Wayne Thiebaud: Recovering the Classic in American Culture

The label "pop artist" was first applied to painter Wayne Thiebaud in the early 1960s, when his everyday items — cakes, pies, and gumball machines — appeared at the same time as Andy Warhol's soup cans and Coke bottles. Warhol and Thiebaud. Thiebaud and Warhol. They were joined at the artistic hip. But where Warhol was making a cutting statement about what America had become (a country united by commercialism), Thiebaud was lionizing the recent past. Instead of subverting convention, he celebrated it.

"I've been called a lot of things, but I'm really just a kind of classical painter," Thiebaud tells SF Weekly. "'Pop art' for me is not a very interesting category. I don't feel really a part of it. On the other hand, I was really grateful that they would call me anything in those days."

Thiebaud has little time to think about "those days." At age 92, he still paints nearly every day, and is still very much in demand. For its annual food issue, out Dec. 3, The New Yorker featured Thiebaud's Hot-Dog Stand on the cover. On Nov. 30, New York's Acquavella Galleries finished a retrospective of his paintings, prints and works on paper. At San Francisco's de Young Museum, he is one of the featured artists in "Crown Point Press at 50," which spotlights the Bay Area art studio that Thiebaud has been associated with since 1964.

In the de Young's modern art galleries, meanwhile, some of his best work is on permanent display. Three Machines, from 1963, is displayed in the main lobby, while an entire wall in an interior gallery showcases two outdoor scenes. Ponds and Streams, from 2001, is a bird's-eye view of an agricultural area near Thiebaud's Sacramento home, and Diagonal Freeway, from 1993, reimagines a San Francisco-like cityscape where dense apartment buildings abut a highway that ascends like a ski slope.

One reason successive generations of art-goers — even small children — have responded so eagerly to Thiebaud's work is the color palette that lights up his canvasses. The gumballs in Three Machines, for example, "show a spectral range, like a rainbow," Thiebaud says. "And that energy is something that basically attracts us — like a rainbow, like flowers, like anything that has this sort of wondrous, pulsating power."

That power complements another key element of his art: patterns and shapes. Three Machines is a series of circles (gumballs) within circles (the gumball machines' globes). Thiebaud says he approached the gumball machines in Three Machines as "a visual problem to play with."

The shapes. The colors. The often-playful subject matter. Thiebaud's paintings are easy on the eyes — and the stomach. No other American painter has been so closely associated with edible objects: Cakes (1963), which lines up 13 desserts, and Pies, Pies, Pies (1961), which romanticizes 16 slices, begat 50 years of paintings about ice cream and milkshakes, cupcakes and fruit slices.

Thiebaud's flair for exaggeration is grounded in his days as a cartoonist. During World War II, he was in the U.S. Army Air Forces and drew a cartoon strip called Aleck for his base paper near Sacramento. At age 15, Thiebaud worked for Walt Disney Studios in an apprenticeship program, drawing movie frames of Goofy, Pinocchio, and other characters.

"The most wonderful thing is to see people smiling and laughing at my work," says Thiebaud, who was honored in 1994 with a National Medal of Arts — the U.S. government's highest achievement for artists. "Caricature is something that very much interests me. Not just in forms of the graphic nature, but the idea of caricature of color and caricature of space and caricature of light."

Thiebaud takes chances with his paintings even long after they seem finished. When Hot-Dog Stand (started in 2004) was shown in 2010 at the San Jose Museum of Art, at "Wayne Thiebaud: Seventy Years of Painting," its skyline was predominantly yellow. By the time it had reached The New Yorker, he had made the skyline a soft blue, and added the word "EATS" to the hot-dog stand's overhead sign — changes that made the concession stand much more inviting. "I'm not ever that happy about any of [my] originals," Thiebaud says. "It's a lot of fun to try even if it fails. ... I'm liable just to either destroy works or try different things out in them."

He says he's working on a new series of paintings that depict mountains from Northern California, Southern California, and Utah — all places he has lived. Thiebaud, who has taught in colleges for 60 years, says he sees himself as a depicter of "people, places and things, most of them based on American experiences and American formalizations.

"I teach very old-fashioned basic studies — life drawing; color design; those very primary issues that concern — at least for me — painting. I'm not so interested in art as I am in the whole, long wonderful tradition of painting. And what painting is, what it can be, and where it might be."

 
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