Throwing Custard Pies Looks Like Fun. It’s Also Art.

The artist Jennifer Rubell is taking custard pies to the face as part of a New York City art exhibit. In doing so, she joins a very long and messy political and cultural tradition.


Jennifer Rubell was standing on a platform, wearing black top, black pants, and an unreadable expression.

Upon another platform in front of her 192 cream pies stood in rows. The room was a-buzz. Rubell is an artist, known for work involving food and for sculptures that invite gallery-goers to participate, such as a recent piece, Lysa III, a mannequin that cracks walnuts between its thighs. Ouch!

"Consent" is the inaugural show of the Meredith Rosen Gallery on New York's 34th Street and eight audience members were each about to smoosh a cream pie into Rubell’s face.

"Consent" will continue every gallery working day until March 17 so I suggested to Mera Rubell, the artist’s mother, that future pushers might be asked just who in the art world they would be happiest to be pieing?

“Being a collector’s daughter is not enough?” she asked, miming surprise.

Mera and Don Rubell are indeed precisely that, forever on the alert, Miami-based heavy hitters, whose opening parties are tent-pole events at Art Basel Miami Beach.

The pies were to be pushed into their daughter’s face at 7.30, an action with deep, sometimes convoluted roots. So let’s revisit the beginnings, which were in political protest.

Pie-throwing seems first to have been employed as a comic stunt in 19th century vaudeville theater. It became a staple in silent movies, such as the Laurel and Hardy classic, Battle of the Century, during which well over three thousand pies were hurled.

It seems to have been Tom Forcade, the founder of High Times magazine, who brought it into modern times. Forcade was a member of the Youth International Party, the Yippies, in which Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman were the most media-ready presences.

Guerilla Theater was a signature practice and pie-throwing was a brilliant borrowing. Forcade’s pieing of Otto Larsen, chairman of the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography in 1970, seems to have been the first such action.

Aron Kaye, another Yippie, was aware of pieing’s potential for humiliation in 1972 when both the Republicans and the Democrats had their conventions in Miami. “I was inspired by Pat Small who pied a councilman in Miami Beach,” Kaye says. “What happened was we were denied permits to camp out in the parks. And Pat pied councilman Harold Rosen.”  

Kaye swiftly became the all-purpose Yippie Pieman. “Rennie Davis was my first pie throw,” he says. “He was one of the Chicago Seven. I threw a pie at him and missed. I hit the floor.”

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Why Rennie Davis? “I was pissed off at him for going to the Guru Maharaj Ji (who oversaw) The Divine Light Mission.”

Kaye then turned it into a business: Pie Kill Unlimited.

“I was doing Pie For Hire for a while. Getting paid forty or fifty bucks to pie a target. I pied boy friends … I pied bosses … I pied landlords … I even pied a nun at a Catholic school. It was a school principal. Two Catholic schoolgirls hired me.

"And then one night I went and pied William Buckley. And then much later I went and pied (four-term New York senator) Pat Moynihan.” Why Moynihan? “I thought he was a jerk. A pompous jerk. I did Gordon Liddy … I did Howard Hunt … I did Phyllis Schlafly …. I did Steve Rubell. He was standing outside Studio 54.” Why Rubell? “I didn’t care for Roy Cohn.”

Kaye allows that Jennifer Rubell’s uncle took his pieing pretty well. And that same Roy Cohn connection caused him to pie Andy Warhol.

Why Warhol?

“I know. Maybe I just want to pie somebody who was pompous, like Andy. I did it as a lark.”

What happened on this occasion was truly Warhol-esque. Warhol was standing with Mick Rock, a terrific photographer but one, who, just for once did not have a loaded camera. So Warhol had the event re-staged, the pie re-smooshed, and a hilariously operatic picture was taken.

So Warhol took it well?

“No. He was pissed. He left after the pie. What he did was I pie him … he re-staged it … and he leaves … “

But you’re not in the picture?

“No. I’m not in the picture. Because Mick Rock took the picture after I had left. He didn’t get a picture of me.”

Would you have liked a picture of you?

“Yes. I would like that,” he said.

The Yippies understood the power of images, like Steve Conliff, who pied Jim Rhodes, the governor of Ohio, at the Ohio State Fair in August 1977. This had been to protest the deaths of four students at Kent State, shot by Ohio National Guardsmen several years before, an event which resonated around the world.

Richard Hamilton, the British artist for whom Pop art is arguably named, had used a newsreel shot to make a powerful print, but such resonance had not been enough for Conliff. “Elvis Presley died on the same day. Steve always grumbled about it,” his widow recently told a reporter. “He said ‘He stole my thunder. I would have been on the front page of the New York Times.’”

In 1977, the anti-gay activist Anita Bryant was pie'd by LGBT rights activist Thom L. Higgins while she was holding a press conference in Iowa.

The movement spread. Belgium became an arena, mostly thanks to Noel Godin, a comedian and activist, who founded a group he called the “entarteurs”, specifically to "assassinate through ridicule all world celebrities who take themselves spectacularly seriously."

At the 1985 Cannes Film Festival he pied the director, Jean-Luc Godard, who was heading on-stage for a chat about his movie Detective, which had just been screened. Godin, who was also a movie critic, hadn’t liked the movie and explained “I can’t bear such a level of stupidity.”

Godard took his smooshing a great deal better than most targets, licking the cream off his cigar and thanking Godin for his “homage to silent film”. He also opposed chucking him out of the festival.

In 1997 Noel Godin smooshed Nicolas Sarkozy, then the mayor of Parisian suburb Neuilly-sur-Seine, ten years before he became president of France. That pieing may not have been purely political. In 2006 Ségolène Royal, who mounted a failed challenge to Sarkozy for the presidency, also got one in the kisser.

In 1998 Bill Gates was ambushed by two entarteurs, and for a while pictures of the splattered magnate dominated the cyberculture he helped create. His attackers, Rémy Belvaux and Brian Keegan, were charged, found guilty of “mild violence” and hit with the minimum sentence, a fine of 75 euros, the-then equivalent of $88.

Godin told an interviewer that the pieing had been accomplished with the help of “a Microsoft insider”.

The contagion spread further. In September 2001 King Carl XVI Gustav of Sweden was struck by a strawberry tart thrown by a 16-year-old boy. Queen Silvia helped in a tussle that brought the youth to the ground.

In Britain, a whole children's TV show in the 1970s and 1980s was based on the throwing of custard pies. The phenomenally popular Tiswas even boasted a mysterious black-bodystockinged figure known as the Phantom Flan Flinger, who would violently attack guests with pies and buckets of water. Britain also hosts the World Custard Pie Championship.

In July 2011 Rupert Murdoch was being questioned about the hacking scandals by a British parliamentary committee when a man in a checkered shirt approached and tried to push a plateful of shaving cream in his face. He was clobbered by Murdoch’s then-wife, Wendi Deng.

So the threat of violence is necessarily there. Rubell is a self-designated target. So, at least she got to design the pies. “I wanted something that would last,” she says. She got pre-made piecrust and cream. Was a cow involved in the production of the cream?

Rubell laughed. “No cow,” she says. “It's vegan.”

Is it edible? "I always end up eating s bit of it. It tastes like the frosting of a cupcake. Vanilla.”

Rubell had been through the process a few times when we next spoke. She had thought she would get used to it. Wrong.  

“It’s incredibly shocking when it happens to you, even when you know it’s coming, it’s just hard to take every day,” Rubell says. “It’s interesting that that would be the humiliating gesture when used as a political protest. It’s such a simple gesture and it’s so loaded and so complicated. And so connected to politics and sexuality. This piece came about well before Me Too.”

Men and women differ when they push pies, Rubell says. Women are more game.

“When men throw the pies at me it’s so heartbreaking. It’s so much harder to take because I feel how pained they are to do it. My mother, my father and my brother were all at the opening. And my mother could be in the room watching, even though it was very hard for her. And my father and my brother couldn’t even be in the room.

"Men have a much harder time doing it. I have a daughter and a son. When we were rehearsing my daughter threw ten pies in my face and loved it, my son, who is five years old, could not do it. Wouldn’t do it!

“Yesterday when I left, I was just crumpled, I was destroyed. But I’m going there. For me, it already feels great to be up there and to know that every pie there is going to go into my face.”

Rubell does not worry that the smooshers might get too much into it.

“The attendant there, the assistant, she has instructions that no matter what happens she does not call 911. If I’m not flat out unconscious she can’t stop the performance. And knowing that is in itself a huge part of the satisfaction of the piece.”