Let Them Eat Art

Visitors arrived at Haunch of Venison late on Tuesday night to find Tom Wesselmann drawings — most showing naked, reclining women — cloaked in smoky, red light. The crowd of collectors, arts patrons, and gallerists had come for what had been billed as a tasting of cakes designed by artists, though such innocent pleasures appeared to be nowhere in sight.

Soon, young women, clad in nothing but tight, red shorts, knee-length sports socks, and red, patent leather stilettos marched out of a back room and into the main gallery main space, holding trays laden with slices of white-frosted cake. As Toni Basils classic 1980s dance track “Mickey” blared from speakers around the space, they halted at various points on the floor, struck confident poses in front of the crowd that had formed, and held the pastries close to their bodies.

Members of the audience — invited by art advisor Raphaël Castorianos pastry-art group Kreemart and the American Patrons of the Tate — approached the women, but as they reached for the cake, the servers turned away, rolled their eyes, or danced just out of reach. Dessert would not come so easily.

Word soon spread that eating cake required a password (“Oh Mickey, you’re so fine, you blow my mind”). The hungry guests beseeched the topless women, and, as they stumbled over the key words, the cake bearers plucked pieces from their trays and fed them.

New York-based artist Mickalene Thomas, who had organized the spectacle, was seen snacking on pieces of her creation, which she had designed with pastry chef Bob Spiegel. Teetering on the edge of blaxploitation, her show paired the evening’s most unsettling stretch of entertainment with the most traditional cake — red velvet, with hints of liquor — leaving formal baking innovations to the other artist-chef teams.

Down the hall, Marina Abramovic guided a quiet group clad in white lab coats through a ritualized eating experience designed with Daniel pastry chef Dominique Ansel. One-by-one, diners coated their mouths in gold leaf, posed together for photographs, and then ate an almond cake with a subtle lychee mousse and a candied, edible flower.

Art historian Jovana Stokic, who helped organize the performance, noted the “sacred but not overtly religious” tone of the project and compared the experience to the Eucharist. Subjects left the room with gold emblazoned around their lips, as if they’d engaged in some sort of golden, sugar-filled version of Ash Wednesday. Despite the hefty consumption that had already taken place, many gamely ventured over to the final two cakes.

Rob Wynne provided the first stop, offering up a “Cake Cake,” which was served (and eaten) by artist Tabboo! — sporting a top hat and a long, flowing cape — and the seemingly omnipresent Delusional Downtown Divas. Shaped into the word “cake,” the construction’s glittering, silver frosting could almost have doubled as a mirror. It was quickly consumed by the crowd, which grew larger as the night wore on, spilling into the gallery’s upper floor and out onto its roof, which overlooked Rockefeller Center from the 21st floor.

Thankfully, Leandro Erlich provided enough cake even for that hulking crowd, crafting a masterful work with Guido Mogni of New York café Sant Ambroeus. At first sight, though, the cake seemed to be missing from the room supposedly devoted to his work. His gallerist Sean Kelly sat in a chair reading a book next to a pristine Mies van der Rohes Barcelona couch, ready to conduct a therapy session. Meanwhile, a maid in a red uniform and fishnet stockings stood idly with her feather duster.

Walking closer, one realized that the couch was made of chocolate, each pleat, button, and stitch lovingly rendered with a thick coating that looked (and felt) eerily like leather. As the maid brandished serving utensils and sliced into the couch, she revealed the glorious truth: a moist, buttery layer cake with hints of cream, coffee, and liquor buried inside. The pillow was even softer, fashioned from an airy angel food cake spiked with vanilla. Viewers had difficulty deciding whether to stare or eat, but quickly settled on the latter.

As diners ravenously devoured the psychoanalyst’s couch, it was hard not to wonder what to make of the recent trend toward art happenings laced with gluttony: Jennifer Rubells Celebration, Performa’s pasta sauna, and Eduardo Sarabia's liquor-fueled parties, to name three examples. Are artists retreating in these complicated times, forgoing intellectual engagement for base pleasures?

Stokic saw things differently. “Whenever there’s a crisis, people turn to comfortable things, and artists want to provide sustenance,” she explained. “This is about optimism, not hedonism.”