In Culture

Variations on a theme - Daniel Humm

Episode Summary

Daniel Humm, award-winning chef of Eleven Madison Park, draws on Sol LeWitt’s systems and repetitions in this episode of Variations on a theme. And host Dessane Lopez Cassell finds the link between minimalist art and fine dining to reveal the power of simplicity. For more information about Microsoft's In Culture podcast and to read the transcript, please visit:

Episode Notes

“I think as you grow as a craftsman, as an artist, your gestures become stronger. Your conviction becomes stronger. You can actually get to a place where you can make an impact with a very minimal thing,” says Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park in New York City. In this episode of Variations on a theme, host Dessane Lopez Cassell speaks to the acclaimed chef about the intersection of minimalist art and fine dining. We also learn how Humm finds inspiration in Sol LeWitt’s systems and repetition — making the empty plate an opportunity to tell a unique story.

For more information about Microsoft's In Culture podcast and to read the transcript, please visit:

Episode Transcription

Sol LeWitt: I started to think of the wall as an interesting thing.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: That's Sol LeWitt, the late great Conceptual artist. Born in 1928, he was a pretty prolific guy, producing drawings, sculptures, art books, and so much more from the 1960s up until his death in 2007. He's one of the most fascinating and influential artists of his, or maybe any era. He was one of those artists who could make something as mundane as a white wall into something truly compelling. I'm Dessane Lopez Cassell, I'm a writer, curator and a pretty big Sol LeWitt fan myself. I remember learning about LeWitt's work as an art history major in college, and just being fascinated by his emphasis on systems and repetition, as well as the simple elegance of his drawings and sculptures.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: But what sealed the deal for me was the summer I spent interning at MASS MoCA, leading tours of their Sol LeWitt galleries, a longterm installation of 105 of the artist's large large-scale wall drawings. Walking through those galleries each day gave me a chance to really think about the possibilities of simple but radical gestures. Sol LeWitt is an artist whose work you can really dive deep into. You might see one of us works in a museum, an office building, or someplace further afield, like on the walls of a chapel in the middle of a vineyard in Italy, and it's easy to become taken with their precision. Then you find out what's behind it, how it came to life, and suddenly you're seeing it in a new way. Each artwork, which might appear to be a pattern of straight or curvy lines of different widths and colors suddenly become so much more. Once you start to understand the process behind it. That's what we're going to explore in this podcast series, which we're calling Variations on a theme.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: We'll look at some of the key themes in LeWitt's body of work, then explore how other people have responded to them, and all sorts of fields. Incorporating his influenced into their creative work and pushing it further. This podcast is a companion to an app from The Estate of Sol LeWitt which was developed in close collaboration with Microsoft. It used a state-of-the-art technology platforms like artificial intelligence to really help immerse users in LeWitt's life, artworks and process. You can download it now, wherever you get your smartphone apps, there's tons to explore there. But here on the podcast, we'll be taking a step back, and asking why and how this artists became so influential? For this first episode. I'm speaking to Daniel Humm, the renowned chef behind eleven Madison Park, about the ways in which he's found inspiration in Sol LeWitt's art and process, especially LeWitt's wall drawings. But first let's hear a little more about that from the artist himself.

Sol LeWitt: When I started doing these wall drawings, most of them were a scope and size that I couldn't do with myself. Anyway, they were a mechanical sort of thing. So I had people work along with me to do them. Then I had the idea that I could give a person a plan and that he could do it if he knew the technique.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: If you're not an art history nerd, that's totally okay. The most important thing to note here is that Sol LeWitt was coming up at a time when artists were really rebelling against the spirit of abstract expressionism. Which in the 1940s and 1950s had been a huge part of so-called American art. Artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning had been making art in ways that were extremely physical. There was this big cult of personality around them, and a sense of machismo around how they created their work. Both minimalism and conceptualism emerged in the 1960s and 1970s when artists were looking to shift cultural weight from objects to ideas, from gestures to concepts. While this might not sound like such a big deal now, at the time, this was pretty radical. Let's go back to LeWitt.

Sol LeWitt: For instance, people who had worked with me previously knew how to make these parallel lines. That worked out okay. Each person that did it, did it a little differently because of each person is a different person. I liked the idea that they had a different personality, there's still, I felt, my work.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Long story short, it's the idea, that's the artwork here and that's what made us want to talk about, Sol LeWitt with a chef. Someone who works with recipes or instructions all day long, with the final creation being what shows up on the plate. Their art at its core is defined by being impermanent and reproducible and that means it has the capacity to change, ever so slightly, each and every time it's made.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Eleven Madison Park is one of the world's great restaurants. The name is its address. It's on the ground floor of a historic building on the East Side of Madison Square park in Manhattan's flattering district. You'd go for an ambitious and at times theatrical multi-course tasting menu, prepared in a kitchen led by the chef Daniel Humm,. he's received three Michelin stars and two James Beard awards for his cooking there, which if you follow fine dining, you'll know means that's as good as it gets.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: But if dishes like their famous lavender and honey glaze stock, or black truffles and celery root cooked in a pig's bladder are the star of the show, then the art featuring prominently throughout the restaurant is the brilliantly cast supporting act. You actually enter the main dining room by stepping over a sculpture by the artist, Daniel Turner. A minimalist slab made of pots pans and stove parts when the restaurant's old kitchen melted down after the last renovation in 2017, that renovation really brought visual art into focus. Throughout the space, you'll find works from contemporary artists like Rita Ackermann, Olympia Scarry, and Rashid Johnson. Then there's the Sol LeWitt, wall drawing number 768, which covers the walls of the restaurant's private dining room.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Just imagine being completely immersed in a brightly colored abstract work. I'd absolutely recommend looking it up. Although all the art at EMP, as it's known in the industry, is thoughtfully chosen, the LeWitt feels especially on point and personal. Born out of Daniel's friendship with Sol LeWitt's daughter, Sophia. Here's Daniel.

Daniel Humm: When she had dinner here, she said, "My dad would have loved to be part of this reincarnation of Eleven Madison Park.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Speaking to Daniel over Skype from the restaurant's dining room, I could see why Sophia saw her father's art as a natural fit for the space, and also why Daniel feels such a strong connection to LeWitt. There's some pretty undeniable parallels between what's happening in Daniel's kitchen and what LeWitt often cooked up in his own studio. So while Daniel has really made his mark with food, he's super passionate about art. He has been ever since he was a young boy in Switzerland, and he's made sure it stays a big part of his life. Even as cooking became his craft.

Daniel Humm: Every city I would go to, I would make sure I visit the museums or the foundations of certain artists. I just started to see the world through art as well as food.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: It wasn't until Daniel moved to the US as an adult, that he really discovered LeWitt. After some years cooking in San Francisco, he landed in New York in 2006 to take over the kitchen at EMP. He saw LeWitt's work at institutions like the Albright Knox, and Buffalo, and Dia Beacon, and the Hudson Valley, and he says he was mesmerized.

Daniel Humm: I really wanted to learn as much as I could about his work. It's been a gift that's been keep giving. So it's been beautiful to be inspired by his work.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: I wanted to you about when you first started to understand the process behind Sol LeWitt's work that say, for example, when you're looking at a wall drawing that what is actually considered the artwork, for lack of a better term, isn't the physical installation in front of you, but it's the set of instructions. When did that first start to click for you and how did you first understand it?

Daniel Humm: That wasn't one of the first things that I learned, but then when I learned that it was like game over. I just felt like, Oh my God he's one of the greatest.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: That must have really hit home for Daniel. When a team of artists came to EMP to install wall drawing number 768, he said he really wanted to know what these other artists were working from.

Daniel Humm: I was so curious about this recipe or the instruction, and I assumed they will be like a folder full of information. So I asked them, I said, "Okay, where are the instructions? I want to see them."

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Okay, wish granted, here they are. Gray, yellow, red, and blue, not straight vertical brush strokes, not touching. The materials specified are India ink and color ink wash, and that's it. Yes, there are diagrams and reference images, but LeWitt typically kept his instructions fairly simple. While they note line types and materials, a certain amount of interpretation on the part of the drafter was always an essential part of the work, and that mode of making it really clicked with Daniel.

Daniel Humm: In that way, I feel like my foods sometimes is very precise, and we measure exactly where things are on the plate. Then we have other plates where it's much more free form and much more light in that way. So I feel the work of Sol LeWitt very much resonates with me. Then of course, we write the recipes and I do need a team of people who will make these things day after day, and based on these recipes so the work can live on a daily basis. So it's very similar to Sol LeWitt's work.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: I love this, that a recipe, a set of instructions that leads to creative execution. Let's that creative thing be alive. It makes the idea that art. Less though, the thing on the wall or the thing on the plate. It's pretty easy to see why this is important in cooking. Ultimately, you need to eat what's on the plate, but as it applies to visual art, it's part of what draws Daniel to LeWitt, particularly in the context of his restaurant and his own spin on fine dining.

Daniel Humm: I believe making it less precious, taking the pretension out of it, you can touch them. If something happens to them, it's not like this precious thing. Sometimes people are curious about it, people touch it, or even like someone gets close to it with their chair. It's not a big deal because the work itself on the wall, we can repaint it, and it's not such a precious thing. I think he changed the game by that alone.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Beyond the obvious parallels between instructions and recipes, Daniel is also a big proponent of minimalism, both in art and on the plate. LeWitt was a major figure in that movement, which included contemporaries like the artist, Dan Flavin, Eva Hesse and Agnes Martin. I asked Daniel about how that spirit influences his cooking. As someone who is not a chef myself, I'm wondering, could you give me a little bit of a crash course in what you mean when you're talking about minimalist cooking?

Daniel Humm: What I try to do with my food is always to honor the ingredients. Whatever I do to an ingredient, I want to highlight that ingredient in the highest form. To be honest, at my early stages some of my plates would have eight different things, and 10 different techniques, and crispy element, and this, and that. I just wanted to show the world everything I've learned in one plate. It actually worked, but as time went on, and as I reflected on the artworks that I have such strong feelings about, I realized that if I could have a dish with just two ingredients on it, and I could impress the world just as much, then that would be the highest form.

Daniel Humm: I think as you grow as a craftsman, as an artist, your gestures become stronger, your conviction becomes stronger. You can actually get to a place where you can make an impact with a very minimal thing. My first dish, where I really felt that I did it for the first time was probably only four years ago. I spent 25 years learning about adding things, adding skill, and adding knowledge. Now I'm feeling like I'm unlearning, and undoing, and I probably going to spend the next 25 years trying to take away rather than adding. The taking away has been much more challenging than the adding.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: So what's guiding him through that process? Daniel tells me that there's a bit of a system behind his cooking these days, a set of guiding principles that help them do more with less.

Daniel Humm: I came up with four fundamentals for my cuisine. Number one, it was beautiful visually, is important. Number two, it's delicious, which I always believed in that no matter how interesting it is, in the end of the day, it has to be delicious. Number three, it was creative and it moved things forward, it added something to the dialogue of food. Then number four, it was intentional, there is a story to it, there is a reason for being.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: I feel like Sol LeWitt would be very on board with this. I don't want to oversell this, but this made me think a lot about LeWitt's emphasis on systems, and in his eyes, the possibilities they offer. Case in point, the four main styles of lines, which should become foundational to his wall drawings. Vertical lines, horizontal lines, as well as diagonals from left to right, and right to left. LeWitt would later introduce all sorts of other lines, arcs circles and scribbles. By the 1990s, even wavy lines and stars, as he said in an interview in 2000, "Sometimes inadvertent and casual things can set my ideas into another direction."

Daniel Humm: I think it's always that balance of system and artistry, I think. But I think both of them are a very healthy tension to have. For me, the four pillars is a way to systemize a little bit of our process by still leaving enough room or a lot of room for creativity.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: I want to get back to this idea of inspiration. Beyond the influence of LeWitt's process, there's also something very visceral about sharing space with this incredible artwork. That experience of walking by it every day, that makes a difference.

Daniel Humm: I feel so lucky to be able to live with a wall drawing here at Eleven Madison Park. When you have an empty plate, or an empty piece of paper, or a white wall, or a canvas that the idea that anybody with the right idea can change the world based on this empty space, an empty wall, an empty plate. When I create, I definitely go always add it where it's that ambition, that what we will put on that plate, hopefully, well, definitely will give people beautiful experiences that will become lasting memories. But also it's possible to do something on it that will inspire a whole industry, so that inspires me to no end. Seeing that wall drawing on a daily basis gives me that confidence that it is possible.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Big thanks to Daniel Humm for speaking with us. I wanted to mention, this interview was recorded during the summer of 2020 when Eleven Madison Park wasn't open for business as usual due to COVID-19. During the pandemic, the culinary team has taken on a new focus. Re-purposing the kitchen into a commissary, which provides meals for frontline workers and other New Yorkers in need. If you want to learn more about the work that Eleven Madison Park and their partners are doing to address food insecurity both during and beyond the pandemic, check out

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Sol LeWitt, Variations on a theme, is part of the Microsoft In Culture podcast. Follow us or subscribe wherever you're listening now. This season is written by producer Jordan Rothlein and me, Dessane Lopez Cassell. This episode was edited and mixed by Nat Weiner and features original music by Angular Wave Research. Very special, thanks to The Estate of Sol LeWitt and to Lindsay Aveilhé, who's research on Sol LeWitt has been integral to this project. This episode features a clip from Sol LeWitt on his work, an artists talk given at the New York Studio School on February 10th, 1971. The audio recording appears courtesy of the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture. Sol LeWitt, Variations on a theme, is a production of Microsoft, in collaboration with Listen, a sensory experience company in New York City.