Important Art by Wayne Thiebaud
An orderly array of cakes sit atop cake stands as if in a baker's display case. The overlapping cakes and their shadows create a tight, gridded composition that feels static, and yet the thin cake stands hardly seem capable of holding up the sumptuously decorated cakes, threatening the possibility of toppled pastries. Thiebaud compresses, or flattens, the space by using a simple, monochrome background, barely distinguishing between the wall and the surface on which the cakes sit, as well as employing a skewed perspective. This space combined with a limited palette of subdued pastel shades, with a few red, pink, and yellow accents, creates a unified composition. While most of the cakes are differently decorated, save the two in the center, the overall effect is of similarity and repetition.
The use of solid outlines and shadows on a stark background is typical of Thiebaud's work in the 1960s, which has much in common with advertising images, and its subject matter - common consumer items - aligns it with much of Pop Art, but its thickly applied paint sets it apart from much of the movement. Curator Megan Fizell writes, "The frosting upon Wayne Thiebaud's 1963 painting, Cakes, is so thickly applied that I am often tempted to reach out, run my finger along one of the perfect cake-tops to taste the sugary dessert." As such, the painting exemplifies "object transference" (a term Thiebaud used to describe his own work), meaning that the paint literally mimics the element it depicts - in this case frosting. To further compound this tendency, American artist Sharon Core recreated the painting as a still life and then photographed it. To achieve the look of the heavy brushstrokes, she replicated the effect in frosting - thus completing the cycle of imitation between the subject and its representation.
Oil on canvas - The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Thiebaud's daughter, Twinka, wearing a simple green dress, sits on a stool, holding a piece of paper, perhaps a work of art. She casts a slight shadow on the cream-colored floor and wall, and she looks out toward the viewer. Thiebaud uses a repeating color palette to create a harmonious composition; the emerald of the dress is used in the sitter's cheekbone, the orange of the stool reappears in the hem of the outfit and the paper she holds and is similar to the color of her hair.
Thiebaud's second wife, Betty Jean, described Thiebaud's approach to portraiture, saying, "The muteness of figures reduces them to objectness. They occupy the space like a toy or tree, in a frozen moment of time." Here, as in his cake paintings, the subject is shown against a muted background, emphasized with a shadow - a technique commonly used in commercial illustration - with the effect of both focusing the viewer's attention and isolating the subject from any context. When coupled with the sitter's inscrutable - almost blank - expression, this lack of context results in a sense of detachment, which, while not unusual in Thiebaud's work (or indeed his portraiture), is more surprising given his personal connection to the sitter. In this sense, the sitter is as unreachable as Thiebaud's cakes, despite the detail with which she is painted.
Thiebaud began this painting in 1966, returning to complete it 51 years later. To some, this revisiting suggests longing and nostalgia, but at the same time returning to one's work after a break is a practice Thiebaud routinely recommended to his students, saying, "It's difficult to see the work with any clarity until years later."
Oil on canvas - Collection of the artist
Two Paint Cans
Here, two paint cans, one open with paint dribbled down the side, the other sealed and clean, sit side by side. This humble still life reads as a classic study of color and volume; art historian Mara Holt Skov explains that Thiebaud "sees each new painting as an opportunity for him to confront anew the classic problems of painting - the making of an illusion of 3-D space on a 2-D plane using fluid materials, specific tools and an unfailing supply of physical, intellectual and emotional effort." The familiar, spare, cream-colored background highlights the complexity of the reflective, paint-covered surfaces of the cans.
With Two Paint Cans Thiebaud elevates the ordinary into something more profound. He said, "The wonderful thing about common objects, of almost any kind, is exactly what the poets talk about. They are talking about a transcendent potential, that they can be more than they are. For instance, let's say a bunch of kitchen objects like [18th century French painter] Chardin: copper pipes, clay pots, a loaf of bread. Your job as a painter is to make them different enough and special enough that when you go back to look at the kitchen's actual objects, they seem wanting." On another note, though, one senses that Thiebaud is also making subtle references to painters who came before. The paint splattered surface under the cans is reminiscent of paintings by Jackson Pollock or Cy Twombly, and one wonders if the subject matter - two cans - might be a sly nod to Jasper Johns' famous Painted Bronze (Ale Cans) (1960).
The title of the work states specifically the number of objects portrayed, a common practice for Thiebaud and one that led Susan Goldman Rubin to put together the children's book Counting with Wayne Thiebaud (2007).
Oil on paper mounted on board - Thiebaud Family Collection
Pastries and cakes sparsely populate a simple bakery case. The sleekness of the case and the simplicity of the sweets inside contrast sharply with the ornately decorated wedding cake that sits atop the case. As with many of his paintings, the paint application is quite thick, emphasizing the tactility of the objects depicted. While similar in subject matter to his 1963 Cakes, the addition of the bakery case both produces more depth in the composition and places almost all of the pastries just out of the viewer's reach.
One possible reading, inspired by Thiebaud's experience of growing up during the Great Depression, is that the bakery case instantiates the unattainable. The depiction of food and consumer goods behind shop windows or cases is common in his work, perhaps challenging popular advertising that suggests goods are easily within reach and attainable. Furthermore, the empty space in the case juxtaposes the ideas of abundance and scarcity. The theater of the bakery case also inspired Thiebaud; he recalled, "I would really think of the bakery counters, of the way the counter was lit, where the pies were placed, but I wanted just a piece of the experience. From when I worked in restaurants.... [It was] always poetic to me." In this accounting, the pastries become characters, lit on a stage, and are more than they appear.
Oil on canvas - Thiebaud Family Collection
In its vibrant colors and steep perspective, Fall Fields is typical of Thiebaud's landscape paintings. A road trip across the United States inspired Thiebaud, but while based on observation, Thiebaud exaggerated particular shapes, patterns, and colors - flattening and distorting the landscape almost to the point of abstraction, giving the painting an imaginative quality that renders it both terrestrial and dreamlike. As the critic John Yau writes, "Thiebaud conflated the forms and colors of the observable world with those of the imagined world so that they were virtually indistinguishable from each other."
The particular perspective of this work is reminiscent of illustration and of film, perhaps recalling Thiebaud's earlier training. Some critics have compared it to Hockney's Going up Garrowby Hill (2000) which shares its skewed perspective and vibrant palette; however, while Garrowby Hill depicts Yorkshire in England, Thiebaud insists on the importance of "Americanness" in his work. Art critic Laura Cumming explains, "Thiebaud's joy in America extends out through the landscape, no matter how industrial. Gold and pink striped fields somehow keep their terrestrial reality, despite the celestial colors, because he puts so much exactitude into the drawing that underpins every work." Others have offered a more sinister interpretation - suggesting that the painting represents the teetering and imminent toppling of the American Dream.
Oil and acrylic on canvas - Collection of the artist