For three nights this week, artist Susan Cianciolo collaborated with Untitled chef Michael Anthony and executive chef Suzanne Cupps on a project titled Run Restaurant Untitled. Described as “an immersive event for the senses, [where] Cianciolo transforms the restaurant into her vision of a communal space,” the project is part of the Whitney Biennial, and is essentially a temporary transformation of Untitled. The staff sports custom uniforms designed by Cianciolo; mobiles, posters, and an eclectic array of table decorations fill the space; live musicians perform; and communal seating is the norm.
Given the project’s aim to meld the food world and art world, it only seemed appropriate to send Adam Platt and Jerry Saltz to eat together and offer their thoughts on how well Run Restaurant Untitled bridges the gap between their two areas of expertise. Over coffee and a towering slice of lemon-meringue pie at Bubby’s, the two critics discussed their thoughts on the night.
So, let’s start with what you liked most about the evening.
Jerry Saltz: I liked the table settings the most, and the general kind of gypsy, ragtag-y personal expression. It’s like, sometimes you have a sweet friend, and you don’t even know how they survive, yet somehow they entertain in a beautiful way — I was touched by that, and that this was some sort of weird collaboration between the chef and the artist, both moving out of their comfort zones. That touched on art, for me, and somewhere in there the diners became quasi-viewers, too.
Adam Platt: I’m sorry, Jerry, but can you tell me about the artist?
JS: The artist, Susan Cianciolo, is a great designer of clothes. She was also an impresaria of a great gallery called Alleged, which was legendary. They were always a bit outside, showing skateboarders and surfers, for example, with a lot of fashion-art overlap. This was in the 1990s, right after the art scene collapsed, and people were starting to make their own galleries. So this woman was, at the time, a well-known fashion designer, beloved by the art world, and now she’s at the Whitney Biennial, and this is her piece.
AP: With that explanation and context, I think I can appreciate it more because there’s a sense that this was an artistic happening. If I had just come in and been sitting down at a table scattered with random newspaper and folky prayer flags hanging from the ceiling, I would have just thought: This is fun. Restaurants are highly designed, but that tends to be in a precise, utilitarian and — for a restaurant critic — familiar way. This was different.
JS: To add to that — because I think it’s really right — we’re living in a time when success and efficiency have become one big idea that seems to dominate many of the creative worlds. This meal made me miss the idea of someone simply entertaining you in their own way. I don’t know how you’d run that as a business, but tonight was someone trying to give something, and it felt selfless.
AP: Well, for something so selfless, it cost a lot.
It was about $200 per person for the food and wine. Does that change your idea at all?
AP: It’s an expensive restaurant, so you were paying for that, in a way, but I liked this attempt to meld the restaurant and art worlds. I didn’t think it was always successful — the first course, an assemblage of vegetables and a few cooked items that felt like a bento box of Japanese and Indian odds and ends, was the most effective “artistic food” of the evening — but it still felt like a happening. Do they have happenings anymore?
JS: No. That word is kind of a negative thing.
AP: What about “performance art”?
JS: I would just use “performance.”
AP: So “happening” is sort of stuck in the ’60s?
JS: Calling it a “happening” is not a big deal, but the word indicates something slightly pejorative. Like saying, “You’re a real hipster,” or, “I see your hair is a man-bun.”
AP: So there’s an edge to it. Regardless, I do think that as far as tonight was concerned, the “art” was more of a focus than the food.
JS: If I’m being totally honest, I didn’t think about the food. But as somebody that very, very rarely goes out to dinner, I liked pretty much everything I ate. I did not know what 90 percent of it was, but I liked what I was eating, and that there was a lot of bread. I took some pieces home.
AP: What’s your favorite food?
JS: Pizza is my favorite, and I like to eat chicken that I buy already made so I can reheat it.
AP: So much of this meal was a mystery to you, foodwise?
JS: It was a mystery, but not an annoying one, the way restaurants are. It wasn’t pretentious. It was simple, and nobody was making a big deal out of it, and I liked that. It was very much unlike a meal I once ate at elBulli, where I did anything the chef told me to do and felt like I was suddenly turned into a sexual bottom. I did whatever he wanted, and he was right. He was some kind of master.
So there’s a dom-sub relationship between great chefs and their diners?
JS: Evidently! It was like that with the whole room, and you didn’t dare cross him! I got up to schmooze a little in the restaurant, and it was like all hell broke loose! It was mad.
Was this successful as something like a night of culture?
AP: I’m like Jerry in that I don’t cross over much into the other world. I go to restaurants all the time, but I go to galleries rarely, so I was basically wandering in like a big horse with blinders on, and I thought it was fine. Would I pay $200 for the same kind of experience again? Maybe I would, in six months or a year, for a different artist — the way someone visits a destination restaurant. Or maybe once every three years.
JS: That seems about right. The impact might have been “meh,” and not that memorable, but that somehow hit someplace yearning in me. Now, I’m going to be a squirrelly art critic with you. The deep content of the piece was love, sharing, simplicity, ease, and fleeting; it wasn’t her best work, but I think the content is still her — this uniquely inspired fairy-dust artist who offered something kind of eccentric — and I’d grade it high on that level.
AP: I think it’s hard to sustain the sense that there’s something going on for more than a few minutes. That’s also difficult foodwise, and doing them together was a huge challenge. For an artistic melding between an artist and a great artist-chef, I think they had the sense that they needed to give people something for their $200, and they weren’t going to give you something crazy and mind-altering. The kitchen was ultimately going to give you a pretty decent, straightforward — though not particularly mind-altering — meal, and that’s what this settled into after the first five or ten minutes.
JS: As much as I admire Susan’s work, I would say every word of that is true. Do you know the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija? He’s a great Thai artist, who made pad Thai, and he would serve it in galleries for free. The idea there was a different economy: I make it; you eat it; we share it. He sometimes kept spaces open 24 hours a day, it didn’t matter who came, and they could eat as much as they wanted. Tonight was in that tradition, but New York has changed, and we don’t have that avant-garde anymore where things are free. The first few minutes of this had a sweetness to it, a warmth and genuineness, and then it was maybe more for insiders.
AP: There’s a strong connection, for instance, between the worlds of music and food. Do you have the same connection in the art world? Do you know many artists who find inspiration in food and restaurants, and different adventurous cuisines? Or are they still subsisting on warmed-over deli coffee and slowly starving to death up in their garrets?
JS: I think you are so right! Artists are now more fluid, probably by necessity and pressure, to wear any hat of passion that they fancy. And there are mixes of culture in flux all over, happening now. Although, I am too old to stay up late enough to catch wind of them until they’ve ended up in galleries or gone. And the art world is pretty appalled at me getting deli coffee every night, putting it in the fridge, and microwaving it in the morning. I’m a stranger in a world that is now artisanal through and through.
One measure of success is whether this will make an art critic more interested in restaurants, or make a restaurant critic more interested in New York’s art scene.
JS: It did make me want to eat out. I was loving the talk about the food, and about regular dumb stuff like Trump, and I got very melancholy. Like, life can be … good.
AP: There’s stuff happening. It’s a big, lively culture.
JS: Well, I want to be somewhere quiet. And for me, I was still sitting in the Whitney, not in a restaurant.
AP: I reviewed it as a restaurant, and that’s how I saw this; though, I might have preferred to be in a gallery. But the idea of seeing a chef as a spontaneous artist who’s working with Susan, another lovely spontaneous artist, who came to our table to explain her sense of craftsmanship and this idea of …
JS: … giving and innocence …
AP: … as opposed to being a crusty critic, you felt like the people in the kitchen were more like her. That sense of spontaneity is what’s elusive at restaurants night after night. Even chefs who view themselves as artists — it’s a business for them, and this was a night when it wasn’t.
JS: I think she’s trying to make a secret family of the art world — the way it has been at various times — and that is harder to come by these days. Even if this bygone experience failed and had to happen in an epicenter of high culture. The yearning and nostalgia that exists, but only in small ways in New York now, where art people used to go to the same places together and fight and sleep with each other and create new languages late at night.
AP: You don’t go to Fanelli’s anymore to get drunk together and get into fistfights over contentious, though arcane, points of art theory?
JS: That’s all gone. It may be thriving, or maybe the old alcoholics are still at the bar talking about the old days. I’m not saying New York isn’t any good anymore — I love New York and wouldn’t live anywhere else — but to me, this was just a tiny, little momentary flair of family.
So here’s the big question: How many stars?
AP: Jerry, you’re not a star man.
JS: I don’t know how to use stars.
AP: Basically, we’ve got a five-star system, and I never use the fifth star.
JS: I like one- and two-star places, then — because that means it might be cheap, and it might be good. I liked that they gave me beer instead of the wine when I asked, and I liked that they didn’t make fun of me for not knowing what the fish was, or what the stupid mushroom was, or a ramp.
AP: I enjoy a good spring onion as much as the next fellow, but ramps are bullshit.
JS: The food didn’t speak to me as much as the love I felt in the room. So I’ll give it a generous two stars. However, I might give it nothing if I had to lay out two C-notes for it. I mean, I didn’t even know what you meant when you said you’d ordered “wine pairings” for us. Like, what the fuck is that?
AP: I’d say the same thing about the overall performance. I’d give it a good one-and-a-half for the DIY sensibilities and wacky tablecloths. I wish it had been sustained throughout the meal a little longer, but I liked the spiritual lightness — the sense that you might come to some kind of understanding about something.
JS: And it wasn’t cynical about that!
AP: You felt like you might be transported, even a little.
JS: A little of that is saying a lot these days.