Sometimes a book will sit on the shelf so long that it loses its specificity and becomes merely a faceless one of many. Recently I have been revisiting this group of old friends who are stacked shoulder-to-shoulder on my bookshelves like classmates in some dimly remembered second grade group photo. The Artists’ Cookbook by Madeleine Conway and Nancy Kirk is a 1977 publication by The Museum of Modern Art. This book has lived on my shelf since 1979 or so when my best friend’s mom gave it to me in a purge of superfluous reading material. As an elementary schooler, I had little use for a cookbook, especially of the gift book variety, but since I’ve kept it all these years, it must somehow appeal to me. Perhaps she sensed this. This is also the same women, who, when I was thirteen, offhandedly gave me the complete diaries of Anais Nin. Hmmm.
Subtitled “Conversations with Thirty Contemporary Painters and Sculptors,” The Artist’ Cookbook offers a photograph of the artist in the kitchen, a one-page discussion of his or her perspective on food, followed by a series of the artist’s own recipes. I can’t even begin to imagine what the authors said when they pitched this book. Maybe something along the lines of… “We could get Warhol to make soup” (146-148). “Marisol eats only ‘natural’ food” (97-102). “And oh yea, I hear Larry Rivers makes an excellent Bronx Chicken” (126-129). Now I love Willem de Kooning as much as the next person, but do I really want a recipe for his brother Koos’s Seafood Sauce? Maybe not, but somehow reading Robert Indiana’s recipe for Hoosier Borscht makes me feel as if I know something about him that his art doesn’t reveal.
The most charming artists in the book are Christo and Jeanne-Claude—listed only as Christo, of course, since it was 1977. Still, within the text they are treated equally as artists. But only one of them cooks, and that is Jeanne-Claude, and that is if you consider opening a can “cooking.” Their little introductory bio is both delightful and bullshitty. The photo, though, is what makes their story. In it, Jeanne-Claude and Christo are younger than I have ever seen them. Christo looks on as Jeanne-Claude giddily peers into a box of cookies. It was only when I was writing this that I realized that I have the same cookie tin. Though you can’t tell from the photo, the sides of the box are inscribed with marital advice. For example, Be to her virtues very kind. Be to her faults a little blind. As well as, And oft I have hear defended, Little said is soonest mended. This advice is well employed in our house. Judging by what by all accounts was a successful love affair, it seems that the advice worked as well for Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
The Artists’ Cookbook has been out of print pretty much since the moment it was published. Unlike other out-of-print art books, this one is still affordable, maybe because it does not fall tidily into any particular category. The interwebs show it starting at $25. Collecting vintage cookbooks right now is HOT HOT HOT, and this book would make a nice gift for someone who likes art and cooking, but not, perhaps, for someone who just loves to cook. These recipes are a little hit-or-miss.
The Artists’ Cookbook: Conversations with Thirsty Contemporary Painters and Sculptors
Madeleine Conway and Nancy Kirk
The Museum of Modern Art, New York 1977
It’s easy to think of the New York art scene as a big, gay playground. Okay, maybe not a playground, but a place where gay men have had the opportunity to be relatively open, at least within the parameters set by the norms of their particular era. Think Johns, Rauschenberg, Warhol, and sometimes Larry River who, although didn’t identify as gay, often took one for the team. In his book Between You and Me: Queer Disclosures in the New York Art World, 1948-1963, Gavin Butt presents gossip as an alternative, let’s say queer, way of knowing. Butt proposes that when we consider an artist and his work (all the artists presented are male) that we consider more than just reception histories and textbook biographies. Butt suggests that we look deeper than that, showing how gossip informed the work these artists produced, as well as the way the public and art world received it.
Why is gossip important? Well, even in the comparatively liberal New York art scene, it was still the 50s and even if one’s homosexuality were “common knowledge” that didn’t mean it was accepted by the general public. Artists were often inned by galleries and the mainstream art press. Butt gives many clear of examples of this. He also uses the queer press as confirmation of alternative histories placing such publications as The Mattachine Review and Gay Sunshine Press on the same level as The New York Times.
In a chapter entitled “Dishing on the Swish, or, the ‘Inning’ of Andy Warhol,” Butt outlines the experience of a young Warhol, whom we now think of as a purveyor of prurient gossip. But at the beginning of his career, Warhol was the victim of gossip. In the hyper-masculine 50s, Warhol’s sissy demeanor was an embarrassment to the traditionally masculine artists (both gay and straight) in the scene. Warhol became re-invented, not as gay or straight, but as asexual. While the entire art world knew his orientation, Warhol and the media effectively maintained a beyond-sexuality public persona. We can see this same method employed today every time someone says an artist’s work is “universal,” or that his or her sexuality is “unimportant.”
Between You and Me lingers between art history and queer theory, which in itself makes the book queer. This is an older title, published by Duke University Press in 2005, and somehow it feels like it never really found it’s niche. Perhaps it is because of this inbetweenness, or maybe because the subject is gossip, which is inherently unserious. I highly recommend this book, not because of what it teaches about the golden age New York art scene, but what it teaches us about queer ways of knowing art today. Between You and Me is a serious academic book, but because of its subject matter left me with an overall feeling of playfulness. Good summer reading, if summer ever comes.