Allan McCollum on Allen Ruppersberg
What One Loves About Life Are the Things That Fade
ART SHOULD BE FAMILIAR AND ENIGMATIC, JUST AS HUMAN BEINGS THEMSELVES.
The Cafe was intended to be a limited-run restaurant, staged once a week—Thursday nights from eight to eleven—in a rented location in downtown Los Angeles. It was to function socially as a meeting place for friends, members of the art world, and anyone else who wanted to drop by. In direct opposition to what one might have expected from a young artist at the time, the decor was familiar to the point of strangeness: hyperfamiliar, you might say today. The look was as crafted as a movie set, true to the period, though the period could have been anywhere from 1925 to 1969. Against all Minimalist, Post-Minimalist, and Conceptualist expectations, this cafe was not an idea as an idea as an idea; it was sumptuously filled with romantic detail, suggesting a cafe that had existed for a lifetime of years and was filled with Middle American memorabilia—posters, nature calendars, fishing paraphernalia, pinups, picture postcards, and autographed photos of movie stars and sports heroes. The patterns of the tablecloths were everyday plaid, the counter and the tables and chairs were traditional. Odd bits of advertising novelties were everywhere, souvenirs of past events abounded, and the waitresses were beautiful. This was Al's Cafe, the American cafe of all American cafes, looking as if it had been nurtured for forty years by a caring cafe-owner, filled with memories to be shared with generations of patrons. It was a place where any American would have felt at home. It was exorbitantly familiar.
But once one recognized this, and once one was comfortable, a strangeness was invited to the table. The menu supplied by the beautiful waitress was on the outside perfectly normal-looking—but the "dishes" were rather odd. The first offering ("FROM THE BROILER") was TOAST AND LEAVES. The second offering was DESERT PLATE AND PURPLE GLASS. The third offering was SIMULATED BURNED PINE NEEDLES A LA JOHNNY CASH, SERVED WITH A LIVE FERN. And so on. From salad to desert, Al's Cafe mediated nature into sculpture, brought the forest and the desert to your table. And it was not, as I thought for a moment, a joke. When a person ordered a "plate," the waitress brought the order to the "kitchen" behind the counter, the "cook" (Ruppersberg) put together the dish (rather quickly, as I remember), and the order was delivered to the table—perhaps a SMALL DISH OF PINE CONES AND COOKIE ($1.50), or maybe THREE ROCKS WITH CRUMPLED WAD ($1.75).