Enormous Chicken Painting Comes Home to Roost

After years overseas, Doug Argue’s iconic portrait is back

Chicken Painting
For Minneapolis art lovers, this huge painting needs no introduction—or title. Doug Argue/Wiseman Art Museum

Why did the chicken painting cross the Atlantic? That’s a question lovers of an enormous painting of, well, chickens asked when an iconic painting traveled from Minneapolis to Armenia. At the time, visitors of the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota mourned the departure of their fowl friend. But now, there’s good news for henpecked art lovers, reports the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Alicia Eler: The chicken painting is back home once more.

The gigantic, untitled 1994 painting depicts a factory farm filled with cages and chickens in Minnesota-born Doug Argue’s signature larger-than-life style. It hung on the Minneapolis-based museum’s walls for almost two decades, a loan from art collector Gerard Cafesjian. But in 2012, Cafesjian decided to move the painting to his lavish namesake museum in Armenia, Mary Abbe reported for the Star Tribune at the time.

The Cafesjian Center for the Arts in Armenia, which the New York Times’ Michael Kimmelman called “a mad work of architectural megalomania and historical recovery” and “one of the strangest but most memorable museum buildings to open in ages,” was a fitting home for the whimsical painting known simply as “the chicken painting” in Minnesota. But the painting’s transfer was a loss for locals who loved it. As Abbe notes, patrons even came to bid it goodbye before it made its transatlantic trip.

In 2013, Cafesjian, who was known throughout the Twin Cities area for his efforts to save local icons like the Minnesota State Fair merry-go-round, died. Then, his daughter decided she wanted the portrait to return to Minnesota instead of staying at the Armenian museum. And so its return was celebrated this weekend.

“The sheer size of this painting (12 by 18 feet, or 3.65 by 5.48 meters) makes it a challenge to the senses,” wrote Annie Potts in a book about chickens. In an oral history, Argue called his painting “an imaginary chicken farm where the walls just become cages and they go to infinity.” He got the idea from a Kafka short story in which a dog contemplates where the world gets its food.

Is the ginormous painting Kafkaesque or just plain catchy? Either way, it’s so charming it rated its own welcome-back party. “Ever wonder what 198 square feet of chickens look like?” clucks the museum in a press release. If the answer is yes, don’t worry—it won’t take your entire nest egg to catch a glimpse of a wall filled with seemingly endless coops and chickens. Admission at the Weisman is free, but the chicken painting might just be worth its weight in gold.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.