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It’s OK to Eat the Art

The artist, with her wax Prince William, at the "Engagement" opening in London, in February; Padded Cell, upholstered with 1,600 cones of pink cotton candy for a Performa fundraiser last November.  

Since 2001, Rubell had been organizing her parents’ annual breakfasts at the Art Basel festival in ­Miami. Her deconstructive approach to feeding big groups, she ­realized, resembled the practices of a ­conceptual-art movement known as “relational aesthetics,” where the artwork creates a social environment in which people participate in a shared activity. At a breakfast in 2007, for example, instead of a traditional buffet, Rubell laid out 2,000 of each of the following: pairs of latex gloves, hard-boiled eggs, croissants, and slices of bacon, for guests to feed themselves. Rikrit Tiravanija, the artist whose work involved cooking for ­gallery-hoppers, “had already done his performance with food in the nineties,” she says, “but relational aesthetics definitely impacted my belief that what I was doing was art.” Art Basel–goers recognized it, too, asking Rubell’s parents who the artist was behind the breakfasts. “That echo was louder and louder every year,” Mera says.

Jennifer was good at this, and it filled a need: So much of the art world is about providing a context for social interaction—she’d witnessed it firsthand. And interaction fascinates her. She soon began to get commissions to do her brand of provocative catering from friends and arts organizations.

When Performa 09 director RoseLee Goldberg invited her to participate in the performance-art biennial in New York, ­Rubell crossed the now-blurry line between arty event planning and art installation. Her multiroom Creation, at the former Dia Center for the Arts building in Chelsea, was inspired by the first three chapters of Genesis. Food was spread among three floors and included a ton of ribs progressively drenched by a honey trap mounted on the ceiling, referencing the creation of Eve; three felled apple trees; and seven Jacques Torres–­chocolate mini-facsimiles of Jeff Koons’s “Rabbit,” with hammers provided to break them. Times art critic ­Roberta Smith described the event as having “melded installation art, happenings, and performance art with various Old Testament overtones, while laying waste to the prolonged ordeal that is the ­benefit-­dining experience.”

Rubell was now being called a food artist. Her whimsical, sometimes disturbing, and always spectacular events at museums and art fairs around the country matched perfectly with the lavish, self-reflective hobnobbing spirit of the contemporary-art world. They also commented on the art itself, tweaking and reveling in its consumability. Last year, she produced a dinner for the Brooklyn Museum’s annual benefit. The theme, “Icons,” allowed Rubell to honor her favorite artists: a giant piñata of Andy Warhol’s head decorated the lobby; a table arranged with 150 roasted rabbits evoked Joseph Beuys’s performance piece How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare; “drinking paintings”—blank stretched canvases, each with a tank in back and a spigot in front dispensing dirty martinis, bourbon, gin-and-tonics, white wine, rum-and-Cokes, screwdrivers—were hung on the walls, referencing Jackson ­Pollock’s “drip” paintings.

The drinking paintings were a personal breakthrough because Rubell was moving away from food and more clearly establishing her artistic objective. Interaction, she explains, is her medium; food had been the means to engage. “I’m interested in making art that people want to see and can use to understand what’s happening inside contemporary art. The minute you give people something they can participate with, it gives them access to it, because they’re a part of it.” The drinking paintings solved another problem: Rubell had found a way to “create durable objects that contained the ongoing possibility of interaction.”

Creating something durable also drew her parents’ attention. “My contemporary-art education comes 100 percent from my family, and their narrative of what’s happening in contemporary art is laid on a matrix of collectibility,” says Rubell. “Because they hadn’t validated ephemeral work, I hadn’t validated it in my mind.” She wanted them to understand her work, which is, in part, a physical manifestation of their ongoing conversation. “Jennifer challenged us to go into something that we understood the least,” says Mera, now owner of several drinking paintings—currently the only art to adorn the walls of the couple’s living room. “But we are under instructions from her to not behave as parents or as our usual enthusiastic collector selves—we can’t stop talking about artists we discover. We feel so lucky to have this creative force inside of our family.”

Rubell is now confident enough to identify as a conceptual artist not only within her family but out in the world, too. Not that her foodie friends fully appreciate the importance of the distinction. Batali deeply admires his old friend and sees her as his “fire iron”­­—the two cooked up the concept of the “vegetable butcher” for his Eataly over a late-night dinner at Del Posto one night (she even did the job for a while). “She’s always at my restaurants in the inception-and-­development phase,” he says. As for her being a conceptual artist, he is supportive, but, he teases, “I just hope she doesn’t become Karen Finley standing in a bucket of shit.”