Art as Food as Art: Caitlin Freeman and her "Modern Art Desserts"

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Caitlin Freeman. Photo: Charles Villyard
Caitlin Freeman. Photo: Charles Villyard

Andy Warhol as Jell-O, Jeff Koons as a gilded white hot chocolate, and Cindy Sherman as a pink ice cream float dusted with glitter are just a few of the edible art concepts cooked up by Caitlin Freeman, an artist who creates confections and fancy snacks based on special exhibitions at SFMOMA. Her new book, "Modern Art Desserts," details recipes and stories from her self-made dream job: responding to art through food.

Modern Art Desserts by Caitlin Freeman

Freeman co-owned Miette pastry shops before opening the Blue Bottle Coffee bar at SFMOMA’s rooftop garden with her husband James. From Miette, she brought along artist and pastry chef Leah Rosenberg, and assistant Tess Wilson. The team’s desserts are innovative, creative and sometimes controversial. A cookie plate inspired by Richard Serra’s massive steel sculptures is likely the first dessert to have ever received a cease and desist letter.

Thiebaud Pink Cake. Photo: Clay McLachlan (c) 2013Sherman Ice Cream Float. Photo: Clay McLachlan (c) 2013Koons White Hot Chocolate with Lillet Marshmallows. Photo: Clay McLachlan (c) 2013

Freeman credits painter Wayne Thiebaud with inspiring her to become a baker, and says the book is a love letter to him. Her favorite cakes to bake are buttercream party cakes, and that’s exactly what Thiebaud is known for painting. The two cake-loving artists haven’t met yet, but Freeman throws a birthday party for him every year at the cafe. Besides her most popular cakes modeled after works by Thiebaud and Piet Mondrian, 70 modern art desserts have been created over the past four years. Textile artist Ruth Laskey’s two-color weavings became conceptual sodas where flavors were assigned to each color, creating combinations like lemon soda with bay ice cubes, and bubblegum soda (made from Dubble Bubble gum concentrate) with violet ice cubes. Freeman was interested in the overlap between colors and flavors, a concept that went through some trial and error when she focused on Andy Warhol’s self portrait in green, blue, red, and yellow. She tried to make a Bloody Mary gelée and explains, “I didn’t want to use food coloring but I figured we could use blue curacao. We made Campbell’s tomato soup Jell-O, celery, horseradish and Worcester Jell-O, and it was revolting. It shouldn’t be a surprise, but that was the one recipe that didn’t really work out.” Her aversion to food coloring had to be overcome for her Mondrian cake, a chocolate ganache grid with primary-colored cake blocks, but she’s not the only one who is wary of unnatural-looking cake dye. She says, “People easily gobble up the yellow and red, but often they’ll leave the blue square on the plate.”

Dessert is based on Garry Winogrand's "Kerrville, Texas" (1977). Photo: Willa Koerner.
Dessert is based on Garry Winogrand's "Kerrville, Texas" (1977). Photo: Willa Koerner.

Freeman’s latest concoction, inspired by a Gary Winogrand photograph, is an ambitious multimedia project. As she describes it, “The piece we chose is these two people dancing on a platform that looks just like an ice cream cake. So we’re making this ridiculous multimedia cake that involves Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” playing from an MP3 player inside the plate, which happened to be the number seventeen song the year the photo was taken, and looks exactly like the song they would’ve been dancing to. We’ll have two images laser-cut as cake toppers that will be dancing on the cake.” The desserts are often conceptual, and sometimes literal, like the Jasper Johns-inspired grilled cheese that looks like his piece, Bread. As Freeman describes the project, “The piece is a lead panel with a piece of bread on it, so we made a grilled cheese and served it on a to-scale board painted to look like lead. It was a giant, oversized board people would have to carry back to their table.” She likes that her creations can help make the art more accessible, and says that when she walks into a gallery of California painters, “especially Diebenkorn and Thiebaud,” she often wants to take the paintings home, and says:

“Making desserts is my way of owning something, of really pretending that I’m stealing it, and making it my own.”


"Modern Art Desserts" was released this month by Ten Speed Press. Freeman’s Mondrian cakes will soon be available for purchase online (available for delivery, packed in dry ice). Keep up with her projects at

Photos of desserts reprinted with permission from Modern Art Desserts: Recipes for Cakes, Cookies, Confections, and Frozen Treats Based on Iconic Works of Art, by Caitlin Freeman, copyright (c) 2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. Photo credit: Clay McLachlan (c) 2013