Paul McCarthy's 'Tomato Head (Green)' (1994) was on display as part of Art Basel Unlimited 2016

Paul McCarthy's Tomato Head just sold at Art Basel

A Mr Potato Head for adults? Read Ralph Rugoff on this seminal work by our Contemporary Artist Series artist

In his most exuberantly disorienting sculptures of the 1990s, such as Spaghetti Man (1993) and Tomato Head  (1994), Paul McCarthy seamlessly mixes Imagineering-style realism with blatant sexual content. Bristling with the dark and mischievous humour of fairy tales, these works seem to have stepped out of another order of reality, an impression reinforced by their professional fabrication.

One of the Tomato Head series was bought at Art Basel yesterday for an undisclosed sum by Art Agency, Partners, the art advisory company bought by Sotheby's at the start of this year. But what makes Paul McCarthy such a force to be reckoned with important and why would a collector want to have a piece many might deem particularly difficult to live with? 

Well, our new Contemporary Artist Series book on McCarthy posits a number of coherently and precisely argued reasons - not least from the respected curator and Hayward Gallery Director Ralph Rugoff who contributes the entire survey chapter of the book. 

Rugoff likens McCarthy's Tomato Head series to a Mr Potato Head for adults, writing: "Unmarked by any touch of the hand, their impersonal gloss signifies the immaculate conception of the virtual, yet they are disconcertingly concrete. Towering over our heads, they shock us back to the confusions of childhood and a crisis often associated with effigies: it seems impossible to see them as mere lifeless objects. As Ortega Gaset remarked of wax figures: ‘Looking at them we suddenly feel a misgiving: should it not be they who are looking at us?’"


The Beanery 1965 - Edward Kienholz
The Beanery 1965 - Edward Kienholz
Rugoff compares McCarthy’s hybrids  to Edward Kienholz’s sculptures from the 1960s that joined realistic bodies to heads fashioned from clocks or antique diving helmets. "Looking further back in history," he goes on, "their morbid eroticism recalls the surrealist tradition of exquisite corpses, Max Ernst’s human/bird composite and Hans Bellmer’s recombinable poupée."

"To theorists of postmodern identity, Tomato Head might also seem to embrace the ideal of the ‘decentred’ subject, home to a diverse community of partial selves. After all, McCarthy’s three human/vegetable hybrids share a collection of mix-and-match accessories and body parts that can be easily rearranged. But there is something disturbingly pre-fab about Tomato Head’s multiplicity; the brightly-coloured garden props and rubber-coated tools that penetrate its multi-purpose orifices resemble items from a store-bought kit, a Mr. Potato Head for adults. Articulated in a theme park dialect, its postmodern subjectivity seems like merely another consumer product, an example of metamorphosis as marketing."

A great piece of writing, we think you'll agree. If you're the mystery buyer from Art Basel you're probably feeling pretty pleased with yourself and we congratulate you. If you're not, but you'd like to know a little more about what makes Paul McCarthy such an interesting artist buy our Contemporary Artists series book here.