The Art Scene

On ‘Wayne Thiebaud 100’ and a Conversation With the Artist at Age 101


Barbara Purcell

  Wayne Thiebaud might best be known for his sumptuous paintings of pies and sweets, but it was his quiet rigor as a painter that made him one of the great American artists of the last century. Particularly since he lived to see the entire century: Thiebaud died this past December at the age of 101.
  In addition to bright, delectable still lifes, portraits and landscapes—with an affinity for San Francisco streets and the Sacramento Delta—came to define his oeuvre. Thiebaud’s attraction to mid-century Americana, its easy-going nostalgia and apparent innocence, somewhat obscured—for some time at least—the intense formalism of his work.
  “Focusing on the formal values of painting is such a challenge,” the artist said at a Brooklyn Rail event in 2020. “If you’re going to contend with those miracles of painting, you have to decide what you want to concentrate on. For me, it’s the joys and vicissitudes of what painting challenges you to do.”
  Those challenges (and joys) for Thiebaud meant turning ice cream into impasto, with near-sculptural details that transformed each pigment into the very ingredient he was portraying. The result is not so much a growling stomach, but a yearning for the familiar, for the past, for the sweet, unfettered delight of life.
  An exhibition entitled “Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings” commemorates a life well lived and a career that spanned more than 80 years, one that began in the precincts of commercial art and led Thibaud to a style that was distinctly Californian and quintessentially American: Disney and de Kooning improbably together.
  Organized by Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum, the centenary exhibition opened in October 2020, just shy of the artist’s 100th birthday. It then traveled to the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tennessee, the McNay Museum of Art in San Antonio, Texas, and the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, where it will run until April 10 of this year.
  “Wayne Thiebaud 100"features some of the artist’s most iconic paintings as well as works on paper, including watercolors, pastels, and etchings. At the McNay, a salon-style hang was split over the gallery’s two opposing walls while larger pieces were installed down the center as the exhibition’s focal point.
  "We decided to show the work thematically rather than chronologically,” curator René Paul Barilleaux explained. “To introduce it so that people could understand these various approaches to the subject matter.” The McNay’s presentation consisted of four categories: food, objects, people, and places, starting with Thiebaud’s famed desserts.
  A center wall of three food portraits greeted viewers as they entered the San Antonio exhibition, with a deli display, from 2016, flanked by two works from 1961: “Cold Cereal” and “Pies, Pies, Pies.” The subject matter is similar enough in all three—as is the bright geometry of color and form—but a closer look reveals the diligence of a painter still investigating the medium 60 years on. “If you stare at an object, as you do when you paint, there is no point at which you stop learning from it,” Thiebaud once remarked.
  “Pies, Pies, Pies” (1961) is one of Thiebaud’s most iconic works, with its array of cobblers and custard-filled slices presented on gleaming white plates that serve as inverse halos. Organized by flavor (and luscious sense of color), each row is a celebration of postwar American abundance in all its top-heavy, caloric possibility. Thiebaud’s pies are a paean to the pristine, artfully arranged and timelessly intact. The same can be said for his trays of candy apples and copious cupcakes; even a can of sardines gets in on the glory, with its top peeled back like a shiny new convertible.
  Much as in the artist’s food portraits, everyday items—instantly familiar, all culturally ubiquitous—are typically displayed on a titanium white plane that suspends all context. Realistic as these subjects appear, there is a sense of abstraction, a reliance on emotion, rather than on sheer representation:“Since all of my paintings—almost every single one except for the figure paintings—are done from memory …” he told The New Yorker in 2019, “I try to recall the look and feel and love of what I have experienced.”
  A pair of shoes, a collection of bow ties, a pastel drawing of pastels—each one has been theatrically staged and iridescently lit, not unlike an advert. Shadows become as interesting as the objects themselves, violet-hued, angled on a slant; conjoined like a twin. Neon auras outline each object to create a halo effect that makes the colors, as the artist puts it, “vibrate.”
  “Jolly Cones” from 2002, which graced the cover of The New Yorker in late August of that year, is a trompe-l'oeil of two scoops (one smiling, one not) melting at room temperature. Their dunce-cap cones and maraschino faces—somewhat Sock and Buskin—access our own long-held memories without descending to kitsch. “The art world is not much interested in humor,” Thiebaud offered back in 2017, “to its disadvantage.”
  Perhaps unsurprisingly, circus clowns also found their way into Thiebaud’s work, and thus into the recent exhibition. Watteau’s Pierrot and Tiepolo’s Punchinello are both said to have been classical influences, though childhood itself would seem the primary source for this particular motif. As a young boy in Long Beach, California, Thiebaud enjoyed the circus whenever it came to town, marveling at the performers’ agility and strength, especially that of the clowns: “They were so powerful, talented, and bewitching,” the artist recalled at age 99. “There was something wondrous, but also tragic and desperate.”
  Morton Wayne Thiebaud was born in 1920 in Mesa, Arizona and grew up in Southern California. (The family relocated to Utah for a period of time, to live with his mother’s extensive Mormon clan.) By the artist’s own account, he had an idyllic upbringing, and by his own cheerful admission, he was a bit of a “spoiled child.” As a teenager, Thiebaud lifeguarded in Long Beach and worked at a local cafe famed for its hotdogs and ice-cream dishes. A football injury during high school pushed him toward more creative pursuits, including an interest in theatrical set design and lighting. He apprenticed at Walt Disney Studios for a summer, drawing thousands of “in-between” frames for various cartoon characters, and worked as an usher at a movie theater after graduation.
  Despite his natural inclination toward art and animation, Thiebaud entered trade school in 1930s Los Angeles to learn sign painting—a reflection in itself of uncertain times. World War II put his young career on hold as he served in the U.S. Army Air Force, working in the First Air Force Motion Picture Unit as an illustrator. After the war, Thiebaud returned to commercial art, though a fellow designer, the abstract sculptor Robert Mallary, encouraged him to pursue fine art.
  Married, nearing 30, with a second child soon on the way, Thiebaud enrolled in San Jose State and transferred to Sacramento State College (now California State University at Sacramento), where he obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art education. While completing his graduate studies, he began teaching art and art history classes at Sacramento City College, where, as one art writer noted, “he stayed just ahead of his students.” Instructing and absorbing seemed to go hand in hand for Thiebaud, who always maintained that teaching was his education.
  In 1956, he took a sabbatical and moved to New York City for a year, a decision which forever changed his approach to painting. Though he resisted the East Coast’s weighty obsession with abstract expressionism, he did befriend some of its leading figures, including Elaine and Willem de Kooning. When Thiebaud wasn’t rubbing elbows with such artists, he was apparently admiring the city’s shop windows, particularly those of brightly lit bakeries and diners, tiers of treats stacked high like skyscrapers.
  Thiebaud returned to the West Coast with a renewed sense of what he wanted out of painting. His commercial art background and New York immersion set the stage for a new body of work that was, and is, often confused with pop art. In 1962, he had a solo show at the Allan Stone Gallery in Manhattan (Stone would go on to represent Thiebaud until his death in 2006) as well as two major group exhibitions that included artists Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol.
  Despite an overlap in subject matter, and a predilection for the seriality of an artist like Warhol, Thiebaud’s cakes and pies, lipsticks and bow ties, lacked the mass-produced flatness characteristic of pop art. Instead, each gooey slice of cake had its own sublime spark—less a critique of consumerism than a simple celebration of appetite and consumption. Hard-edged and impersonal, pop fed on its own commentary about cultural conformity, whereas Thiebaud wasn’t being ironic, he was being earnest. In an effort to distance himself from an unwanted association with pop art, he increasingly turned to the human figure in the mid-1960s, and later, to landscapes.
  About half of the works in “Wayne Thiebaud 100” are made up of portraits and places, and though the subject matter has shifted away from cakes and pies and ice creams, the relentless investigation of form and color remains central to the enterprise. Without the ebullience of his cakes, Thiebaud’s figures in the show—including two self portraits done 40 years apart—all convey a certain aloofness. Pensive expressions and ambiguously inexpressive body language are in contrast to the artist’s otherwise upbeat mood. “Most people in figure paintings have always done something,” he once observed. “What I’m interested in, really, is the figure that is about to do something, or has done something, or is doing nothing.”
  In fact, Thiebaud was always doing something—known to touch up paintings years, sometimes decades, after they’d been made. The exhibition’s “Tapestry Skirt” (1976, 1982, 1983, 2003) is a fine example of this habit, with the artist returning to it on three separate occasions after its initial completion in 1976. By the time he was done, the Berlin Wall had come down and so had the World Trade Center. It is a portrait of an attractive woman seated on a chair, but it’s the woman’s jewel-like skirt, 27 years in the making, that takes the cake.
  The ability to continually return to a task, while staying open to its many possibilities, is what the Zen Buddhists would call a “beginner’s mind.” We see this in Thiebaud’s own praxis as an artist, educator, and student himself. Long after retiring from UC Davis, he continued teaching on campus, mostly to complete beginners. “I think of myself as a beginner,” he mused later in life. “Sometimes that’s the whole joy. If you could just do it, there’d be no point in doing it.”
  By the time Thiebaud reached his 70s, accolades and art sales were pouring in. In 1994, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts by then President Bill Clinton; in 2010, he was inducted into the California Hall of Fame. In 2020, “Four Pinball Machines” (1962), featured in that first fateful show at the Allan Stone Gallery in Manhattan, fetched $19.1 million. Thiebaud was 99 at the time.
  Despite all the acclaim, Thiebaud reveled in his low-key Sacramento routines, painting twice each day and playing tennis regularly; he was still hitting the ball at 100. The city’s Crocker Art Museum became a major repository for his art, and many works remained in his family’s collection. When New York’s Upper East Acquavella Gallery began to represent him just as he turned 90, the artist still lived thousands of miles away, in a modest home he shared with his second wife for nearly 50 years.
  At the McNay, the fourth and final theme of “Wayne Thiebaud 100” was an ode to his beloved California: a series of cityscapes and landscapes based on observation and imagination. Like pop, realism proved a problematic label for Thiebaud: his streetscapes were often rooted in “real life,” but brought back to the studio and reworked into scenes that captured feeling more than fact. “Park Place” (1995) and “Steep Street” (1993), both undeniably San Francisco in their near-verticality, retain an abstract spatial quality that delivers the rollercoaster reminder of our own fragile existence.
  Thiebaud’s rural landscapes feature a similar visual hyperbole, with cows marching down a 45-degree slope, or a single palm sticking straight out from a mountaintop—each scene marked by a dreamy geometry. “River Lands (Study)” (2005) is a patchwork of perspectives and planes, color and scale, evoking not a map but a vision in the mind. A vermicular road separates the violet-hued river from the incandescent farmland, tilled in stripes and dotted with crops. There is the kind of weird and yet touchingly benign repetition-compulsion that one sees in the artist’s trays of consumable treats.
  Time and again, Thiebaud’s paints become a surrogate for the substance: whipped white pigments are transformed into icing, dark specks assume rock, a colorful skirt is reworked over and over, until it alchemically takes on the characteristics of the extraordinary fabric. Be it the Sacramento River or a Boston Creme, the subject matter remains nominal, interchangeable. All of it, delectable.
  Wayne Thiebaud and I spoke on the phone this past November, three days after he turned 101. I wished him a happy belated birthday. “Oh my, yes,” he chuckled, a bit in disbelief himself. “I apologize for my gravelly voice,” he said gently.
  Our conversation lasted about as long as a set of tennis. I posed my questions and he gracefully lobbed his responses back over the net. (“A tennis court is like a Mondrian painting,” he noted at one point.)
  What do you ask a man who has lived for more than a century, especially one who has achieved so much in his life? I refrained from treating Thiebaud like an oracle, though I was tempted to inquire about his take on the world, given all that he had seen. Instead I asked him about his priorities as an artist today, as opposed to half a life ago. “They are exactly the same,” he assured me. “I’m still learning what the paint can do.”
  Also I asked about his tendency to go back and rework his paintings, and he explained the good fortune of still having access to so many of them at the Crocker Museum, recounting a story about the French painter Pierre Bonnard, who once asked his good friend, Édouard Vuillard, to distract a museum guard in the Louvre so he could quickly touch up his own work.
  “There is a psychological process in which the artist sees his painting on the wall and it will appear somehow different. I’ve been invited to dinners where the host was wise enough to lock up my paintings beforehand,” Mr. Thiebaud chuckled.
  We talked about his early recollections of the circus and his boyhood in Southern California. He recommended that I read Henry Miller’s 1948 story, “The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder,” which he considered to be the best piece of writing for showing the humanity of clowns.
  I inquired about recurrent themes in his work, to which he replied, “I’m investigating and researching and it doesn’t matter what the subject matter may be, the process is the same.”
  And what about reproductions of his works, when so many of those details are perhaps lost? “There are two ways of experiencing the painting, standing back at a reasonable distance or getting up close. They reveal two very different things,” he acknowledged. “Reproductions might come close, but they are really only a caricature of the painting. People should visit museums and galleries more, to stop thinking of paintings as photographs of the work.”
  Finally, I wanted to know if he was working on anything as of late, and he mentioned a book on figures: “It covers 86 years worth of paintings.” (The book will feature 96 works ranging from 1936 to 2021.)
  As our time came to an end, Mr. Thiebaud thanked me for contacting him. “I want to wish you good luck in your life,” he offered, with a sense of formality and knowingness that stayed with me after we hung up.
  A few weeks after our call, on Christmas Day, he passed away at his home in Sacramento. I read the Henry Miller story he recommended, about a circus clown named Auguste, who goes on an inward journey to find his true self.
  “Joy is like a river: it flows ceaselessly,” Miller writes in the story’s epilogue. “It seems to me that this is the message which the clown is trying to convey to us, that we should participate through ceaseless flow and movement, that we should not stop to reflect, compare, analyze, possess….”
  Of all the works in “Wayne Thiebaud 100,” “Clown Angel and Dog” (2017) left the deepest impression on me. It is a culmination of Thiebaud’s lifelong dedication to his craft, as well as a signing off and a circling back. An archangel clown looms on a horizonless white plane, marked and scarred by the artist’s palette knife. Luminous wings reach from corner to corner of the canvas, as the angel outstretches his hand to a dog, seated like a good boy, before him.
  Their shadows cast an aura of neon blue, suggesting the theatrical lighting which first captivated Thiebaud as a student in high school. The use of pristine white creates a time-transcendent stage for these two characters, who are gazing at each other, with a calm understanding. The chubby little dog, clearly fed too many treats in his life, is the embodiment of Thiebaud’s warmth and humor. A mutt, part clown and part angel himself, who wants for nothing. Only more.
  Up close, the painting reveals Thiebaud’s love affair with color. The clown angel’s pale robe becomes a confectionary palette of pastels, his wings unlikely rainbows of gold and green. Each shadow, the color of the Sacramento River.
  It is not a particularly large painting, 30 x 24 inches. But it is powerful on many levels. Cheerful, yes, but inherently tinged with melancholy. All dogs go to heaven, but so also the glistening candy apples, the uneaten cake—everything must go. The painter who never stops exploring what the paint can do—even he too must leave his studio one day.