Summary of Wayne Thiebaud
While rooted in the everyday, West Coast artist Wayne Thiebaud's compositions spring from his imagination and have a poetic, sometimes melancholic, quality about them. Thiebaud bucked artistic trends to create his own vision of American culture. Trained as a commercial artist and uninterested in the histrionics surrounding Abstract Expressionism, Thiebaud concentrated his attention on ordinary objects, thus garnering comparisons to Pop Art of the 1960s, yet Thiebaud brushed away such comparisons, saying he was "just an old-fashioned painter."
A popular teacher, Thiebaud was a generous mentor, and artists such as Mel Ramos, Fritz Scholder, and Faith Bromberg have spoken his praises. Further, Thiebaud's embrace of Americana - as seen through his bakery cases and landscapes - has endeared him to a wider audience that see something of themselves in his paintings.
- Thiebaud began his artistic path studying commercial art and illustration before turning to fine arts study, and this early training continues to inform his work. The linear, even illustrative, quality of his paintings suggest advertisements and commercial photographs. Thiebaud has always felt that the line between commercial and fine art is too rigidly drawn, and his work constantly transgresses that border.
- While often associated with Pop Art because of a shared subject matter, Thiebaud is more often than not absorbed in traditional problems of painting - how to create depth without sacrificing the two-dimensionality of painting and how objects relate to one another. Through seemingly simple still lifes, Thiebaud evokes stories of plenty and loss, prompting an emotional response from the viewer that is absent in Pop Art.
- Thiebaud has often spoken of the "Americanness" of his paintings. His depictions of cakes, pastries, everyday objects, and landscapes convey an earnestness and curiosity that can be traced back to the likes of Edward Hopper and earlier American art. While some have spoken of a melancholic, even sinister, mood in some of his paintings, they lack a biting critique, or rebuke, of American consumer culture and instead offer a meditation on it.
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
Biography of Wayne Thiebaud
Wayne Thiebaud was born in Mesa, Arizona in 1920. When he was only six months old, his family moved to Los Angeles, where he spent much of his early life in Long Beach, California. He also lived for a number of years on his uncle's ranch in Utah, as his large Mormon family retained roots in the Southwest.
During high school, Thiebaud developed an interest in stage design and lighting. Between the ages of 15 and 18, he worked part-time designing posters for a movie theater. He also worked at a cafe in Long Beach named "Mile High and Red Hot," where "Mile High" referred to an ice cream flavor and "Red Hot" to a hot dog. At 16, Thiebaud took a summer apprenticeship in the animation department of Walt Disney Studios. Here he drew thousands of individual frames of characters such as Goofy, Pinocchio, and Jiminy Cricket. The frames, which when shown in quick succession would give the impression of movement, were known as "in-betweens."
Education and Early Training
Although Thiebaud showed artistic talent from a young age, he was disinclined to pursue fine arts training due to the economy during the Depression. Instead, he studied commercial art at Long Beach Polytechnic High School and at the Frank Wiggins Trade School (now Los Angeles Trade-Technical College). He intended to learn sign painting, but once there he was encouraged to study commercial art and illustration.
World War II brought a temporary halt to Thiebaud's early career as a cartoonist and graphic designer, although his artistic skills did keep him out of combat. From 1942 to 1945, he served in the Army Air Force, assigned to the Special Services Department as an artist and cartoonist, and he was ultimately transferred to the First Air Force Motion Picture Unit, commanded by future president Ronald Reagan. During the war, he met his first wife Patricia Patterson, with whom he had two daughters. The first, Twinka, was born in 1945 and the second, Mallary Ann, in 1951.
After the war, Thiebaud returned to his work as a commercial artist. While working for Rexall drugstore chain, he met Robert Mallary, who encouraged Thiebaud to continue his education by studying fine art. At nearly 30 years old, Thiebaud enrolled at San Jose State College (now San Jose State University) before transferring to Sacramento State College (now California State University, Sacramento), where he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees.
While working towards a new career in fine art, Thiebaud supported his family through teaching, which he continued until the 1990s. Michael Tompkins, Thiebaud's student and assistant in the 1980s, said of his teaching style, "He preferred teaching undergraduates and 'raw beginners' .... He wanted people who were wide open. Without any irony, he told us his work was about scrambling around with the basic issues, like a baseball player who still goes to spring training each year to brush up on the basics." Thiebaud believed that in teaching, "you have to constantly rethink things."
From 1956-57, Thiebaud spent a sabbatical year in New York City, where he met Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns. It was at this time that Thiebaud began to explore a new style and subject matter - applying the bright colors and hyper-realistic shadows of commercial art to a series of paintings of cakes, pies, and candies in shop windows. With few galleries in Sacramento at this time, he exhibited in shops, restaurants and even the concession stand at a theater.
Although deeply inspired by his experience in New York, Thiebaud never felt part of the city's art scene - finding its seriousness off-putting. Nevertheless, it was here that the artist first received critical acclaim. In 1961, Thiebaud met New York art dealer Allan Stone, who, although initially unmoved by the slides he saw of Thiebaud's food paintings, agreed to represent him after making contact a year later. Stone became a close personal friend to Thiebaud as well as his exclusive dealer until the former's death. He said of the artist, "I have had the pleasure of friendship with a complex and talented man, a terrific teacher and cook, the best raconteur in the west with a spin serve, and a great painter whose magical touch is exceeded only by his genuine modesty and humility. Thiebaud's dedication to painting and his pursuit of excellence inspire all who are lucky enough to come in contact with him. He is a very special man."
In addition to exhibitions at Stone's gallery, Thiebaud's work was featured in two major group shows in 1962 - the Pasadena Art Museum's New Painting of Common Objects and the Sidney Janis Gallery's International Exhibition of the New Realists. In both, Thiebaud's paintings were shown alongside the work of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol - though the artist later expressed dislike for Warhol's "flat" and "mechanical" paintings. While most consider the Pasadena Art Museum's New Painting of Common Objects the first exhibition of Pop Art in America, Thiebaud does not now consider himself a Pop artist.
The artist's first marriage broke up in 1958, and he later married filmmaker Betty Jean Carr, with whom he had a son, Paul. Paul took over from Stone as Thiebaud's art dealer until he died in 2010. His daughter Twinka, from his first marriage, became a well-known artist's model, author, and painter.
In the mid-1960s, the artist made his first prints at Crown Point Press - a practice he would continue for the rest of his career. As a reaction perhaps to other artists beginning to adopt Pop Art motifs, Thiebaud turned first to portraiture and then to landscapes. Both display a characteristic style; his portraits are meticulously detailed but with a detached sense of solidity that renders his subjects more like objects than people, while the dramatic perspectives of his landscapes are such that they read almost as flat arrangements of color and form.
Beginning his landscapes in the 1970s, Thiebaud continued to produce these works for the next 20 years. Living now in California, he has recently painted a series of mountains; while the subject matter diverges from his earlier still lifes, Thiebaud still renders them with thick brush strokes of paint, reminiscent of the frosting of his earlier cakes.
Although Thiebaud is now in his nineties, he continues to paint twice a day. When he is not painting, he spends time with his wife and with friends such as fellow artist Fred Dalkey. Thiebaud is also a keen tennis player, often mixing his paints in the lids of tennis ball containers.
The Legacy of Wayne Thiebaud
Thiebaud's transition from commercial to fine art is an experience he shares with other post-war artists such as Willem de Kooning and Warhol. Speaking of his regard for commercial art and artists, he says, "Those wonderful people showed me what to do - sign painters, women's fashion illustrators. There's a lot of craft in it, and that's admirable. They would tell you very quickly: 'You've got to shape up! You can't do that lettering like that!' ... So I'd go back and do it again, do it again, do it again."
Notwithstanding this unique vision, a number of comparisons have been made between Thiebaud and his near contemporaries. His landscapes, streetscapes, and cityscapes are said to have been influenced by Richard Diebenkorn, while Sunset Streets (1985) and Flatland River (1997) are often compared to the work of Edward Hopper, who was also interested in scenes of everyday life in America. Sacramento painter and friend Fred Dalkey is drawn to the melancholic side of Thiebaud's paintings. As a teacher, Thiebaud mentored many artists over the years, most notably Pop artist Mel Ramos, feminist figurative painter Faith Bromberg, and Native American artist Fritz Scholder.
Influences and Connections
- Willem de Kooning
- Franz Kline
- Robert Mallary
- Abstract Expressionism
- Commercial art
- Fred Dalkey
- Fritz Scholder
- Faith Bromberg
- Garry Hutton
- Mel Ramos
- Sharon Core