PRINT March 1977

Wayne Thiebaud from Phoenix to Des Moines

GRACING THE FRONT COVER of Sunshine Muse, Peter Plagens’ apologetic history of West Coast art, is Wayne Thiebaud’s Girl with an Ice Cream Cone. Although Plagens spends little time on Thiebaud in the text, the point must be that there is something typically West Coast—or at least Californian—about the painting. If you can get past the fact that Thiebaud has rendered the flesh so that it approximates Manet’s Christ, there is a good case for this girl representing the Sunshine Muse. Her tan looks all-year-around. She wears her bathing suit as if she’d been born in it, ready for eternal sunshine. Her sexuality (open mouth à la Penthouse, the phallic cone, the spread legs) seems untroubled and natural—typically Californian. Actually, she could be sitting anywhere, even on a Coney Island beach. But a New York painter wouldn’t have bothered with such a subject, and he certainly wouldn’t have painted her in that style in that year (1963). Even today, Thiebaud appeals to people beyond his home state, but that interest is concentrated outside New York City.

The survey of his work from 1947 to 1976, which I saw in Oakland, originated at the Phoenix Art Museum, and ends up in Des Moines, Iowa, sometime this spring. For a contemporary art show, the itinerary is oddly Sunshine Belt/Middle American. The list of lenders (a barometer of geographic taste) reads all wrong: works from collections in Shawnee Mission, Kansas; Kansas City, Missouri; Sacramento, California; Texas and Utah. The conclusion is: for people who hate New York City, Thiebaud is a wonderful artist. His work typifies everything the New York artist struggles against: approachable work which is obviously well painted by hand, realistic subjects, and ideas which don’t require an art historical background to comprehend. For New Yorkers, Thiebaud is a lightweight, the ultimate petit maître of California art. Within the limits of his style, he can do anything. He is “clever” and “cute” and his art is as easily consumed as the food it often depicts. Sometimes it is difficult to figure out who’s right.

Thiebaud was born in Arizona, but moved to Southern California when he was one year old. His background was purely in the commercial arts—layout, graphics, illustration. He makes a habit of bringing up his lack of “art school” training, by which he means learning about Art History.1 He did layouts and cartoons for the Armed Services during World War II, and later layouts for Women’s Wear Daily; he also worked in Hollywood. He has taught art since 1951 in the Sacramento area; Mel Ramos was one of his students. He has always painted realistically, even though he developed as a painter under the pressure of Bay Area Abstract Expressionism. When New York returned to “realism,” beginning with Johns and continuing with Pop, Thiebaud was swept up in the tide with his mistaken-Pop paintings. (Of course, the first important Pop exhibitions were in California.) He was “lucky” enough to have his own work and mainstream New York art coincide at a most propitious time.

Thiebaud’s problem has been to get away from the Pop label and his reputation as a “one-note” artist, known solely for his food paintings. The purpose of the current show was, more than anything, to correct this impression. “One thing the show should dispel is the notion that Wayne Thiebaud is primarily a Pop artist,” reads the catalogue introduction. Most every “Pop” artist has already disavowed the label, and Thiebaud is more than ready to repudiate the title: “At present, I am interested in pursuing a certain kind of Western painting. This painting has a kind of one-to-one directness apparent in certain works of Velasquez, Hals, Chard in and Manet.” Thiebaud said this in 1966, when he was already on his way down—a waning reputation in New York and an apparent dissatisfaction with his narrowness. When he staked claim to nothing, he shone; when he took up the modernist banner, his light dimmed.

A general survey can really expose a painter’s weaknesses unless it is discreet,y selected. The one at hand includes every kind of painting Thiebaud has done—AE, still lifes, landscape, abstraction, portraiture, figures, seascapes, animals. (The only things missing are the posters he designed for movies like Killers, Dead of Night and Black Fury, all which sound pretty good to me. As he created them in 1946, the year before the biography informs us he “makes a commitment to become a painter,” they are correctly but unfortunately omitted.) But justice is not done. Work from the most consistently good period (196168) is scattered throughout the show, as if the curator knew he’d better spread the best stuff around. John Coplans’ 1968 “Artist in Mid-Career” show was infinitely better selected, even though many of the same paintings were in both exhibitions. (Missing in Oakland were the Hot Dog paintings, a real shame.)

Thiebaud has expressed his dislike for critics who think his middle-period work his best (he singles out Lawrence Alloway and John Coplans, and blames their preference on their European background). He thinks such criticism means that he ought to repeat past glories. What the survey proves, however, is that those critics are essentially right, and that Thiebaud is not being asked to repeat himself, but just to get better at what he does best, that is, refine within his area of expertise. When he branches out into new territory, he’s just another stray artist. And that brings him back to talk of formal problems being above problems of meaning and intention, putting the how to above the why.

As with most artists who work within a very limited stylistic framework, Thiebaud’s strengths and weaknesses can be spelled out with amazing ease. He is most at home with the kind of painting he’s famous for. Subjects are set very close to the viewer, close to the “front” of the picture plane. They are either isolated or repeated in isolation. Although space is suggested, it is a very shallow space. The best paintings leave out even any reference to horizon or edge—the focus is completely on the subject. Thiebaud’s formal control is such that we still feel the downward pull of the plane without the inflection of front/back. The subject matter we feel is most appropriate for the thick, gooey paint is thick, gooey food—icings, candy and meringue. It satisfies our Johnsian need for the identification of the paint itself with what is painted. When Thiebaud paints clothing or flesh, the painting method still compliments the subject. Above all, Thiebaud is interested (as his choice of “masters” shows) in the interaction of light and surface, no matter what the subject matter.

His light is completely different from old master light. It is not only “20th century,” but explicitly Californian—a mix of bright, natural sunlight and neon light. His paintings show how we confuse these two kinds of lights. The paintings demonstrate a subtle continuum between outside and inside for a Californian, and the shifts of space created by light. In this, we could say Thiebaud is preoccupied with Robert Irwin’s set of ambiguities. Thiebaud’s pies are laid out in a “window,” and cast deep shadows. The light is both coming in the window and shining down on the food. The consistent white/cream backgrounds suggest different kinds of spaces, different kinds of light. It is the white of a doubly depicted light source, an ambiguity that an artist constantly surrounded by sunlight would appreciate.

The figure paintings cannot derive any special significance from the fact of how they are painted, the way the food paintings can. Most of the figures are presented without special accouterments which would place them in any particular place or time. A psychology sneaks into Thiebaud’s work as it cannot in the still lifes. So does a mild form of social criticism. Although Thiebaud presents and paints people in the same way he presents and paints hot dogs, it’s simply not possible to disregard the singularity of a human subject. The artist picks certain people to paint. Even as Thiebaud confesses not to understand the symbolic meanings of his painted foods, he is certainly correct in describing how the people in his paintings are seen as they might be observed furtively in an airline terminal.

The people are standing still, but they are also hiding in costumes (Show Girl, 1963), sitting with their backs to us (Man Sitting—Back View, 1964), encased and isolated (Booth Girl, 1964), or entirely absent (Yellow Dress, 1974). This kind of frozen and unknowable mystery about the subject is the proverbial isolation and alienation made famous in the endless highways of Joan Didion. Thiebaud’s portraits with more open and empathetic subjects are less effective. The bust of Greg Kondos (from 1975) is not only fussy and overworked, but Kondos seems to be attending to the artist and the viewer, instead of being isolated in airline-terminal anonymity.

When Thiebaud paints a solitary pair of shoes (Black Shoes, 1963), it is as much a portrait as Five Sitting Figures (1965), probably his most ambitious painting. In Five Sitting Figures, each person sits staring in a different direction, each unaffected by the others’ presence, nobody’s gaze meeting anyone else’s. No one smiling, no one frowning. The question of why we feel safe empathizing with a pair of shoes and not with five other human beings is an interesting one, and essential to the understanding of the problems of figure painting. Somewhere between Pearlstein’s manipulation and Katz’s informality, there are Thiebaud’s relaxed yet firmly entrenched people, whose mysteries are their own. Perhaps after Warhol we can be moved only by the most charged subjects, those who make their enigmas public. Thiebaud approaches this subject rather wittily. In his alienation-cum-castration paintings of fish and ties, the Freudian meaning is not pushed in your face, but is there nonetheless. Tie Pile, from 1969, works first as a kind of tour de force of good old-fashioned cartoony-painterly reduction of a most difficult and messy set of objects: loose ties piled on top of each other, each a different color and pattern. (This painting shows how Thiebaud’s painting problems are solved technically rather than formally.) But Tie Pile is also a good joke which couldn’t have been unintentional on Thiebaud’s part.

The catalogue essay by Gene Cooper makes a big fuss over Thiebaud’s theater set decorations, and inadvertently shows how little his mature art owes to his drama experience. Thiebaud cannot, in his painting, handle complex design without relying on given models. Cooper tries to relate theater at Sacramento State College in the early ’50s to Thiebaud’s deep appreciation of profound esthetic issues. The problem is that Thiebaud doesn’t need the hype. The most he could have learned from the theater is that modernist space is a shallow space; he did not pick up things like spotlighting and Absurdist philosophies, or, if he did, he does not use them in his work. The shallow space was very important in Thiebaud’s development. It was interesting to see his “first” painting of a meat counter, which includes the counter and the glass front and rows of meat. As he closed in on that glass case, he also closed in on his most convincing subject matter. He got rid of the context, replacing it by a focused light and a clear painting style, leaving behind the dripping rivulets of AE.

Thiebaud admits that good abstract painting is difficult to do—and that he isn’t any good at it. There is only one abstraction in this show, the very weak Flyer (Gray Green) from 1960. The work is instructive in a general way: it shows how the techniques of illustration cannot be used in abstract painting because the “rendering“ makes the painting look like a reproduction of itself. Landscape is as troublesome as abstraction, but Thiebaud has not avoided it. In a continuing series of “Missouri“ landscapes, he tries for a diffused atmospheric light with arbitrary color and cows and trees. The best landscapes (like Portrero Hill, 1976) look like lessons learned from Diebenkorn. Thiebaud seems to have missed the meaning of his wonderful large-scale still lifes with the tables of canapes and hams and pineapples and chickens (Buffet, 1972–75 and Salad, Sandwiches and Dessert, 1962 are prime examples). Those are his real landscapes, his own personal version of the American geography.

Jeff Perrone


1. All references to Thiebaud’s attitudes are from a videotaped conversation which accompanied the exhibition. Although they are not direct quotations, the substance of the positions presented here are correct as I understand them.