By Martica Sawin
In 1979, MoMA curator Kynaston McShine was walking along SoHo’s West Broadway when he noticed a display of exquisitely-decorated artificial cakes in the window of the Holly Solomon Gallery. He tracked down the artist, Pat Lasch, and commissioned her to create a monumental cake for the Museum’s 50th anniversary celebration. Lasch, at that time a young artist connected with the woman’s cooperative Artists In Residence (A.I.R.) Gallery, accepted the challenge. Working in her Westbeth Studio, she produced a multi-tiered five-foot-high sculpture in acrylic over a wood base, festooned with roses, pure gold leaf, spun gold thread, feathery embellishments made from Arches archival paper, and encircling garlands of acrylic lace. (See the accompanying photo.) This sculpture was mentioned in a New York Times account of MoMA’s anniversary celebration in November 1979.
At the time of the commission, Lasch was told that her sculpture would enter the Museum’s study collection. A drawing by Lasch is currently part of the MoMA Permanent Collection.
Over the years, Lasch created many more “cakes” as well as figure sculptures, gold and copper-leaf “prayer cloths,” and sinister black constructions of wire and found materials. Her work in various media has been exhibited in many solo and group exhibitions. Lasch has become known for her adherence to an independent course, resulting in unique artworks that give form to her own emotions.
When a retrospective exhibition of Lasch’s sculptures was scheduled for the Palm Springs Art Museum, the curator, Mara Gladstone, sent a loan request to MoMA asking to borrow the anniversary cake. Eventually, an answer came back from the Museum’s Registrar saying that, after a thorough search, the object could not be located.
In the fall of 2016, Lasch had a residency at the famed artists’ colony, Yaddo. She told the story of the missing cake/sculpture to a fellow resident who happened to be a colleague of New York Times writer Randy Kennedy. The result was “A 1979 Sculpture’s Vanishing Act,” an article by Kennedy with three photographs in the Times’ Arts section in January 2017. The piece questioned why MoMA, with its sterling reputation as a protector of art, did not at the very least contact the artist. Standard procedure in the case of a work’s deteriorated condition would have been to consult the artist about conservation measures to be followed.
Interviewed in the Westbeth studio that she has occupied for 47 years, Lasch recounted: “One of my collectors who saw the Times article wrote to MoMA’s Director, Glen Lowry, protesting the Museum’s careless handling of the artwork. In his response, Lowry claimed that it was, “an ‘event-based object’ and that, although it had been kept at the Museum for years, the materials were such that it had deteriorated beyond repair.”
“I know the piece couldn’t disintegrate,” said Lasch. “The Palm Springs Museum is showing three pieces from the same year made of similar materials, all in mint condition; one five-foot piece is part of their permanent collection. I think I was just perceived as a woman artist—they wouldn’t have thrown out a plaster Oldenburg hamburger. Why wasn’t I contacted? Why wasn’t it kept in a protective case? On a personal level, it made me feel disrespected. On a larger level, I was shocked that a museum could treat an artwork in such a cavalier way. I had thought it was protected and safe—it was one of the major pieces of my life.”
The cake image may suggest something edible and ephemeral, but Lasch is an artist of skilled and solid craftsmanship, and is zealously attentive to the quality of materials. She may have started with applying frosting in her father’s bakery, but she has produced exquisite sculptures in bronze and porcelain and was in charge of the welding studio during her years on the faculty at the University of Massachusetts. Her creations are not prone to self-destruction.