by David M. Roth
After more than 60 years of unending accolades, is there anything new that can be said about Wayne Thiebaud? Surprisingly, there is. His recent paintings of clowns, for example, are some of his strongest yet. In them, he explores mortality with the same masterful paint handling and sly humor he invests in everything else, including his justly famous pictures of confections and landscapes. Appropriately, the task of charting Thiebaud’s evolution from “accidental” Pop artist to late-blooming metaphysician falls to the Crocker Art Museum. It awarded Thiebaud his first solo museum exhibition in 1951 and has since mounted four more shows of the Sacramento artist’s work, the most recent of which, in 2010, commemorated the artist’s 90th birthday and museum’s 125th.
The current exhibit, Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints and Drawings, organized by Scott A. Shields, the Crocker’s co-director and chief curator, uses 100 examples culled from each phase of the artist’s career to sharpen our understanding of why, despite the comings and goings of many trends, Thiebaud’s paintings remain ingrained in popular consciousness.
In two incisive and exceptionally well-researched catalog essays, Shields, along with UC Davis Professor of Art, Hearne Pardee, argue that Thiebaud’s allure rests as much on his “empathy” for commonplace subjects as on his drawing skills, bravura brushwork, and penchant for overheated color and wild spatial dislocations. The first arose from his training and work as an illustrator and cartoonist, practices that, along with a love of the Krazy Kat cartoonist George Herriman (1880-1944), instilled in him an ongoing fondness for caricature. Other skills, acquired through rigorous self-education, led him to absorb and master influences ranging from Chardin, Morandi and Joaquín Sorolla to de Kooning, Diebenkorn and David Park. This synthesis, applied to vernacular subjects, connected him in the minds of critics to such artists as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein – this despite the fact that Thiebaud disparaged Pop, maintaining that the commercial art on which it was based was far superior to the mechanically reproduced appropriations being produced by Warhol and others.
Thiebaud’s ascent into a realm to which he never aspired began with a one-year sojourn to New York, where, in 1956, he began making paintings that exhibited the thick, exuberant brushwork typical of the period. Two canvases from that era, The Sea Rolls In (1958) and Zither Player (1959), suggest that if Thiebaud continued making Abstract Expressionist paintings, he’d have joined the ranks of those he emulated. Each is a virtuoso performance: Sea Rolls for its primal evocation of ocean spray, Zither Player for the sheer juiciness of the brushstrokes. These paintings mirrored the approach then being taken by Bay Area figurative painters Richard Diebenkorn and David Park whose application of Abstract Expressionist painting techniques to human (and other) subjects Thiebaud would soon adapt to his own ends. But it was Willem de Kooning who altered his course. “You should find something that you really feel genuine in terms of your experience,” the older artist advised.
Thiebaud agreed. To counteract what he termed “hyped up” Abstract Expressionist mannerisms, he created a series of problems for himself involving geometric shapes. For subject matter, he called on memories of restaurant jobs he held as a teenager on the Long Beach Boardwalk. Result: “I ended up with this row of pie paintings and stupefied myself,” thinking “that would be the end of” [my career] “as a serious painter.” His New York dealer, Allan Stone, also had doubts but forged ahead. The history-making show, mounted in April 1962, featuring pictures of pies, cakes, ice cream sundaes, pastries, deli counters and pinball machines, sold out and garnered rave reviews, catapulting the artist to fame.
Wayne Thiebaud 100 contains many fine examples from that period, including, most notably, Boston Cremes (1962). It is as delicious a food painting as any Thiebaud ever produced, and for that reason, it has long commanded pride of place at the entrance to the Crocker’s permanent collection. Though it measures a mere 14 x 18, inches, it packs a wallop all out of proportion to its size, owing to how Thiebaud jammed into it, 15 slices of pie in rows stretching almost from the foreground to an imaginary “horizon.” Brightly illuminated, they ignite a gastronomic fantasy made palpable by paint mixed to resemble egg, flour and butter teased to a high froth. Though the texture is mimetically perfect, the painting seems to
exist in a hyperreal state on account of the character of the light. It emanates from an indeterminate source and casts blue shadows in all directions that cannot be traced to any color seen in the pies. Such shadows, referred to in Thiebaud lore as halations, are one of the artist’s trademarks, harking to his early work operating theater spotlights. Another is a Fauvist-inspired color palette. Sliced Circle (1986), depicting a cake or possibly a cheese wheel, is a particularly rich example. The bright yellow-and-orange slices resemble no food I’ve seen or tasted, except for maybe Tillamook cheese – but what cheese carries white frosting and a blue-tinted rind? Then, there’s the isolation and the tension Thiebaud achieved by situating the object on a white ground, made active with thick, raking strokes. The resulting dynamism, a sense of the surroundings in motion, is even more pronounced in Cold Cereal (1961), where three truncated triangles converge to make it appear as if a bowl and a cereal box had been blown to the edge of a table by a strong wind. The goal, the artist has long asserted, is to imbue his canvases with “a life force.”
I can’t look at a Thiebaud food painting without smiling. Nor, can I look at his delta landscapes and cityscapes without doing the same. The first, Thiebaud began in the mid-1960s, painting from memory, the farmland surrounding Sacramento; in the 1970s, he began painting the Portrero district in San Francisco where he owned an apartment. Though Thiebaud had plenty of precedents for this sort of perspectival monkey-wrenching — Chinese landscape paintings, Indian miniatures, Cezanne and Cubism — his inventions feel radical for how they distort visual facts to reveal larger physical and emotional truths. For example: It matters not that the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta is perfectly flat; Thiebaud paints it from multiple perspectives that at first glance masquerade as aerial views, but reveal themselves, on
close inspection, to be mash-ups of different viewpoints ranging from ground-level to bird’s-eye. They combine seamlessly into a vertical plane comprised of irregularly shaped “windows,” each displaying discrete but physically connected vignettes: of row crops, orchards and ponds bisected by rivers and sloughs. Nowhere are such exaggerations more pronounced than in Y River (1998) and River Intersection (2010). In these paintings, rendered in exaggerated colors that bear little relation to any you can actually see, spatial reckoning is all but impossible. Palm Tree and Cloud (2012), for example, with its pale pink water, crème-colored sky and yellow-tinted levee, looks more like a pastel-hued vision of a Caribbean beach scene than it does valley farmland. Shields, the Crocker curator, likens Thiebaud’s approach to that taken by Magritte in his 1929 surrealist masterpiece, The Treachery of Images (This is not a Pipe). “Thiebaud’s objects,” he writes, “are an intensification of that which is most memorable: an essence caught and set down, a distillation of reality rather than reality itself.”
Though Shields was referring to Thiebaud’s food paintings in the above remark, it applies equally to the artist’s landscapes, rural and urban. The latter, depicting San Francisco, are, to my mind, his greatest inventions. The city’s legendary hills, overlaid with a street grid by an urban planner who knew nothing of the terrain, Thiebaud transforms into vertical monoliths, peppered by houses and apartment towers that sit both parallel and perpendicular to the picture plane. They flatten and upend the
topography, inducing feelings of vertigo, achieved by condensing multiple viewpoints into a totalizing vision that aligns with our physical experience of the place. Pictures in this segment of the exhibition divide more or less evenly between canvases, etchings, graphite drawings, watercolors and mixed media works, and include Street and Shadow (1982-83), Untitled (Van) (1979), Apartment Hill (1986), Potrero Hill (1989), Central City (1992), Steep Street (1993), Untitled (City View) (1993), Park Place (1995) and Sunset Streets Study (2019). The first time I saw paintings from this series, I thought of Bill Cosby’s 1969 comedy sketch, Driving in San Francisco:
“These hills are fantastic. They go straight up and straight down. Even with a hydromatic I still worry. You get to the top of a hill and the car’s still going up! Where’s the hell’s the land?”
To capture these sensations “I stole every kind of idea – Western, Eastern – and used everything I could think of – atmospheric perspective, size differences, color differences, overlapping, exaggeration, linear perspective, planar and sequential recessions – and to do that with…as many ways of seeing in the same picture – clear focus, hazy, squinting, glancing, staring, and even sort of inner seeing, a blind inner seeing as in daydreams or dreaming when the eyes are closed and not seeing anything but what you are seeing inwardly,” Thiebaud recounted to Sacramento Bee critic, Victoria Dalkey. “I’m not so interested in the pictorial aspect of mountains, as in their abstract potential for expressing some of that feeling of empathy, even to the point of putting us off a bit, or feeling dislocated,” the artist told Hearne Pardee in a 2019 Brooklyn Rail interview. “Are you in a helicopter? Or are you on ground level? Well, you’re not informed because there’s no continuity of unity or one-eyed view.”
For his portraits of family members and friends, Thiebaud abandoned that approach and worked directly from live models rather than memory. Like the food paintings, the portraits are shorn of backdrops or contextualizing information. The results, while vivid, are, in the end, cold and off-putting. His blank-faced sitters, while not hostile, seem unaware of each other’s presence. Memory, fed by a fervent imagination, seems to serve Thiebaud better than unadorned reality. Evidence rests with his recent series of clown paintings, by far the most psychologically freighted of any in his oeuvre. Thiebaud has always maintained that “painting allows us to see ourselves looking at ourselves,” and so it is with his clowns. In choosing to paint them midway into his ninth decade, Thiebaud seems to be grappling with mortality. And what better vehicle than the archetype of tragicomedy, the clown?
Clown Angel and Dog (2017), which appears near the end of the exhibition, stopped me in my tracks. With wings aflutter and arms outstretched, this robed figure — a priest with a clown’s face surrounded on all sides by white light — beckons a small dog to join him. Thiebaud’s made numerous Symbolist-inflected landscapes that carry metaphysical overtones, but none as direct and overt as this. In Clown Boots (2018-19) he anthropomorphizes a pair of high-top shoes by grafting faces onto them, one smiling, the other frowning: the twin poles of human existence. Clown with Red Hair (2015) shows a clown onstage, standing at the lip of a spotlight whose cast shadow resembles an open manhole. The shrunken slouch
hat, the upraised shoulders dwarfing the head, and the patchwork trousers over whose sagging cuffs the figure seems destined to trip also feel symbolically significant. The painting’s masterstroke, however, is the stage curtain. Painted to resemble a loom-woven textile, it falls onto the floor and onto the figure’s head and torso, foreshortening the space to create what looks like an explosion emanating from the head. Into both paintings, Thiebaud injects humor. Bright red cherries that could have been lifted from Boston Cremes become bulbous noses in Clown Boots, and in Clown with Red Hair, the spotlight, ringed by a sea of yellow-tinged white pigment, calls to mind a giant fried egg.
It’s Thiebaud spinning full circle, bringing his early experience of cartooning to bear on an uncertain future, laughing at his vulnerabilities and encouraging us to do the same.
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“Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints and Drawings” is currently closed due to the pandemic @ the Crocker Art Museum through January 3, 2021. The exhibition travels to the Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio (Feb 6 – May 2, 2021); Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, Tennessee (July 25 – October 3, 2021); McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas (October 28 – January 16, 2022); and Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania (February 5 – May 8, 2022).
Ongoing: “Wayne Thiebaud” @ John Berggruen Gallery through December 23, 2020.
Upcoming: “Wayne Thiebaud: Influencer,” January 31 to June 13, 2021 @ Manetti Shrem Museum of Art.
Q & A with Scott Shields, Chief Curator, Crocker Art Museum
David M. Roth: In researching and organizing this show, was there anything you learned about Wayne Thiebaud that surprised you or that changed your thinking?
Scott Shields: The biggest surprise, and the one I focused on the most, was the Surrealist aspect of what he does. I’d never really thought of that. But I think his relationship to Magritte and de Chirico was stronger than a lot of people have credited. Early on, I think Barnett Newman said [to Thiebaud]: ‘Those Surrealists are boys compared to what you can do with a gumball machine.’ And I thought, wow, that’s really interesting. People have noted the metaphysical qualities of his work before, but I think it’s a pretty big part of what he does.
What sort of Surrealism is this?
There’s the automated side of Surrealism, and then there’s making everyday objects seem different than what they are. In Thiebaud’s case, it’s making them more important and iconic than perhaps they have a right to be.
I’ve always been puzzled by Thiebaud’s family portraits. They’re unlike almost everything else he does in that there’s no hyperbole of any sort, no exaggeration. It’s pure factual rendering. Do you have any thoughts about this?
They are manipulated like his other subjects just by the situations he places them in. The fact that he extracts their backgrounds puts them in positions of uncomfortableness makes them seem isolated and very modern. They are very much emblematic of their era in their hairstyles and clothing. But by extracting everything else, you really have to interact with them and you have to bring to them what you think they’re about because he’s not telling you. That’s what gives the figures power, the multiple readings that you can bring to them.
You mentioned that one of your favorite works in the show is Violin, a charcoal drawing made in 1987. What is it about it that speaks to you?
It’s purely technique, a tour de force of drawing. And I love people that really know their craft, and he very much does and it’s just on full display in that drawing and in some of the reflections in the table. And though it’s a simple piece, it’s very complex at the same time. I just think it’s so beautifully handled.
Are there any other works that captivate your imagination?
That small bakery case [Bakery Counter, 1993] is marvelous. Each little tiny cake is frosted with his brush, and there’s so much information in such a small amount of space.
One word that pops up frequently in relation to Thiebaud is “empathy.” Can you comment on that?
I interpreted it as needing to understand and be empathetic with your subject to capture it. And I see that in the fact that he seems to really love the Americanness of our food. He seems to really love the Sacramento/San Joaquin River landscape. And I don’t think he could put it together and create these unique paintings as he does without being empathetic with it. I think that’s a thread that runs through what he does. He has to feel some sort of empathy or passion for the subject matter in order to make it work.
I’ve always been dazzled by what Thiebaud does with space and perspective – the San Francisco paintings continue to blow my mind. They take me back to exactly how I felt when I first visited. I’ve read about how he makes them, and I can picture the technical problems he faced. What I have difficulty understanding is how he solved them. Do you have any insight into the process by which he combines all these different perspectives?
That’s a really good question because that’s kind of the missing link. I know he went out and he tried to do it firsthand and it didn’t work. And then a critic friend told him that [Edward] Hopper would take multiple sketches and combine them. So he started to do that. How he ended up getting from combining them to what he achieved, well, that’s really the leap. It’s hard to understand. But he said, the whole purpose of the exercise was to contrast the unreal versus the real to make it seem believable; it’s not possible. Yet I think he managed to do that.
The other thing I think that helped him was Diebenkorn. He took the Berkeley cityscapes that Diebenkorn was doing and made them upright. And so I think that example along with Hopper’s he combined to create something new.
Thiebaud’s most recent paintings are of clowns. Do you attach any significance to that choice, given that he made it as he was approaching his 100th birthday?
He’s been doing them for about five years, and he’s done clowns a little bit off and on over the course of his career, so they’re not a totally new subject for him, but he’s embracing them now. I think probably it does have to do with aging and feeling your mortality. They’re also nostalgic; he remembers going to circuses in Long Beach and seeing things like this. But I do see them as very autobiographical. And I’m not sure that it’s a subject he would have decided on doing had he not been in his mid-90s when he started.
Do you have any thoughts about why Thiebaud continues to enjoy such strong popular appeal?
I think it’s simple pleasures and familiarity. These are things that everybody knows, everybody understands, and he renders them in a way that makes them special. He’s an artist who’s been successful in the realm of art history, but also appealing to a broader public because he’s understandable and doesn’t seem so foreign as a lot of art seems to people.
Do you see him being remembered solely as a painter of pies and cakes, or will shows like this and whatever comes next take him someplace else?
One of the things I admire most is the fact that he didn’t get stuck doing the same thing. So eventually, when he got through that first series of pies and pastries and still lifes, he said, ‘I don’t want to be pigeonholed. So I’m going to do figures.’ And then after the figures come landscapes, and that evolves into the San Francisco city scenes, which then evolved back into the San Joaquin/Sacramento, Delta, then the Long Beach scenes and mountains that have strata and now clowns. So he really has changed throughout his career. There’s a certain thread of technique that goes through all of it. But which of those is going to be remembered? The still lifes are always going to be part of that Pop Art, iconic moment. And that’s probably what’s going to be reproduced in art history texts. But I think all of them have merit. And I think they’ll all be considered and probably in the future more will be broken out by subject, which is already starting.
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David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.