When SF Weekly interviewed Wayne Thiebaud in 2012, the acclaimed artist tried to distance himself from the “pop art” label he acquired when he first emerged as a celebrated painter in the early 1960s. “I’ve been called a lot of things,” he said then, at age 92, “but I’m really just a kind of classical painter. ‘Pop art’ for me is not a very interesting category. I don’t feel really a part of it.”
A big reason the pop art label stuck to Thiebaud: his paintings of cakes, pie slices, ice-cream cones, and other such confections used rainbow colors, patterns of repetition, and unique angles to exalt these everyday items like never before. Thiebaud’s works were not only inviting to look at, they invoked feelings of joy and even nostalgia. So what to make of Thiebaud’s 1978 work called Freeways, which is now on view at Berggruen Gallery’s major Thiebaud exhibit?
Freeways is a kind of downer — an overview of freeways choked in factory smoke and dark, asphalted roads that dominate the terrain as far as the eye can see. There’s nothing nostalgic about Freeways. Nothing joyous either. It’s an odd side of Thiebaud — a seeming aberration that’s in the hands of a private collection, which has only emerged through a once-in-a-lifetime moment: Thiebaud is turning 100 on Nov 15, and the Berggruen Gallery — like Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum — is devoting every inch it can to Thiebaud’s long career.
A clue to understanding Freeways is not at Berggruen, but on the Crocker Art Museum’s walls: Betty Jean Thiebaud and Book, from the late 1960s, which portrays Thiebaud’s wife in a dark sweater, with flowing dark hair, and a closed-mouth look that can be read any which way. Betty Jean Thiebaud isn’t smiling. She might be contemplating. She might be worried. She might be at the beginning stages of anger. It’s ambiguous — like many of Thiebaud’s other portraits, which often show people, if not frowning, then distant. Distant from the viewer. Distant from themselves.
That’s what occurred to me over and over as I looked at the scores of paintings, prints, and other artwork at Berggruen Gallery: Thiebaud is a master of isolation. He’s a master at crowding things into a scene and crowding out any people. So the people in Thiebaud’s artwork — if they’re there at all — don’t give away their emotions or even their presence. That’s why Freeways isn’t an aberration at all. Nor is one of the painting’s twins: Palm Ridge, also at Berggruen and also from the late 1970s, features dark, intersecting roadways, and vehicles that practically disappear amid the urban buildup all around.
Because its skyline is blue and clear, and because palm trees cast beautiful blue shadows over the topography, Palm Ridge could be considered a typical Thiebaud work that “celebrates” its subject matter. But think again. Seeing it at Berggruen amid three floors of Thiebaud’s art, Palm Ridge — like Freeways — is almost daunting.
The scene’s tallest building has absolutely no windows on the side that faces the viewer. And not a single person is walking on the streets in Palm Ridge. Thiebaud is playing not just with the scene’s spatial dimensions but its dimensions of human existence. His more recent work at Berggruen, like Timber Top from 2010, also downplays the human element and plays up the element of isolation. You get that same feeling in Lipstick, a 1964 painting on display at Berggruen, which depicts a single, upright red lipstick case casting a dark, purplish shadow to its right. Thiebaud’s more acclaimed art from that same time period, like Three Machines from 1963 — which the de Young Museum has temporarily loaned to Berggruen — is the kind of painting that makes it to Thiebaud’s popular greeting-card collections. Three Machines exudes joie de vivre. Lipstick and Freeways are much more open to interpretation.
Speaking about painter Richard Diebenkorn — and his own art by extension — Thiebaud said this in a 2001 interview with the Archives of American Art: “You have to have that sense of ambiguity in some way, in order to make — to drive the painting into something other than something obvious and too predictable.”
Thiebaud’s work over the past 60 years has been both predictable and unpredictable. In the early 1960s, no one could have predicted that some of Thiebaud’s most stunning paintings would be of mountains, like his Canyon Mountains, which he finished in 2012 and that SFMOMA now owns. While Canyon Mountains isn’t on loan to Berggruen, the gallery has works that have the same mountainous perspective and the same feeling of sheer cliffs that rise up in beautiful isolation.
Free, Through Nov. 28
10 Hawthorne St., San Francisco
Tell Me When To Go
At first glance, Troy Chew’s painting Yay Area looks like it was done with Wayne Thiebaud in mind. There’s the layered cake on a circular dish and the ice cream plopped in distinctive glassware. Because the deserts are on a mirrored tabletop, the dishes’ repeated circular reflections create distinctive patterns. But no. Yay Area, which also features a Coke bottle, is a kind of hip-hop riddle. The same goes for all of Chew’s paintings on display at CULT Aimee Friberg Exhibitions.
These riddles — and the game of deciphering them — are an underlying appeal of “Troy Chew: Yadadamean.”
Chew doesn’t want to explain each work, so it’s up to the viewer. Hip-hop music playing over the gallery’s sound system (E-40 is prominent) helps to provide clues. Some of the references are easy, like the digital clock that announces “4:20” in Ask Berner. But the pickle? Also reference to marijuana.
In Yay Area, the spoon may be more related to the bottle of Coke than the ice-cream (as the etymological roots of “Yay Area” lie in “yayo”). By incorporating references to rap lyrics, slang words, and Bay Area culture (the exhibit’s title is one way to say, “You know what I mean?”), and by painting in a flawless and moving style that winks at painting’s most vaunted traditions, Chew is marrying disparate cultural scenes — not unlike Kehinde Wiley’s portraits of rap artists that he did in a style reminiscent of historical paintings. These works aren’t hyphenated art forms. They’re evolved expressions of contemporary culture that stand on their own – even without a guidebook for the newly curious.
‘Troy Chew: Yadadamean’
Free, Through Dec. 5
CULT Aimee Friberg Exhibitions
1217 B Fell St., San Francisco
A Spooky Installation
In the 1990s, artist David Salle addressed the subject of ghosts with his “Ghost Paintings” — large-scale photos printed on linen that looked like apparitions struggling to break free from their outer layers. A century earlier, the photographer William H. Mumler made a good living with his “spirit photographs” that seemed to show deceased people comforting those whom Mumler had photographed — including, years after his death, Abraham Lincoln with his hands on Mary Todd Lincoln.
You don’t need to believe in ghosts or the afterlife to engage with Christopher M. Tandy’s video installation at “SJÁ: GHØSTS,” his new exhibit that suggests the spirit world is very much alive in the present. Tandy’s video installation is trance-like and transcendent. Incorporating found film and film of Tandy’s performance art as “the Raven,” along with indelible sounds from collaborator Evan Meyer (including creaking doors and didgeridoo-like droning), the film shows on two screens in a darkened room with tarp, straw, and jutting objects from the ceiling. Tandy’s work is unlike any art-gallery film that I have visited in the past 10 years — a moody, cryptic, post-Apocalyptic stream of sight and sound that, like Tandy’s other art at Glass Rice Gallery, tries to alter people’s assumptions about reality. Yes, it’s cosmic, but then so is the best gospel music, which tries to change and elevate the spirit into a completely different dimension.
Free, Through Oct. 31
Glass Rice Gallery
808 Sutter St., San Francisco