Frieze Projects Curator Cecilia Alemani on Reheating FOOD, SoHo's Legendary Artist-Run Restaurant


Frieze Projects Curator Cecilia Alemani on Reheating FOOD, SoHo's Legendary Artist-Run Restaurant
Frieze Projects curator Cecilia Alemani

As the curator of Frieze New York's Frieze Projects for the second year in a row, Cecilia Alemani has proven a rare ability to commission works by artists that manage to cut through the plentiful stimuli of the fair—and its transporting location on Randall's Island—to grip visitors with real art experiences they can carry away with them in their memories. This year, one of her projects has even managed to break through to the wider world at large, generating enormous amount of attention: the recreation of FOOD, the legendary artist-run eatery founded in 1971 by Carol Goodden and Gordon Matta-Clark. At the fair, the cooking will also be done by artists, with original FOOD alumna Goodden and Tina Girouard taking turns with current art stars Jonathan Horowitz and Matthew Day-Jackson.

What should fair-goers expect when they step into the revival of the famously unpredictable restaurant? To find out, Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to Alemani, whose day job is curator of the immensely popular High Line art program, about the inspiration for the project, and why no one really knows anything about FOOD.

To the right, find a tasty assortment of food-inspired art.

Where did the idea of restaging FOOD come from?

FOOD is part of a series of tributes that we started last year with the idea of paying homage to nonprofit spaces or artist-run initiatives that were once very important in the artistic scene but have since closed, so few people have actually experienced them. Last year we did a tribute to Fashion Moda, this amazing alternative space in the South Bronx, just around the corner from Randall's Island, and what we did was recreate a show that John Ahearn did there in 1979. So, at Frieze, John was there making lifecasts of people, just as he did in '79, and it was a very performative event that was different from anything else you could see in the fair. It was amazing to see how people were looking at the art with completely different eyes—they were seeing something firsthand they had before only studied in books—and we wanted to continue that tradition.

What does your recreation of FOOD involve, exactly? 

The idea is to have a fully functional restaurant situated outside the fair but connected to the inside, so it's accessible to both the people at the fair and those without a ticket. The idea is that every single day a different chef-artist will be conceiving a menu, and my attempt with the project is to try and see if we can recreate or somehow question the energies that existed around that space. Because for many people it wasn't just a restaurant, it was a gathering place for the community that was living and working in SoHo back then, when that neighborhood was a no man's land. It's a really challenging project because it's not something I know how to do, but we're working hard.

The funny thing is that, by all accounts, Goodden and Matta-Clark didn't know what they were doing either.

Clearly! As you can read many times. So, the idea is that it will be a space where you can get some food, but it's also a place where you can sit and hopefully have inspiring conversations and meet interesting people. The way we conceived the scale is very much based on what happened at FOOD on Sunday, because that's when they had the guest-chef dinners, which were completely curated and conceived by artists who had either worked with food or not. Famously, Gordon Matta-Clark made a bone dinner with a full menu based on bones, back at a time when bone marrow wasn't a delicacy. Legend says that, after dinner, people would pick the bones out of the dishes and someone from the kitchen would drill holes in them and make necklaces out of them for the diners to wear.

And then there was other weird stuff that wasn't actually edible, and other things that were never realized. For instance, Mark di Suvero had this idea about serving food from a crane outside the restaurant and then bringing dishes inside for customers to eat with tools, like screwdrivers and hammers. So we based our format on the model of the guest-chef dinner, where it would be a spontaneous place for creation.

What is it that particularly interests you about recreating FOOD in the current moment?

What interests me is not to try and recreate FOOD, because that would be impossible, but to ask: what are the FOODs of today? What are those spaces today where we can gather? What was really interesting to me was that when I started talking to so many people about these questions, they immediately returned to the idea of the artist's studio. Nowadays so many artists have something closer to Warhol's Factory, which was a place of creation but also of gregarious conversation and gathering for their team and their friends. So I hope some of these questions will be coming up.

Why did you choose Jonathan Horowitz and Matthew Day-Jackson to join the original FOOD chefs? And will all of the food be suitable for actual eating?

Well, Jonathan and Matthew were not there at the time for FOOD, but their practices are either somehow influenced by FOOD or have a similar gregarious energy. And the food is going to be edible, but there will also be things that change, you know... it won't exactly be food you'd expect to be served at a fair. I think one chef plans a recreation of an imaginary dish, but besides that there isn't much that's too out of the ordinary. Each artist has conceived a very specific menu, so it will be more than just eating food—there's a story being told through that menu.

FOOD was revolutionary in its time from a culinary perspective as well as an artistic perspective, being the first place in New York to serve sushi and also having this farm-to-table, conscious-cuisine aesthetic that's now almost like the norm. In fact, the restaurants that are part of Frieze New York's regular slate of dining options, like Mission Chinese and Roberta's, are famous for a very similar artistic-style, experimental approach. So, while FOOD was radical at its time, how are you now going to delineate it at the fair from the other restaurants that are so much like FOOD?

It's a very good question. It's really hard, and I don't know whether the restaurants today are as innovative as FOOD, because—and you mentioned sushi—but it was also one of the first places where you could get a vegetarian meal. Another thing is that the kitchen was open to the dining room, which back then was a very revolutionary idea, and that was conceived by Gordon Matta-Clark because he felt what happened in the kitchen should be visible from the dining room. There are amazing pictures of this huge pot of soup with meatballs of whatever they were making, and no barrier whatsoever between the cooks and the customers. So that was very strange then, but now we're used to it. These are things that you start paying attention to when you realize how revolutionary they were to so many people at the time.

One can tell from all the attention your recreation of FOOD has gotten that restaurants and food generally are very much part of the zeitgeist. The blogosphere is obsessed with food, almost in the way that every magazine or website around the turn of the millennium was obsessed with celebrity gossip. Everybody was obsessed with Paris Hilton. Now everybody's obsessed with celebrity chefs, and it seems like a lot of artists are getting in on that, with so many doing food-based projects. What do you think of that larger phenomenon?

I'm a food lover. I love New York because it's a great city for food. This particular project—and I'm honest when I say this—did not come about because of that. These kind of artist-run spaces have been a passion of mine since I started curating, maybe because I'm Italian. When I moved here ten years ago, I went to Bard and studied the history and tradition of nonprofit spaces, which are so important in this city. We don't have anything like that in Italy, so I've always been very fascinated by them. For me FOOD is much more than a restaurant—it's a piece of a legendary SoHo where artists had amazing studios and didn't have anywhere to go to eat. That's what really interested me. Then you open up this amazing area of interest with food as art. I think that's what made FOOD such an interesting project back then, because it could be read as an artist's project, an artwork, and an innovative restaurant. Everyone fights about FOOD, and everyone wants to say they were there, "I ate that," et cetera. It's something that everyone knows, but not really. That shows how fresh it is.

It's amazing there hasn't been a book written about it yet.

To find out about FOOD's layout I did a lot of interviews with people, because there isn't much literature about it—again, FOOD is really famous in that people have heard about it, but nobody really knows anything about it. It's more like a legend. So it was great to hear all these interesting stories about FOOD, and now they've been published in the Frieze New York catalogue.



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