Wayne Thiebaud

Posting on the artist Robert Arneson a few days ago reminded me that I had (unaccountably) not posted on his long-time UC Davis colleague Wayne Thiebaud. And that seeing the California: The Art of Water exhibition at Stanford (now over) not long ago should have reminded me of Thiebaud’s luminous paintings of the California Delta (the Sacramento – San Joaquin River Delta, to give it its full name), for instance Levee Farms (1998):


The very brief story, from Wikipedia:

Wayne Thiebaud (born November 15, 1920) is an American painter widely known for his colorful works depicting commonplace objects — pies, lipsticks, paint cans, ice cream cones, pastries, and hot dogs — as well as for his landscapes and figure paintings. Thiebaud is associated with the pop art movement because of his interest in objects of mass culture, although his early works, executed during the fifties and sixties, slightly predate the works of the classic pop artists. Thiebaud uses heavy pigment and exaggerated colors to depict his subjects, and the well-defined shadows characteristic of advertisements are almost always included in his work.

with a Pop Art note:

In 1962, Thiebaud’s work was included, along with Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Jim Dine, Phillip Hefferton, Joe Goode, Edward Ruscha, and Robert Dowd, in the historically important and ground-breaking “New Painting of Common Objects,” curated by Walter Hopps at the Pasadena Art Museum … This exhibition is historically considered one of the first Pop Art exhibitions in America. These painters were part of a new movement, in a time of social unrest, which shocked America and the art world.

Thiebaud has spent most of his life in California (early years in SoCal, then education in NoCal, in San Jose and Sacramento, and many years teaching at UCD). The cityscapes of San Francisco, with impossibly vertiginous streets illumined by slanting sunlight, were the subject of many of his paintings, like Down 18th Street (1980):


He’s probably best known for his paintings of everyday objects — like Cakes (1963):


and his paintings of rather wooden human figures — like Girl with Ice Cream Cone (1963):


Much of this work plays on a tension between realism and abstraction.

A perceptive piece on the artist by Cathleen McGuigan in the Smithsonian Magazine of February, 2011, “Wayne Thiebaud Is Not a Pop Artist: He’s best known for his bright paintings of pastries and cakes, but they represent only a slice of the American master’s work”, begins:

Among the familiar Wayne Thiebaud paintings on display at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento — the still lifes of gumball machines and voluptuous bakery cakes, the brightly dressed, sober-faced figures, the San Francisco cityscapes with their daredevil inclines — was one mysterious picture, unlike anything else in the exhibition. It was a darkly comic painting of a man in a business suit hanging on for dear life from the limb of a leafless tree, his briefcase tossed on the grass below. A downtown city street loomed beyond the little park where this puzzling drama was playing out. Was the man trying to climb up or down? And why was he there? Thiebaud tries to explain: “Essentially, it’s about urban atmosphere, and the need to escape it.” But Man in Tree illustrates something else. Dated “1978-2010” on the wall label, it’s a testament to Thiebaud’s tireless pursuit of the challenge of painting — in this case, a 32-year run during which he started the picture, stopped and revisited it again and again, delving into its forms and colors, light and shadows, even when he felt as stuck as the man in the tree.


Thiebaud (pronounced tee-bow) may be the hardest-working artist in America. The Crocker’s retrospective this past fall, “Wayne Thiebaud: Homecoming,” honored the longtime resident and coincided with a milestone — he turned 90 in November. But the painter seems many years younger. A legendary teacher at nearby University of California at Davis, he retired at age 70 but has continued to give his hugely popular classes as professor emeritus. Friends say his energy hasn’t flagged. Indeed, he draws or paints nearly every day and plays tennis about three times a week.

In a contemporary art world enthralled with such stunts as Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull, Thiebaud is wonderfully ungimmicky. He belongs more to a classical tradition of painting than to the Pop revolution that first propelled him to national attention in the 1960s. Then, the sweet everydayness of his cake and pie pictures looked like cousins of Andy Warhol’s soup cans. But where Warhol was cool and ironic, Thiebaud was warm and gently comic, playing on a collective nostalgia just this side of sentimentality. He pushed himself as a painter — experimenting with brushstrokes, color, composition, light and shadow. The cylindrical cakes and cones of ice cream owed more to such masters of the still life as the 18th-century French painter Chardin, or the 20th-century Italian Giorgio Morandi, as critics have pointed out, than to the art trends of the time.

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