In the News: Happy (Belated) Birthday Wayne Thiebaud!

Suzanne Slick, Collection Information Specialist

In this era of bad news, here’s a bright spot – American painter Wayne Thiebaud turned 100 just last week, on November 15, 2020. To celebrate his centennial, let’s look back at his career and accomplishments.

Thiebaud (pronounced tee-bow), professorial, soft-spoken, and self-deprecating, first made his home in the Sacramento, California area in 1942 when he served in the U.S. Army Air Force at Mather Field. He had thought he would become a pilot, but instead discovered there was work on base for graphic artists. In this role, Thiebaud worked on map-making and also drew a cartoon strip for the base newspaper. In 1945, he was transferred to Culver City, California where he continued to make maps and also films at the First Motion Picture Unit (FMPU), later the 18th AAF Base Unit. His commanding officer was Ronald Reagan! He attended Sacramento State College on the GI Bill and earned an MA in Art History while also teaching at Sacramento Junior College. His work life since youth included stints as a cartoonist, sign-painter, Disney animation artist, window dresser, typography artist, fashion artist, ad designer, poster designer, movie theater usher, and dishwasher. He doesn’t care for the label of “artist”, preferring to be called a cartoonist, draftsman, or designer. But don’t be fooled by his humility! Thiebaud is an accomplished scholar and skilled practitioner. Educator is a term he embraces, as well he should, as he began teaching in about 1950 at the Sacramento Junior College. He joined the faculty of the University of California, Davis in 1960, retired at 70, and continued to teach as professor emeritus into his late 90s. According to Thiebaud, his students have given as much to him as he has to them: “Fortunately, I sort of fell in love with teaching, it’s been a great education for me.”

Wayne Thiebaud was born in Mesa, Arizona on November 15, 1920, and grew up in Long Beach, California. His rich work and life experiences have always informed his unique expression while providing the skills, training, and exposure outside of a traditional art school education. The skills he developed, and the images implanted in his mind’s eye, have all contributed distinctly to his style, techniques, and subject matter. You probably know him for his luscious paintings of orderly plates of  meringue-topped pie slices, creamy ice cream cones, sculptural cakes iced with frosting-like paint, and candies and hot dogs so painterly in their buttery brushstrokes you want to taste them. Thiebaud also masterfully painted the human figure, his models formally arranged to be sculptural, inanimate, yet warmly human. His street scenes of San Francisco, as seen above, on the other hand, defy gravity in their exploration of elevation and points of view – ripping down hilly streets and soaring up skyscrapers, cars and people perched on precarious edges at severe angles in that dazzling West Coast light. Thiebaud’s exploration of perspective, points of view, angle, and light continued in his large landscape paintings of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta country where the Thiebauds owned a small farm along the Sacramento River. Thiebaud knew this area intimately, and captured the feeling more than the exact landscape. These paintings, without discernible horizon lines, stitch together dozens of views and varying perspectives, times of day, and even seasons in their full spectrum of color in large, quilt-like compositions. Some of the patchworks are imagined aerial views while others are straight on at ground-level; yet, all make sense in their expansive pulling together of terrain, waterways, farm fields, trees, and structures beside their multi-hued cast shadows. Thiebaud would sketch on site then compile, embellish, and draw from memory in his studio – a habit he developed early on in his painting career. During a year spent working in New York, Thiebaud often walked the streets at night, studying the window displays of stores (he had worked as a window dresser and was taken by the arrangements of the objects). He would go back to his studio and paint them from memory. His food paintings also rely on his memory and perception of images, though his figures were done from live models.

“My pleasure in painting these is to be at as many different levels as seems to make sense to the pattern.”

Wayne Thiebaud

Thiebaud took a year-long leave from teaching in 1956 to visit New York and his heros, the Abstract Expressionist painters. He became acquainted with the denizens of the Cedar Tavern, though never became a member of that scene. Willem de Kooning became a mentor of sorts, and advised young Wayne to find something he was passionate about and not to simply emulate the “signs of art” – the popular drips, strokes, and flourishes that were recognized as the current style, but to find something to say about something he cared about. Thiebaud took this to heart when he returned to California. He began with revisiting Cezanne’s lessons in simple elements: the cone, the cube, the sphere, and the formal rules of composition. He began with ovals and triangles. The triangles reminded him of plates of slices of pie arranged to appeal to the consumer – transcendent, almost, in their perfect rows in bakery cases and on diner counters. His first, unsatisfying attempt, was with pumpkin pie: “I was horrified! God, that looks like terrible stuff. Boy, if I paint that stuff, that’ll be the end of me as a serious artist! Nobody will ever look at something like this.”

After his return to the west, he began to observe the work of San Francisco artists who were not aligning themselves with Abstract Expressionism, like the Bay Area Figurative artists David Park and Elmer Bischoff, both of whom helped Thiebaud begin to understand his conflicts about his own representational art. Friend and colleague Richard Diebenkorn, also a Bay Area Figurative painter, was making representational art that verged into abstraction, much the same way that Thiebaud was doing with his investigation of food elements as painting subjects. Diebenkorn’s influence is easily seen in Thiebaud’s San Francisco city views.

The food paintings were the breakthrough pieces for Thiebaud, who’d been trying to get his work noticed and into galleries outside of California for a while. Finally, in 1962, New York dealer Allan Stone gave him a show, even though Stone felt that the pie pictures were “crazy paintings”. Stone gave Thiebaud his show just as the Pop art movement was stirring up the scene. The serendipity of this timing, and the great success of this exhibit (everything sold), resulted in the inclusion of Thiebaud in that movement. Therefore, the Pop label has tended to stick, though it’s not claimed by the artist. He prefers to call himself more of a formalist, but also says he engages in caricature – never one to take himself or his work too seriously. Another distinction of Thiebaud’s paintings from Pop art is their comforting familiarity with American everyday life. We all know those slabs of pie and frozen treats, the burgers and doughnuts – these are not cynical Pop images of slick consumer goods. Instead, they depict the elements of childhood and home or days at the beach and strolls down Main Street. They draw on the fun of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat cartoons – another of Thiebaud’s influences, and the irony of common objects made beautiful but not self-reverential. His pies and people are much more substantial than well-crafted renderings.

“The intimate association with everyday things – somehow that ongoing human activity—putting on our shoes, eating our breakfast, washing our dishes – seems to me very much worth doing.”

Wayne Thiebaud

He speaks eloquently of the physicality of making art – the discipline of drawing and its dependence on empathy and a thorough understanding of the human body and how it is balanced. Making art, for him, draws on the mind’s memory of images, the logic of light, the vibration of colors, the purity of medium, and the marriage of materiality with representation. His practice of serialization – of creating the same subject over and over in different media, lighting, techniques, and color (or lack thereof) has deepened his understanding and treatment of those simple yet complex arrangements of everyday objects. Mostly, his art brings pleasure much the same way a slice of pie or bowl of ice cream does, and Wayne Thiebaud knows the best ways to serve up those delights for our eyes: “I like when people look at my work and smile.”

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