“Fools invent, genius steals” is a saying that applies to many artists. But finding one to whom it applies more fittingly than to Wayne Thiebaud is difficult. While California’s best-known painter has registered his fair share of inventions, it’s his melding of distant and diverse influences that set him apart in the ‘60s, and it continues to do so today. While some of his contemporaries are starting to feel a bit shop-worn, Thiebaud, despite exposure in what feels like a continuous string of blockbuster exhibits over the past decade, retains a mystifying allure.
Homecoming, his fourth solo exhibition at the Crocker since 1951, comes at a propitious time: it coincides with the museum’s 125th anniversary, the opening of its quadrupled-in-size exhibition space and the artist’s 90th birthday, which falls next month.
Of the more than 50 works on view, some of which are located in a separate show of new and promised gifts, at least 20 were painted in the past decade. Spanning the years 1961 to 2010, they capture Thiebaud at all the important junctures: decontextualized still lifes, portraits, surreal landscapes and vertiginous cityscapes. They also show him evolving from pure Pop to abstraction, applying the methods he perfected in his confectionary paintings to landscapes. These, like the cityscapes for which he is equally famous, employ radical distortions of perspective and an almost 19th century, Post-Impressionist sense of light. What’s different is the emphasis. It is not on the much-vaunted confectionary paintings, but rather on everything else in Thiebaud’s oeuvre.
A realist to the core with an almost religious devotion to the formal intricacies of representation, Thiebaud learned more from the likes of Chardin, Sorolla and Bonnard than he did from any of his contemporaries, save Richard Diebenkorn whose color palette still echoes in current works. Yet in 1962, the year of his New York debut at the Allan Stone Gallery, his lushly rendered paintings of pies, cakes and ice cream cones put him squarely in the middle of Pop. It was a designation he initially disowned but later accepted after it brought him fame. Like Warhol, Thiebaud began his career as a commercial artist, and like Warhol he achieved international acclaim by lionizing vernacular images that critics and ordinary folks just couldn’t (and still can’t) resist. Why? One theory floated in 2003 is that Thiebaud is something of a folk artist. The idea seemed ludicrous since Thiebaud, at the time, had been teaching painting at UC Davis for nearly half a century. But its proponent, Michael Zakian, director of Pepperdine University’s Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, argued — persuasively — that Thiebaud, while no folkie, does employ a great many folk-art mannerisms. The obsession with detail, the faithfulness to an object’s essence, the use of fixed, rigid forms in a diagrammatic style, the employment of distortions in perspective to achieve a kind of caricature, the reliance on repetition and sorting, and a devotion to painterly excess and vivid color — these are devices that folk artists have traditionally relied upon.
True or false, it seems now like a plausible explanation for why Thiebaud’s veneration of simple things (pies, paint cans, cigars, neck ties, cheese wheels, cityscapes and landscapes) never falls out of style. His art speaks to our longing for simple truths, for things we know. If I had to pick two paintings in this show that sum up Thiebaud’s bravura paint handling skills, Pies, Pies, Pies (1961) and Boston Cremes (1962) would rank near the top. He doesn’t just render these edibles realistically – he aims a laser-guided dart at our senses, whipping the pigment into multi-colored froths that make us feel as if the works were pulled from an oven rather than an easel. What rescues them from sentimentality is the fact that he eliminates illusionistic, spatial perspectives, preferring instead to separate objects from their surroundings like a studio photographer would. with plain backdrops and flood lights. This isolation has a bifurcating effect: It magnifies the sterility of the fluorescent-lit, retail environment while issuing an icy, look-but-don’t-touch sensuality.
Thiebaud takes a similar approach with figures. He paints people as if they were pies and cakes. The results, in pictures like Two Seated Figures (1962), Five Seated Figures (1965) and Two Kneeling Figures (1966) are inscrutable. The figures occupy a nondescript space. They wear vacant gazes and appear to be unaware of each other’s presence. Socially and psychically, they are lost, autonomous beings. These paintings are among the few in which Thiebaud allows overt content to seep into his work.
The artist’s preference for realism, however, has never made him a slave to reality. In his cityscapes, which he started in 1973 after purchasing a home in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill district, all notions of spatial truth are upended in the service of pure feeling. He re-creates the giddy roller coaster sensation of the city’s streets by telescopically compressing distance and employing multiple perspectives in a single picture. Night Streets Study (1998), Big Condominium (2008) and Dark City (1999), for example, are exercises in pure vertigo that make viewers feel as if they are plunging down one sheer cliff and up another. They are outrageous concatenations of impossible angles that effectively capture the feeling of a city in which a grid was imposed over a series of peaks.
This penchant for exaggeration, which hints at both Symbolism and Surrealism, extends to his Central Valley landscapes. Bisected by rivers and heavily irrigated during the summer growing season, this region, when viewed from the air, is a patchwork of green and brown. Not monochromatic, exactly, but close. Thiebaud turns up the color volume, rendering it in loud, sometimes Day-Glo hues, exaggerating to a point to where if you saw images like this on TV you’d quickly reach for the color control. Prime examples are Green River Lands (1998) and Flood Waters (2006) in which various aerial perspectives appear as contiguous tracts, looking like they were cut and pasted from pictures taken at different altitudes.
When Thiebaud started working like this in the ‘60s, his paintings stood out against the staid color conventions of Abstract Expressionism. As it happened, Thiebaud, during his New York stay in the ‘50s, dabbled briefly in Ab Ex and spent significant time with its leading figures: Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Barnett Newman – all of whom claimed abstraction would yield an art that was aesthetically richer and more truthful. Thiebaud admired their skills and ideas but couldn’t let go of representation.
Had he done so, he would have made a formidable practitioner, as several recent works, all employing his signature juicy impasto, attest. Mountain Layers (2010) clings tenuously to representation, but is really more of an exercise in extreme modulations of color and tonal value. In an oblong slab of horizontal brushstrokes that appears to have been cleaved with a palette knife and dotted with nubs of paint, it shows what could be farm plots climbing the side of a monolith. The form is circled by contrasting rings of color: flesh tones on the left, shades of pale blue and gray on the right. The sky is mauve. Abstraction and reality exist on equal footing.
Even at 90, Thiebaud continues to push himself. He paints every day and finds time to play tennis, even on 100-degree Sacramento days. "He’s got the metabolism of a snake," one of the artist’s former tennis partners told me. In the studio, he’s got the instincts of a mountain goat: he has no fear of scaling great heights.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Wayne Thiebaud: Homecoming @ the Crocker Art Museum through Nov. 28, 2010.