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Tastemakers: Ming Fay, Barton Benes, Wayne Thiebaud

Ming Fay
Big Thinker

On the floor just inside the front door of Ming Fay's Manhattan loft sit an enormous papier-mâché walnut, an outsize wulu (a Chinese gourd), a giant red plum and a massive Bosc pear. The branches of a tree with paper leaves that encase real chamomile seeds hang overhead. Ming, whose works have been shown at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and other major museums, demonstrates the beauty and wonder of natural forms by blowing them up to unnatural size. Born in Shanghai, he attended art school in the United States and began making welded-steel sculptures, but after he moved to New York City in the '70s, a more economical and lightweight medium seemed preferable. One day while looking at a pile of old New York Times newspapers, he came up with the idea of papier-mâché. As the years went on, he would add polymer, pigment, plaster gauze and polyurethane to the mix. His mixed-media sculptures of the fruits and vegetables he admired in the produce stands during his walks through Chinatown reflect several of Ming's loves: botany, Chinese folklore, herbal remedies and the giant city he calls home.

--Robert Frumkin

Barton Benes
Money Manager

"I stole a bone from a catacomb in 1963, and that's how it all started," Barton Lidice Benes says. Religious relics, celebrities' flotsam and even crumbs of leftover wedding cake arrive at the artist's studio in New York City, like drifters to a halfway house, hoping to find a good home in one of his mischievous, ironic works. Currently, he's sculpting food items to symbolize every country on earth, using each nation's currency. From a British pound, he's fashioned a tea bag; from Chinese yuan, a fortune cookie. An earlier piece, Food, is a trove of 72 culinary curios, among them a Christmas cookie baked by Katharine Hepburn and a half-eaten roll from Kurt Vonnegut's dinner plate. He mounted each object on handmade paper, labeled it and housed it in a compartment of a wooden shadow box. The presentation was more befitting to a rare butterfly than, say, Alan Dershowitz's Cheetos, but Benes has an uncanny genius for elevating the mundane to the iconic. Benes, though, says he is simply fascinated by taboos: "I like doing things I'm not supposed to."

--Susan Choung

Wayne Thiebaud
King Of Pop

Forget the country picnics of the impressionists or Picasso's fractured apples. Wayne Thiebaud's icons are cupcakes, gum balls and prefabricated salads. His work, the subject of a retrospective that moves to the Whitney in New York City this month, has orbited around the taste buds for almost half a century. Before he began painting the defiantly normal foods of postwar America, the Arizona-born artist did a stint at Disney and cartooned for the army. (There's still a hint of the funny pages in his vertiginous meringues and oozing pies, although Thiebaud puts himself in the still-life tradition stretching from Chardin to Morandi that celebrates the ordinary.) In recent years, he's illustrated Brillat-Savarin's Physiology of Taste, made wine labels for Dominus vineyards and drawn desserts for a book by his friend Alice Waters. While he's comfortable in that milieu, Thiebaud remains down-home to the core. Asked what he'd crave the most after six months in the desert, he says, "That's easy--meat loaf and mashed potatoes. Followed by blackberry pie."

--John C. Welchman

Published June 2001
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