New York

Wayne Thiebaud

Allan Stone Gallery

These works present nothing new to one’s notion of Thiebaud’s achievement, but they do maintain the level of guarded professionalism that has marked his last two shows. The excitement and sense of discovery present in his New York debut do not, unfortunately, reappear this time.

At this point, it seems that Thiebaud has decided to perfect his manner and leave all considerations of style alone, at least as far as painting itself goes. It is only his subjects that have a style, or styles, in the sense of “period.” Presenting (as he almost invariably does) a centrally placed image against a white background undifferentiated except for a bit of shadow that fogs the plane of the “floor,” Thiebaud forces detailed consideration of all the particulars of this image, which is a strictly literal one. A girl in a bikini, standing there—clunk!—allows us for a moment to try to divert ourselves with the mild whimsy that she is An Hieratic Figure. She is only a girl in a bikini. Ditto a lady Mod (Modess?) seen seated and in profile. Wearing white vinyl boots and with her hair crisply Sassooned, she demands that you puzzle out her identity, which is again of the utmost ordinariness. A pair of seated figures dully awaiting the completion of their sit exist in a similar state of plain explicitness.

As is surely well known, Thiebaud’s execution has thinned down from the buttery, frosted surfaces of his earlier food paintings. Now, in his figure paintings, he gives the straightest sort of renderings, never letting the handling assert itself at the expense of the images he constructs. This handling is not quite anonymous, but it is clinical, and it is applied with a ruthless uniformity to all parts of the image. The backgrounds are still done in the regular parallel strokes of the do-it-yourselfer trying not to leave any drips on the kitchen cabinets. In this way Thiebaud’s figures depend for their compositions as much as possible on the nature and particulars of the subjects, indiscriminately presented. To speak of form in these works can refer only to the particulars of the literal image. We are left then with just the rendering. This is almost completely academic, except that there is not much black in the palette. Around the edges of shapes relieved against the background are fine lines in primary or secondary colors which kick up the volumes, and, like Seurat’s dotted borders, make the colors resonant.

Proof of Thiebaud’s essential disengagement from his figure subjects seems clinched by the one portrait in the show, a bust of Sterling Holloway. Despite the meticulous technique, the picture remains only a likeness and not a portrait. The specifics of the sitter’s features are visually chronicled with total disinterest, transforming the facial expression into a kind of grimace and making the subject curious as an object, but hardly engrossing as a personage.

This chilliness in Thiebaud’s approach is turned into a virtue when he tackles still life. The three small ones in the show (all dealing with cosmetics) are arresting both pictorially and in their remarkable psychological overtones. Four identical jars of cold cream or three lipsticks force Thiebaud to arrange and dispose them in a way that he does not feel called upon to do with his figures. The results are fresh presentations of an essential aspect of the scuola metafisica, that the form of an ordinary object (as opposed to an ordinary person) rendered impersonally, assumes a bizarre and perplexing identity when removed from any clear context. Thiebaud’s jars and lipsticks, like his earlier olives and cheese bits, become charged with an almost menacing sense of hidden meaning within their irritatingly explicit imagery; the balance between a voluptuous sense of matiere and the incongruous fictional suggestions of the images is exact and potent.

Thiebaud’s figure drawings have an Ingres-like perfection of pencil technique in their small size, but suffer from the same difficulties of astral indifference to the sitters as do the paintings. And so, it is only their superb mise en page that elevates them above the obsessional perfection of Portraits Inc.

Dennis Adrian