FORT WORTH—A society’s culture is shaped in part by the customs and traditions of food. Americans are particularly attuned to this relationship between culture and cuisine, considering our national Thanksgiving holiday and the truly American concept of fast food drive-throughs. The exhibition Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture, and Cuisine explores this history through paintings and sculpture dating from the mid-18th century through the 1960s. Organized by Art Institute of Chicago curator Judith A. Barter and currently on view at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Art and Appetite includes more than 60 works—primarily paintings, both still-lifes and genre scenes—that help illustrate our nation’s cultural history.
The exhibition is arranged chronologically and thematically, starting with a gallery of works that illustrate the theme “Thanksgiving: The Great American Food Fest.” As an introduction to the exhibition, the gallery is the only one in which paintings from various time-periods and styles share the walls, emphasizing the importance that this cultural tradition has had for American artists throughout the years. Turkeys by Roy Lichtenstein and Alice Neel flank Norman Rockwell’s iconic Freedom From Want (also known as his “Thanksgiving painting”), giving the viewer three variations on the theme. Juxtaposing Rockwell’s realistically rendered holiday feast with Neel’s loose and expressionistic version—a naked turkey slumped in a sink next to a can of Ajax and dirty dish rags—only emphasizes how idyllic the former is in comparison to Neel’s glimpse-of-life rendering. Neel’s painting, which faces Doris Lee’s Thanksgiving (ca. 1935), also brings attention to the traditional gender roles inherent in food preparation and the behind-the-scenes work that goes into pulling together a meal worthy of the Rockwell treatment.
The exhibition continues with themes of horticulture, the fluctuating economy and its impact on America’s food industry, and the changing habits brought on by modern conveniences, with works such as Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can alongside wonderfully surprising inclusions as Elizabeth Paxton’s The Breakfast Tray (c. 1910) or Claes Oldenburg’s plaster slices of wedding cake. While the paintings are the stars of this exhibition, the didactic texts provide necessary contextual and historical information, transforming benign still-lifes into powerful political messages or playful genre scenes into historical indices of production and consumption in America.
The show’s biggest star, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942), is in one respect its most curious inclusion. While the work is iconic in American painting and has loose ties to the themes of the exhibition (an example of the alienation of urban dining in the 20th century, as explained by the didactic label), its absence from the major Hopper drawings retrospective that recently closed at the Dallas Museum of Art is more glaringly obvious than if it had been left out of the present exhibition.
It is understandable that the Art Institute of Chicago, which owns Nighthawks, wanted to include the iconic work in its own traveling show, and it is certainly a pleasure to view the painting in the Amon Carter’s quiet galleries. Still, North Texas viewers might have been better served if the AIC had sacrificed Nighthawks for Hopper Drawing, which included some 19 studies for the masterpiece but a mere reproduction of the painting itself. In any case, Art and Appetite would have been just fine without it. The exhibition and its scholarly catalogue succeed beautifully in enlightening viewers about the history of American artists’ relationship with food, and breathe new life into the still-life genre. That the show is included in the museum’s free admission is icing on the cake.
—LEIGH A. ARNOLD