Why Pop Artists Were Obsessed with Food

Alina Cohen
Nov 3, 2018 8:00PM

In a 1964 issue of Time magazine, Calvin Tomkins reviewed a New York gallery show entitled“The American Supermarket.” The exhibition, organized by the Bianchini Gallery on East 78th Street, turned the space into a mock marketplace, the artworks on view all resembling typical grocery-store fare. Andy Warhol designed white paper shopping bags emblazoned with Campbell’s soup cans. Mary Inman made true-to-life wax replicas of meats and cheeses. Tom Wesselmann contributed a plastic turkey, and Jasper Johns offered a sculpture that looked like two beer cans. “We may well inquire why so many young artists…have hit on food as the ideal subject matter,” Tomkins wrote. “The artists can be counted on to reply promptly, why not? Food is always around, for one thing, and it has always had a solid place in art.” If each of these artists used edible imagery for their own ends, the shared theme of food elucidates how Pop art as a movement reconsidered consumption in America and abroad.

Andy Warhol
Campbell's Soup Edition II , 1969
Pace Prints

Warhol’s first works featuring the supermarket staple, Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962), debuted at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1962. All 32 canvases in the series feature the same cylindrical red-and-white can—the only thing that changes across the works is the name of the flavor on the label: “BEEF,” “MINESTRONE,” “TOMATO.” The artist relies on the text to convey the cans’ specific contents and to create the association in viewers’ minds of a particular flavor. Yet Warhol’s work doesn’t actually depict the food, but the branded containers in which the soup arrives to the consumer. It’s 32 promises of a meal, but never the meal itself. Rebelling against the heroic gestures of the Abstract Expressionists, Warhol slyly created paintings that looked mass-produced, undermining long-held notions of originality and authenticity. A few years later, Warhol himself relinquished painting for silkscreens: an even bolder move away from the long-hallowed art form.

For his part, Roy Lichtenstein spent the decade depicting food on an actual plate. In 1963, he painted a bright red hot dog with a perfect line of mustard in a vivid yellow bun (and bluntly named it Hot Dog with Mustard). Rendered in his signature cartoonish style (his trademark Ben-Day dots appear throughout the bread and the gray background), the hot dog looks wholly unrealistic, yet appealing in its smooth perfection. The next year, Lichtenstein painted more hot dogs in enamel on metal trays. According to the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, the artist took inspiration for these works from subway signs and the Good Humor truck. Like all of his Pop peers, Lichtenstein used food as a way to bring popular culture into his practice, blurring the distinction between high and low art.

Roy Lichtenstein, Property of a European Collector, 1964. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Yet no Pop artist (quite literally) amplified food’s presence in the movement like Claes Oldenburg. Blowing up french fries, a hamburger, a sandwich, and a piece of cake into larger-than-life soft sculptures (pillowy constructions composed of painted vinyl and foam rubber interiors), the artist insisted that mundane objects should receive as much attention—and physical gallery space—as a classical marble sculpture. While Warhol challenged the sanctity of painting with his soup cans, Oldenburg used food-inspired artwork to take sculpture off its pedestal.

Pop art, however, was about more than bringing down the self-serious heterosexual male art establishment (the Abstract Expressionistsand their dogmatic proponents had advocated individual gestures, lionizing artists for their singular genius):It was also a response to post-war America. “After the war, years of food shortages, and rationing, the horn of plenty for many was, of course, the supermarket,” critic and curator Bob Nickas wrote for Slate. As consumption increased in the West during peacetime, artists mirrored the shift in their own practices. Tomkins voiced much the same sentiment in his 1964 review, writing: “Supermarket food is so American. The great production belt of our largest industry overwhelms us at every season of the year with gorgeously colored, bigger-than-life-size comestibles.” Even though the food might not always deliver an agreeable gastronomic experience, what does that matter when it looks so good?

Swedish-born American artist Claes Oldenburg holds one of his pieces, a four-foot ice cream cone, at his studio on the Lower East Side, New York City, circa 1965. Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images.

To that end, Wayne Thiebaud’s work inspires desire, using a medium as inedible as paint to offer a fantastical, idealized vision of something wholly quotidian: a bakery shelf. Thiebaud made a career out of his colorful, confectionery paintings, renderings of cakes and pies, candied apples and lollipops. Display Cakes (1963), to name one of many examples, portrays a sweet tooth’s paradise. In the picture, three cakes rise above a creamy white surface on perfectly round white cake trays supported by thin metal legs. The cakes are alternately decorated with white, brown, and yellow frosting, each alluring delicacy promising a different taste and texture.

The language that accompanies discussions of food—hunger, appetite, taste—is also easily linked to sex. “Food and sex have always had a rather amorous relationship,” wrote Nickas. He suggests that the automats of the 1960s (restaurants filled with vending machines), which offered a slice of pie for mere change, could also have been venues for cruising.

Mel Ramos, who died in October at age 83, perhaps most explicitly linked food with carnality in his work. His flat, color-saturated paintings appropriate the style of advertisements, merging seductive images of nude women with a Butterfinger wrapper, hamburger, Coca-Cola bottle, and a variety of other junk foods that scream Americana. In slick works like Lola Cola (1972), both the woman and giant glass Coke bottle appear to be for sale.

Belgian artist Evelyne Axell offered a feminist response to this kind of objectification. Her 1964 painting Ice Cream features a woman’s face, rendered in black and white, licking a dripping, pink-and-green ice cream cone. Instead of focusing on the subject’s body, as Ramos had, Axell homed in on the woman’s pleasure.

Mel Ramos
Butterfinger, ca. 1990

If Ramos appropriated the visual language of consumer sales to riff on pornography, Tom Wesselmann used it to reconceive another stock form: the still life. While leaders of the genre like Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin portrayed shiny pots and dead animals, and Paul Cézanne specialized in fruit ensembles, Wesselmann opted to paint the things most emblematic of his own time. In his works, Wesselmann used food to explicitly link Pop art to historical traditions.

The artist’s Still Life #35 (1963) features a table set with such products as Royal Crown Cola, Made-Rite white bread, and a can of Libby’s Beef Stew, in additionto lemons, an orange cloth, and the edge of a red container that look as though they jumped into the scene from an 18th-century still life. Through a window in the background, an airplane can be seen flying overhead. The painting posits that despite political, technological, and aesthetic shifts, food offers a common link between generations of artists. They all, at one point or another, have to stop painting long enough to eat.

Alina Cohen

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly captioned the image of Claes Oldenburg in his studio. The caption said his studio was in Greenwich Village, but it was on the Lower East Side. The text has been updated to reflect this change.