Wayne Thiebaud painted unabashedly American moments. Because his early works focused on food, he was placed into the Pop Art category. Thiebaud didn’t share the art world’s assessment of his work. He viewed himself as a realist in the vein of Edouard Manet, or
Edward Hopper. His most iconic canvases are filled with cakes, pies, gum balls, and every type of sweet imaginable. Even when he left these sugary confections behind, they followed him. Bubblegum pink, and Creamsicle orange are often found in his later works. Viewers, and critics alike enjoy his paintings. Though some thought he was being ironic in his artistic choices. In late December, the artist passed away. He had recently turned 101. Let’s remember him by taking a closer look at three paintings, one of his food paintings, one of his San Francisco cityscapes, and finally one from a series of river landscapes.
In the early 1960s Thiebaud began painting sweet treats. He liked the word play that was tied to these “just desserts.” Think of all the idioms, and clichés you associate with the word cake, or pie. In “Pie Counter,” from 1963, Thiebaud played with the word counter. He distorted the image to trick the viewers eye. Look at the slight rise and steep drop off of the back of the countertop. The pies appear as if they are on an assembly line that stretches past what can be seen. One can imagine there are too many slices of pie to count. Traditional Pop Artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol were becoming less, and less painterly. They strove to eliminate the signs of brushwork from their art entirely. Thiebaud exploited his brush strokes. His heavy impasto added depth to a wisp of merengue, or a swirl of icing. You want to reach out and dip your finger into the creamy waves of filling.
When Thiebaud began painting the streets, and vistas of San Francisco he highlighted the city’s hills in mind bending glory. Thiebaud found new ways to destabilize the viewer. A painting that initially looked like skyscrapers, would actually be a birds eye view of avenues and rooftops. Let’s look at his 2001 painting, “San Francisco, West Side Ridge.” Here, Thiebaud plays with shadows and stick straight lines to disorient the viewer. His unexpected vantage point creates an urban rollercoaster with sheer drops, and hairpin turns. If you study the painting long enough you might question if that arch of blue is sky, or sea.
While Thiebaud’s cityscapes highlighted hills, his river scenes celebrate topography. These works are a patchwork of colors, textures, and shapes. “Levee Farms,” which he painted in 1998, is typical of this genre. Thiebaud taps into the unique and varied environment surrounding a river. He treats us to a birds eye view of the land, but chooses not to show a horizon line. This frees viewers up to lose themselves in the larger motif of the painting. But, if one looks closer landmarks emerge. There are houses, heavy equipment, and many gorgeous details throughout. Thiebaud is still using his brush strokes to create subtle changes that enhance the painting.
A Unique Viewpoint
Wayne Thiebaud was a playful and agile painter, even at 100. One could argue he was a modern still life, and landscape painter, who found a way to give both genres a fresh point of view.