Work of the Week — “Cafeteria Still Life” by Fred Becker
by Haley Clement
Upon a glimpse, Fred Becker’s Cafeteria Still Life, complete with an arrangement of glassware on a pedestal, almost seems like a standard still life. When you look closer, however, you begin to notice little oddities, such as figures and mushrooms jammed inside of vessels. This sense of strange is continued by the incorporation of a single, unruly flower that dominates the scene and appears almost mischievous in nature.
All of this chaos is contained, ironically, within the surface area of the small pedestal, which sprouts from the table and seems to extend away from its conventionality. The table, containing a single coffee cup and saucer as well as a crumpled napkin and cigarettes, alludes to the idea of relaxation, which draws additional contrast between it and the scene hovering above.
Like the octopus and figures crammed inside their respective vessels, the vessels themselves appear crammed together on the pedestal, which provides stark contrast to the emptiness on the table below. It is almost as though this wild world solely exists within itself and is a sort of concentration of unconventionality apart from the conventional, similarly to our own funky, little Asheville.
While the artist, Frederick G. Becker, did not live in Asheville/Little New York, he did move to its larger counterpart from California to study architecture at 20 years old in 1933. His interest in these studies did not last, and he quickly opted for freer mediums, including drawing and printmaking. When his career began in the 1930s, Becker’s style was characterized by its quirkiness and surrealist qualities. By 1938, Becker’s wood engravings and etchings had become so popularized that they were featured in his first one-man show at the Marion Willard Gallery. By 1940, Becker became drawn to British engraver S.W. Hayter’s workshop, Atelier 17, which helped turn him on to abstraction. Becker’s work continued to change over the years, but his style is highly individualistic and easily recognizable.
To me, the small scene atop of the pedestal in Cafeteria Still Life speaks to the eccentric people that exist among the “normal”. This pocket of free spirits is everywhere, but, in my own experience, has been especially noticeable in cities like New York and Asheville. With this particular work being a New York-inspired still life, what do think Becker’s Asheville version would be? Perhaps there would be a few pint glasses in the mix…
Artwork above: Fred Becker, Cafeteria Still Life, 1937, etching, 10.5 x 8 inches. Museum purchase with funds provided by 2012 Collectors’ Circle members Gary and Olivia Zahler. Permanent Collection. 2012.48.63.