Artist Ed Ruscha’s Chocolate Room installation is now on view at NYC’s Museum of Modern Art

In the new Ed Ruscha exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art words take centre stage. 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. The entire room is covered with chocolate tiles. 

This expansive Picasso exhibition explores the artist’s lesser-known cubist and classical works

Ruscha, an artist known for his Pop and conceptual works, first created “Chocolate Room” in 1970 as part of the Venice Biennale. He used local chocolate paste to screen print hundreds of sheets on paper. He then hung them like shingles or tiles from the floor to the 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. It’s the first time it has been shown in New York City. MoMA provided a glimpse of the complex installation process via social media. New Yorkers melted the chocolate, poured and pushed it through a silkscreen to transfer it onto paper. They then installed it on the walls in layers.

The sheets transform the room into a cocoa vat. 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 very fragile. The art handlers cannot even put their hand behind the work because it may melt. This means that visitors are also required to stay back. But anyone can admire the visual spectacle—and the subtle, sweet aroma of chocolate—from a distance.

In a press statement, MoMA stated that “it represents a significant moment in his use unexpected materials because of its immersive scale and ephemeral character.”

Chocolate Room is a work of art that stirs up 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. 

Installation view of ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN, on view at The Museum of Modern Art
Installation view of ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN, on view at The Museum of Modern Art| Installation view of ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN, on view at The Museum of Modern Art

Do not miss Ruscha’s other works, which are part of the retrospective of “ED RUSCHA/NOW AND THEN” at MoMA. This is the largest retrospective of Ruscha’s work to date. The exhibition will be on display until January 13, 2024. 

The museum created the show in close collaboration with Ruscha, which features over 200 works from 1958 to today. Ruscha, known as one of the most influential figures in postwar American art, paid close attention to everyday sites, such as roadside architecture, consumer products and typography—influences you’ll see in vivid color throughout his work.

Ruscha, in a press announcement announcing this exhibition, said: “I’m looking forward to it.” “It’s like different acquaintances getting together to have a reunion.”

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