Words take center stage in the latest new exhibition by artist Ed Ruscha at the Museum of Modern Art. There’s “OOF” painted in perfect yellow block letters, and then not far away “NOISE” takes up another canvas. Given all of that visual “noise,” walking through the next room, a nondescript space with brown tiled walls, can feel a little incongruous, as if it’s just a boring passageway to more stimulating Pop Art beyond.
When I visited the exhibition, many museum-goers simply breezed through the brown room, barely giving a second thought to the unusual-looking walls around them. But if you go, take a moment to pause, to look more closely—and to even smell. Because this room is tiled entirely in chocolate.
Ruscha, an artist known for his Pop and conceptual works, first created “Chocolate Room” in 1970 as part of the Venice Biennale. He found local chocolate paste and screen printed it onto hundreds of sheets of paper. Then he hung each one like tiles or shingles from floor to ceiling. Ruscha was doing “immersive art” before that was even a buzzword.
Given the fragile and ephemeral medium, Chocolate Room is refabricated on-site every time it’s shown. This is its first showing in New York City. On social media, MoMA offered a peek at the complicated installation process. A team in New York melted chocolate, poured it and pushed it across a silk screen to be transferred onto paper. Then they installed it in layers onto the walls.
The sheets surround visitors, practically transforming the room itself into a vat of cocoa. Melted chocolate is, of course, a much trickier medium to work with than the traditional ink used in screen printing. While the medium presents a thicker substance to use, the final creation still looks exactly like screen printing with its customary streaks and variations in tone.
The work is extremely fragile. Art handlers can't even place a hand behind the artwork because it could melt. That means visitors must stay back, as well. But anyone can admire the visual spectacle—and the subtle, sweet aroma of chocolate—from a distance.
"It represents a major moment in his use of unexpected materials due to its immersive scale and ephemeral nature," MoMA wrote in a press release.
Like any good work of art, Chocolate Room stirs debate. Responding to MoMA's video on social media, some people decried the artwork as a "waste of food and resources" and as "one dimensional." Others lauded the work as "amazing" and "so cool." And yet some just want to know how the museum deals with ants who may be lured by the sweet aroma.
In addition to Chocolate Room, don't miss the rest of Ruscha's work presented as part of MoMA's retrospective titled "ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN." The exhibition is the most comprehensive retrospective of the artist's work ever shown. It's on view through January 13, 2024.
The museum worked closely with Ruscha to create the show, which unites over 200 pieces created between 1958 and today. Ruscha, known as one of the most influential figures in postwar American art, pays close attention to everyday sites, such as roadside architecture, consumer products and typography—influences you'll see in vivid color throughout his work.
"I am greatly looking forward to this exhibit," Ruscha said in a press release announcing the show. "It will be like various acquaintances gathering for a reunion."