For some young artists trying to make it, starving is a rite of passage; for others, it is a permanent state of dedication, or a financial necessity. No matter the reasons, the starving artist is a timeless figure, present in every era of every society, socialist or capitalist, boom or bust. But the starving artist of New York in the seventies and eighties holds a special place in the cultural imagination.
On Sunday, I cleaved my way through the sweaty, contemporary crowds at the New York Art Book Fair, hosted at MoMA PS1, to see an exhibition of “Food Sex Art: The Starving Artist’s Cookbook Archive 1986–1991.” The cookbook was put together between 1986 and 1991 by EIDIA, an artist duo of Paul Lamarre and Melissa Wolf. EIDIA, comes from the Greek eidos, for “kind,” and is intended as an acronym for, among other things, “Everything I Do Is Art” and “Every Individual Does Individual Art.” The cookbook—a thick stack of typewritten pages bound with three rings—had an original print run of five hundred. It featured 161 “recipes,” some real and some strange, from artists including Peter Beard, Louise Bourgeois, John Cage, Quentin Crisp, William Wegman, and Lawrence Weiner. The project was also a video series. EIDIA filmed the artists cooking in their studios, and the original series ran to nine hours. The book is now a collector’s item, and this exhibition, presented by the rare-book purveyor Arthur Fournier, displayed individual pages next to old photos and the videos EIDIA shot.
Several of the East Village artists had gathered in a dim room in a corner of PS1 to discuss their recipes and memories of the time: Anthony Haden-Guest, Donald Goddard, Betty Tompkins, Bill Mutter, and David Sandlin. The project began, Paul Lamarre recalled, with his own recipe for glamorous beans and onions. EIDIA began approaching friends for recipes, and, in the process, recorded the humor and intimacy of the East Village art scene. Hardly any of the artists, however, were actually cooks. Guest, when asked to contribute, said, “I don’t really cook, I’ll mix a drink.” He went down to the Baby Doll—“the only politically correct topless bar”—put on a blindfold, and chose three bottles at random (one of which, unfortunately, was Kahlúa).
John Cage, one of the first participants in the cookbook, contributed his “Soup des Jours.” A play on soup du jour, or soup of the day, Cage’s soup is meant to last many days. Some recipes—including one of Lamarre’s own—were more surreal. Lamarre suggests cooking his own body after his death. He separates his body into the id and the ego. From the id, the feet are to be pickled and the “penis and my ‘prairie oysters’ ” are “a delicacy in more ways than one and should be prepared as such.” From the ego, the eyes are to be served wandering through a glass decanter like a lava lamp, and the brain is to be eaten as dessert. Debby Davis suggests putting a flashlight into a jello mold, which can be turned on just before being served. Quentin Crisp’s contribution is titled “Eating Is a Bad Habit,” and begins, “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.”
After they got a few recipes under their belt, EIDIA was referred to artist after artist, in New York and in Europe. The Fluxus artist Endre Tót wrote two recipes for soup: one normal soup for normal people, a version of goulash, and one abnormal soup for abnormal people, rainwater soup: “Take one liter of rainwater. Boil it till left the half of it. The part steamed away is MY SOUP, the part left is YOUR SOUP.”
While artists at the panel claimed that they hung Food Sex Art by its rusting, three-ring binding on a hook in the kitchen, attempts to replicate many of the recipes would not have gone as edibly as planned. The Russian artists Komar and Melamid suggest a “Burger Pravda.” The recipe calls for “One Pravda (shredded) 4 pages*,” run through a meat grinder with enough water to moisten, then formed into patties and fried in a pan. The asterisk reads, “Pravda, (the official Russian newspaper) currently only consists of 3 pages so adjust recipe accordingly.” “You might want to experiment with the New York Times,” they add at the recipe’s end. After the Anthology Film Archives ran a projection of the video series, the projectionist went home and tried to make William Wegman’s recipe, which read simply, “As you would pop popcorn, pop vitamin C.” The projectionist came back the next night complaining the recipe was a bust: “The vitamin C got all soggy in the oil!”
Now, the artists agreed, the community has become more of a diaspora and the art world as they knew it no longer exists. But the footage, much of which is available on YouTube, captures the energy of the era: John Cage, being fitted with a microphone, says that he doesn’t like to talk very loudly. Louise Bourgeois and her assistant, Jerry Gorovoy, take a saw to large pieces of oxtail for a dinner party—the same saw Bourgeois is using for a series of sculptures. In one video, a bird flies in and perches on the shoulder of the pioneer feminist artist Hannah Wilke as she sits down to eat in her loft. Wilke kisses the bird. When she’s told she shouldn’t kiss the bird flying around her loft, she laughs it off.
What emerges from the cookbook is a portrait of a mentality; these artists, though we may think of them now with great respect, never took themselves too seriously. As the engine behind the project, EIDIA was able to see creative force in even the simplest of recipes. Painter Betty Tompkins contributed a recipe for fried spaghetti, containing spaghetti, garlic, oil, and any herbs on hand. Lamarre was impressed with it, saying, “This is a great basic dish because you could add anything to it.” “Huh?” Betty replied. It had never occurred to her to add anything to the spaghetti.
Nausicaa Renner is a senior editor at n+1. She tweets at @nausjcaa.