It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the hamburger is second only to the Stars and Stripes as a globally recognized symbol for all things American. Beef and bun are soft, round targets for those who have appointed themselves defenders against the encroachment of fast food, agribusiness, American imperialism, or some combination thereof. “Whether or not hamburgers can be considered good food is a personal matter. But then, of course, I’m no fan of hamburgers,” said Jack Lang, then the French minister of culture, in 1991, to a classroom of ten-year-olds, on the occasion of the founding of a primary-school course in French gastronomy. “Better a day of tortellini than a hundred days of hamburgers!” went an early rallying cry of the Slow Food movement. On the other side of the trenches, cultural commentators have trotted out the burger as the embodiment of American-style entrepreneurship, representing the essence of our country’s egalitarian spirit.
The potency of this singular, universally recognized food has not been lost on artists—especially the great Pop and Photorealist painters and sculptors of the 20th century. Its roundness, its compactness, and its sheer everywhere-ness in America’s graphic universe was manna for those movements. Artists like the Swedish-born Claes Oldenburg returned to the food again and again; his slablike, four-foot-high canvas, foam, and rubber Floor Burger from 1962 became one of his most iconic works. Andy Warhol, not surprisingly, also found inspiration in the hamburger. In addition to making silk-screen prints like the one pictured at left, Warhol paid homage to the burger in a short film made in 1981 by the Danish filmmaker Jorgen Leth. In it, Warhol, facing the camera and seated alone at an empty table, eats a Burger King hamburger. Maybe his solitary meal was an acknowledgment of the burger’s symbolic role in modern life; perhaps it was a stunt. Then again, maybe Warhol was just hungry.