PRINT Summer 2001


Wayne Thiebaud

IN 1962, Wayne K. Thiebaud was forty-one. Recently divorced and remarried, he had just taken a job as assistant professor of art at the University of California's sleepy Davis campus. Over the years, he'd worked as a commercial illustrator, layout editor, and cartoonist, and for the last ten years as an art instructor at Sacramento Junior College. His first one-man show outside Sacramento, held the previous November at Art Unlimited in San Francisco, had produced no sales and only one review, a dopey feature in the San Francisco Chronicle that called Thiebaud “the hungriest artist in California.”

So he did what any enterprising artist would do: He went to New York. “For some time I had been taking students there to look at exhibitions,” the eighty-year-old Thiebaud recalls. “Whenever I went to New York I would go around and try to get some place to show my work. I wasn't having any luck at all. Then I met Allan Stone.” The introduction came by way of an old commercial-art acquaintance, Robert Mallary who was then showing at the gallery. “Allan was puzzled by the pieces, but he said he thought I deserved a chance.”

Stone, in the meantime, had just visited Andy Warhol's studio, but declined to represent that artist (the work was “a little flat,” as Stone put it). He was equally noncommittal about Thiebaud: “I didn't know what to make of it.” Nonetheless, “I liked the kind of surface and the lushness—you sense a love of paint.”

Thiebaud, who had over the past two years moved from conventional landscape and figurative work to pictures of cafeteria-style food displays and other icons of mass consumption, left a number of the new canvases behind for Stone to consider. 'He hung onto the work,“ Thiebaud says. ”He knew I was coming back on another school trip, so he said we ought to have a show then, during spring break of 1962."

Stone engaged in a little old-fashioned showmanship to capture public attention. An unconventional dealer who'd recently moved to East Eighty-sixth Street, Stone kept an eclectic stable of mostly unknown artists; he had nothing to lose by sending out Thiebaud's show with all flags flying. “Allan had done what I would call a kind of lyrical exhibition, interspersing my paintings with dishes of candies and pies on pedestals,” Thiebaud remembers. “At the opening he served candy apples rather than champagne.”

“I arrived in New York with about twenty students and found out the show was already on,” the artist recalls. “Stone told me he had practically sold it out and that, furthermore, I was supposed to come down at two o'clock to talk to Time magazine. And a fellow had just been in from The Nation.”

That fellow was Max Kozloff, perhaps Thiebaud's strongest early supporter. Other laudatory reviews came from Thomas Hess, then editor of Art News; Brian O'Doherty in the New York Times; Irving Sandler in the New York Post; and Donald Judd in Arts. Just a few months later, Walter Hopps discussed Thiebaud's paintings in these pages (AF, Sept. 1962), noting that one of the work's most puzzling aspects was its unusually strong appeal to intelligent critics. Meanwhile, Time, Newsweek, and Life presented Thiebaud to the general public as a leading member of the new generation of artists alternately known as “American Dream” painters, “Kitschniks,” and “New Realists,” whose significance could no longer be denied. An article in Newsweek quoted Leo Castelli as saying that, when it comes to new art, “one must rise above one's own taste sometimes.”

Reading through the contemporary responses to the show, Thiebaud emerges in hindsight as a kinder, less frightening practitioner of the style soon to be known as Pop. His love of painting and painting materials, his interest in composition, and his strong sense of color and design—which is to say, his ultimately conservative preoccupation with formal issues—all helped reluctant viewers warm to the more forbidding aesthetics of other Pop innovators.

Thiebaud's feel-good imagery was in itself less challenging than the chilling, impersonal visions of Rosenquist and Warhol, the artists to whom he was then most often compared. Thiebaud's work was consistently reviewed as humanist and socially aware—and in that sense almost a rebuttal of Pop: Hess and O'Doherty saw in these slices of pie (and cake, not to mention candy and barbecued chicken) a “food for the common man,” which, in Hess's words, “preaches revulsion” with the contemporary American taste for instant gratification.

Thiebaud remains politely skeptical of such readings, feeling that the paintings succeeded as paintings, not as statements of any particular philosophy or politics; the selection of subject matter was, in any case, intuitive, not purposive. Forty years later he remembers with wry amusement how Ivan Karp, then working at Castelli and lecturing on the side, came into Allan Stone one afternoon with a group of coeds and, standing before them, “called a tray of barbecued chickens 'an American tragedy.'”

Over the years, Thiebaud's consumerist tableaux gave way to a highly individual landscape idiom. Indeed, the artist has become our Morandi, a detached and highly focused independent working in a school of one. The sweet success of Thiebaud's New York debut was, you might say, a serendipitous case of good timing—and just desserts.

Justin Spring, a novelist and critic, is the author of Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art (Yale, 2000).