist a little bit. Some were very shy and took on the challenge of being in front of the camera. Others were very nervous about cooking. Some didn’t cook at all or just did fun food cooking, like a stack of pancakes.”
“As artists, we know the complicated process of how to bring something out of nothing. I knew that cooking would simplify these barriers” – Paul Lamarre
Others, like Louise Bourgeois, went the distance with her recipe for Oxtail, which serves 15 to 20 people. Lamarre and Wolf spent two days on the shoot, getting a clear sense of the overlap between the artist in the kitchen and in the studio. “You get to see her and how her style of thinking about the aesthetics of things saturated her entire life. She laid on the table these six or seven huge oxtails that she picked up at the Gansevoort Meat Market back in the 1980s. She laid them on the counter and you were looking at a Louise Bourgeois sculpture,” Lamarre recalls. Wolf adds, “And then she went down to the basement where her workshop was and she started cutting the oxtails on her bandsaw, surrounded by her sculptures!”
“[Louise Bourgeois] laid on the table these six or seven huge oxtails that she picked up at the Gansevoort Meat Market back in the 1980s. She laid them on the counter and you were looking at a Louise Bourgeois sculpture” – Paul Lamarre
Bourgeois’ performance easily made the highlight reel, perfectly illustrating the ways in which food both informs and reflects character. On the other side of the coin is the illustrious Quentin Crisp, who insisted, “Well, it is true, eating is only a bad habit and it’s addictive and unless you pull yourself together and learn not to eat, you will only find yourself eating more and more…. I don’t eat because of the expense rather than the debauchery.”
“Eating is only a bad habit ... I don’t eat because of the expense rather than the debauchery” – Quentin Crisp
That little touch of debauchery can be found throughout The Starving Artists’ Cookbook, as the perfect counterpoint for some extremely American fare, such as Judy Negron’s “Chicken and Pepsi Cola,” Debby Davis’ “Flashlight Jello,” which features a flashlight suspended in the Jello of your choice, or Stephanie Denyer’s “Green Soup for Lunch,” which features a single, unseasoned can of tomato soup with enough food coloring to turn it pea green.
“The unexpected was the kicker,” Lamarre recalls with a laugh. “We didn’t know what we were going to eat, and as we got more adept at lugging the equipment around, we would eat before we went because we didn’t know how it was going to turn out.”
FOOD SEX ART: The Starving Artists’ Cookbook at Ryan Lee Gallery, New York, until August 10, 2018.