At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, over 27,000 pieces live under its roof. But venture to the rooftop, and there’s even more art at work in the pastry kitchen of the Blue Bottle Coffee Bar.
Depicting the art that comes to SFMOMA in lip-smackingly edible form is Caitlin Freeman’s calling. She, along with her pastry team, Leah Rosenberg and Tess Wilson, work through the upcoming exhibitions in search of inspiration, flipping through the artwork thumbnails “looking for anything that strikes a chord,” she says. “Whether we see an image with food in it, something that looks like an edible shape, or just an image we like to look at, we really just try to narrow down our options.” And their efforts have been given a frame of their own in the folds of a celebratory new recipe book, Modern Art Desserts.
It started with cake. After picking up her grandfather’s Pentax and discovering the artistic side of life through a viewfinder, a school trip to SFMOMA put Caitlin face to face with the artwork that would shape her life to come. Wayne Thiebaud’s Display Cakes (1963) awakened within her an illicit desire to hold onto whatever it was she felt when she first saw it. The work looks as though it’s painted entirely of frosting, with its creamy brush strokes and a cherry on top. Easy to see then, how the piece could inspire someone to run off and join a bakery, just as Caitlin did.
Fast-forward to 2013, and the Blue Bottle Coffee Company, started by her husband James in 2002, has baked, confectioned and frozen works by Roy Lichtenstein, Jeff Koons and of course, Wayne Thiebaud. But the cake that made the cafe famous – and now takes pride of place on her book’s front cover – is the Mondrian, a bolder kind of Battenberg cake that stirs a smile and calls for a fork.
“One of the most gratifying things about our job is that we can inspire someone to take another look at art,” says Caitlin. “We see it all the time, where people are curious about what we’ve done and gone back to the art for a closer look.” So the punters are enamoured with the theme, but are the artists themselves flattered? Caitlin describes talking to those whose work she has recreated as “a thrill”.
“Andrew Kudless, Ruth Laskey and Rosana Castrillo Diaz just participated in a talk with me at the Modern Art Desserts book launch party. It was so great to get to talk about their process, and hear their feelings about being immortalised in dessert,” she says.
“Cindy Sherman was wonderful and I have a treasured picture of her taking a picture of her ice cream float with her iPhone camera. John Zurier was a fixture at our cafe when we were making a popsicle based on one of his paintings. Richard Serra banned us from selling the cookie plate we made based on one of his pieces.” But who can blame Caitlin when she says: “My one dream is to get to tell Wayne Thiebaud how much his work means to me in person, but I think that writing a book (basically) dedicated to him will get the point across.”
What many of these desserts have in common is colour, so to be faced with a commission on an “unappetising” canvas, there was panic in the air. “When Luc Tuymans told us that we could make a dessert inspired by his purple/grey piece,
St. Valentine, and the expectation was that we would figure it out over one weekend, I nearly lost my mind,” Caitlin recalls. “In general, cool tones and grey especially, are very hard colours to work with in food. Not much is appetising! And to add the pressure of a brilliant and cranky Belgian artist expecting something great, I wasn’t sure we’d be able to do it.”
The solution, she says, came to her in a deep sleep: “A gelee made with Creme de Violette. Such a delicious success and one of my favorite flavour combinations we’ve made to date (violet, earl grey tea, crème fraîche parfait).”
It’s food as art as food, and the sponge of her labour is far from overcooked. “I haven’t had the occasion to make something based on a Robert Bechtle painting, and he’s one of my favorite Bay Area artists. I’d also love to consider more of Thiebaud’s work, other than the cakes and confections.”
But where does the artist/baker relationship begin and end? “I studied to be an artist, but never expected that that would be my job title. I am most definitely a baker, but get a thrill when the title artist occasionally gets tacked onto my name. I think [food and art are] as linked as we want them to be. I’m just using art as inspiration to do my job as a pastry chef. I’d love to hear stories about artists using food to inspire their work.”
While requests come in from visitors pondering works of art over their coffee and on their plate, Caitlin says there’s one particular artist that drums up interest. “People seem to think that it’s crazy that we haven’t done a Jackson Pollock. Most everyone says, ‘even I could make something out of a Jackson Pollock’, to which I like to respond, ‘yes, please! I would love to see that!'”