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Strange Fruit

Zoe Leonard, American, born 1961

Made in United States, North and Central America


295 banana, orange, grapefruit, lemon, and avocado peels, thread, zippers, buttons, sinew, needles, plastic, wire, stickers, fabric, trim, wax

Dimensions variable

Curatorial Department:
Contemporary Art

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
Purchased with funds contributed by the Dietrich Foundation and with the partial gift of the artist and the Paula Cooper Gallery, 1998

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Strange Fruit began as a means of consolation for the artist after the death of a friend, but now presents a wide range of possible readings, including a meditation on loss and mortality. The fruit skins—emptied, dried, faded, repaired, and ornamented—have the feel of relics, almost like photographs. Transformed by the artist's delicate mending, they are subject to effects of time that are as unpredictable as they are inevitable.

Taking its title from a song by Billie Holiday, Strange Fruit is unique in its materials but not in its themes. It recalls the venerable tradition of vanitas still-life paintings, which show objects that suggest the fleeting nature of life, such as a flickering candle or a wilting flower. Far more direct than a picture, Strange Fruit actually will decay. By introducing the natural rhythms of a work of art's life into the museum setting, Strange Fruit raises questions about the permanence of art, and whether it resides in objects, ideas, or people's experiences and memories.

Additional information:
  • PublicationTwentieth-Century Painting and Sculpture in the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    Strange Fruit (for David) was made over the course of five years from the rinds and skin of about three hundred pieces of fruit that the artist and her friends had eaten and then allowed to dry. She "repaired" and adorned the opened seams with colored thread, shiny wires, buttons, and zippers. Leonard explains that the piece developed as a work of mourning after a friend's death, "a sort of a way to sew myself back up."1 She began with two oranges sewn in Provincetown and continued in New York and later in Alaska, where she relied on fruit sent to her by mail.

    The quiet, elegiac tone of this piece contrasts with Leonard's work from the late 1980s, when it was inseparable from her activism on behalf of feminism, gay rights, and the battle against AIDS. A powerful body of impassioned, polemical, and sometimes crudely made art had sprung from the anger and heartbreak of a community ravaged by disease and death. To Leonard, the experience of sewing the fruit seemed to offer the reconciliation of beauty with her stance of political engagement. Installed in the gallery, Strange Fruit has the aura of a graveyard, a gathering of strangers wherein each remains uniquely individualized, a place hospitable to reverie and solace.

    For as long as it lasts, the presence of the piece in the Museum provides a powerful contemporary example of the venerable tradition of vanitas paintings, meditations on the transience of life that usually portray fruit ready to decay, candles soon to gutter out, or flowers about to fade. Strange Fruit removes art from the fiction of a heroic "forever" and brings us closer to human experience where everything is changing or dying in some way but where beauty and creativity still flourish. Twentieth Century Painting and Sculpture in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2000), p. 150.

    1) Interview with the artist by Anna Blume, January 18, 1997, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.