‹artist-run restaurants›

Interview with Julia Modes, questions by Johanna Ziebritzki

Dear Julia,
specialist for artist-run restaurants,

before giving you the questions, I’ll explain briefly why I asked you to share your specialized knowledge about restaurants run by artists with us and the reciprocal turn community in the upcoming issue ‹#four: The Specialists›. We’ve met in spring 2016 at a conference of art-history students, where you talked about three restaurants opened by artists in Germany and the U.S.A. It is quiet normal to specialize during the course of studying. In the context of this issue your specialization is of interest, because you are writing theoretically about an artistic practice, not about art objects or abstract terms.

Enjoy responding!


Johanna Ziebritzki: To start, please describe the topic of your special knowledge. How did you get interested in it? What fascinates you about artist-run restaurants?

Julia Modes: When I started looking for a suitable topic to write my thesis about, I knew from quite early on that I would like to look at artistic practices related to food. I started reading about the contemporary Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija. In 1990 the work he presented in Paula Allen Gallery, New York was a temporary restaurant where he cooked Thai Curry for the visitors. This is where the idea to write about artists as chefs started. Then I dived straight into a huge pool of literature about food related art and stumbled across Daniel Spoerri – a Swiss artist who is known to be the father of the so-called Eat-Art. After cooking loads of conceptually creative banquettes in the early seventies, Spoerri opened his restaurant as a little creative eat-art-wonderworld at the end of the same decade. In Restaurant Spoerri everything was decorated artistically inside out: The venue, the dishes, their names and ingredients. It could be regarded as an art piece itself, even though it functioned as a common restaurant and served as a meeting-place for the art-scene in Düsseldorf at the time.The other two restaurants that opened a few years later, in the early eighties in New York (Food by Gordon Matta-Clark) and Los Angeles (Al’s Café by Allan Ruppersberg) took aspects from Spoerri’s artistic approach and the ideas manifested in his restaurant. – Looking at these three restaurants of course also opened up the topic of European artistic influences in America.

Al’s Café: Theke.

My interest is not only the artist as chef or the restaurant as financial support for emerging artists. I was looking at the creative approach artists took on food – as material, everyday substance, and socially connoted matter. The interesting aspect of artist-run restaurants is that artists create ephemeral works – that might not even be called and presented in any special way – outside the existing cultural institutions. This way the art industry is questioned.

All three restaurants I looked at were also essential parts of a creative scene in their cities. They were the origins of many works that today can be seen in museums. So I looked very precisely at these three restaurants and the artists that were involved, in order to shine some light on a specific moment in history that is crucial to understand the artistic drive at this time and place and all the works that came out of it. I mean, today we can see Gordon Matta-Clark’s wall-cuttings in a museum. The information that it’s starting point was the renovation of his restaurant Food is of value for art history, I believe.

JZ: Are there general characteristics which are true for all artist-run restaurants? Can they be taken as the expression of more or less like-minded artists, like renaissance painting or conceptualism? Or would you rather say each restaurant has its own concept and they don’t build a “genre”?

JM: Well, I can only really answer this question in regards of the three restaurants I have looked at closely. There were many more and probably will be in the future as well. It would be presumptuous to make a general statement. I mean, if you look at movements like the Futurists – they had a restaurant, too: La Taverna Santo Palato – their intentions certainly were very political and war-oriented. In the three restaurants I wrote about the idea of blurring the boundaries between art and life certainly was of importance. Breaking away from the dependence of galleries or the curatorial choices in museums and confronting possibly everybody – not just the museum visitors – with their art seemed desirable. Nevertheless the financial aspect of having a second source of income through a gastronomic business was relevant to the not yet established artists in America. Maybe one could sum it up by saying that the idea behind these artist-run restaurants was to find an alternative: In terms of income or art-production and -mediation.

JZ: What is the difference between a restaurant opened by an artist and one opened by a chef? If there is a general difference, what is the social or cultural task of an artist-run restaurant?

JM: I don’t think I would go this far, saying that artist-run restaurants do have a social or cultural task. Rather I would like to look at them as most likely creative spaces, integrated into the everyday, accessible to everyone, offering a different perspective on food, eating habits, and the restaurant as a culturally embedded space.

Also I don’t think restaurants opened by artists necessarily have to be very different from ones opened by professional chefs. However they can be! And this kind of play with the conventional concepts of restaurants is what makes them so interesting.

JZ: All of the restaurants existed only for a couple of years at the maximum. (At least as far as I remember, correct me if I’m mistaken.) Why so? Do you think they closed due to artistic or economic reasoning?

JM: Hahahaha.. –All of the above! After two years Spoerri decided he wanted to concentrate more on his personal artistic practice besides his gastronomic business. In the meantime he had also opened a gallery to exhibit Eat-Art on the floor above the restaurant. It kept running successfully for several more years. But Spoerri had by far the most professional approach to his restaurant in the first place. Immediately he hired staff and employed a manager, chefs and waitresses. The opposite happened in Food, the restaurant Gordon Matta-Clark and Carolin Goodden opened in SoHo, New York in 1971. It was meant to be a restaurant run by artists and made for artists – in terms atmosphere, food, creative projects in and around the space, and lot’s of flexible jobs for artists. It became trendy quite quickly and sadly they struggled to keep up with the influx of people wanting to dine there. Apparently sometimes there were lines around the block. After two years Matta-Clark and Goodden separated, Goodden’s inheritance, which was used to set the restaurant up, was gone and it was not able to financially sustain itself. Therefore it was closed down and all the artists involved went off into different directions.

Allen Ruppersberg on the other hand had his business Al’s Café only for a bit over a month and regarded it straight from the beginning as a temporary art piece that was supposed to look and function like a regular restaurant. Besides drinks he served little artworks instead of food. A Chef Salad Bowl with Crackers could be ordered for 2 dollars and one would get a bit of soil, a cactus and some edible crackers. He only opened the space once a week, selling out all the dishes he was able to prepare in the meantime. The place became very popular quite quickly and according to Ruppersberg that fact made it loose it’s charm. Later he stated in an interview about the closure: ‹I felt I had said what I had wanted to say […] and the original experience was getting lost.›1

Al’s Café – Chef Salad Bowl with Crackers.

JZ: What do you think about exhibiting for example Spoerris ‘Fallenbilder’ in art museums? What do you think about contextualizing these art-objects in the museum context and giving them their stories back?

JM: You want to know how I feel about the exhibition of artworks that came into existence in the restaurants? I guess one has to differentiate the Fallenbilder that were made on tabletops of and produced in Restaurant Spoerri because every piece is part of the concept of the multiple Fallenbild, which had existed already before the restaurant opened. The wall-cutting from Food was more an artwork that came into existence out of a spontaneous action. The idea was to renovate the restaurant and change its interior structure, not to create a piece of art. Therefore knowing about the restaurant might be illuminating when looking at Matta-Clark’s later cuttings of entire buildings. Ruppersberg’s meals – sold in enormously high quantities for a few bucks, now seen in galleries – might be called the art-product that was on sale in Al’s Café. They might be the only objects where I think the knowledge about the restaurant is crucial to actually understand the piece by itself.

JZ: Obviously you’ve spent quiet some time acquiring your knowledge. What value do you – as an art historian, as a student of art history, as someone who speaks in front of other art history students, as Julia, … – consider to be encapsulated in the chosen topic? Why ‹artist-run restaurants› and not Impressionism?

JM: Hahahaha… I sounds a bit like I should justify my choice of topic. Actually I don’t think I have ever questioned its importance. Studying art and visual history at the Humboldt-University in Berlin I guess I have always been encouraged by my teachers to cross the boundaries of classical art history and to regard any visual material researchable. I do strongly believe that it is important to look at what’s happening besides the canon in order to understand phenomenons in depth. The dealing with food and the opening of restaurants is a widespread undertaking by artists from various countries. Why not pay a bit of attention to theses spaces, in order to grasp the ideas behind them, see whether there is something like a common interest or simply understand the culture certain artworks derived from.

JZ: Do you feel responsible for those giving their time and attention to your talk or reading your paper? Or are you foremost responsible for the artists who run the restaurants? Or are you simply responsible for your own well-being?

JM: Hahahaha… What  a wonderful philosophical question. I think I’m neither responsible for the people listening and reading my research, nor for the artists and their restaurants. I am responsible for doing a good job in finding out all the details and particularities in order to logically interconnect the gathered information, think it through and take it a step further, so that I can present some fine research at the end of the day that will serve art history in some way. In this way, I can offer some interesting side information for the research conducted by others or even inspire them to change their angle of perception on classical art historical research – that would be wonderful and worth the effort.

  • 1. Frédéric Paul: „Interview. Allen Ruppersberg, Frédéric Paul“, in: Allen McCollum (Hrsg.): Allen Ruppersberg. Books, Inc, (Ausst.-Kat.), Limoges, Fonds Régional D’Art Contemporain Limousin, 1.10.-27.11.1999, Limoges 1999, S. 31-48, 36,39.