Palo Alto

Wayne Theibaud

Stanford Art Gallery

Although both David Park and Wayne Thiebaud would be termed figurative painters, the differences between them are more immediately apparent than their similarities. Thiebaud came into prominence a year or so after Park died. His position just outside the general Bay Area Figurative scheme is as peculiar as Park’s was within it; neither of them ever fit the penumbral psychologizing mold, as it developed, to the extent, say, that Elmer Bischoff preeminently did. Park was, and Thiebaud is, a painter of discrete images located in spaces charged by scrutiny, as well as by the manner of depiction. One difference is that Park’s spaces tended to be filled up as extensions of his subjects’ flesh, and Thiebaud’s, until recently, have been bare repositories for mostly impersonal objects. Another has to do with background: Park’s work was rooted (however shallowly) in a latter-day beaux-arts tradition, whereas Thiebaud’s began deep in commercial illustration.

Especially interesting in this compendious traveling show, “Works on Paper, 1947–1987,” are the drawings and watercolors Thiebaud did from the late ’40s through the ’50s and the watercolors and oil sketches since 1985. This is not to slight the works of the intervening years; they are simply more familiar. The ’40s–’50s pictures don’t challenge the assumption that Thiebaud hit his stride in 1960, when he settled into painting still lifes of food displays, so much as they provide a view of the finesse he had accumulated to make his peculiar vision stick. By 1947, when he laid down a few brisk cubist parallelograms for the ink drawing Rocks And Sea, Thiebaud had already spent ten years as a cartoonist, layout designer, and illustrator. (He would arrive at his decision to become a full-time painter two years later.) Schematically, the distinction between City Street, 1952, and Lighted City, 1986, isn’t great. Both are watercolors syncopated in ways that recall John Marin, but the earlier work is all strong shape and no sensibility, while the newer one has the sparkle of forms coalesced from a high yield of fantastically opulent hues.

Thiebaud’s handling and color are task-specific, so that a single motif can be transformed in many ways through different processes over time. In drawing, his style is no-style, as neutral as Sargent and similarly decisive. (As ever, his characteristic gesture is revealed in the heavily delineated shadow, which detaches itself from the figure to suggest another, parallel existence.) As for color, the different reds in Two Paint Cans and Ribs, both 1987, have a tactile meatiness that could be wrought only in oils. The new watercolors of San Francisco slopes are elastic in density. In Ocean City, 1987, two panoramic masses of wash-and-blot tones engulf the sliced and dappled contours of buildings and streets. Blue City Ridge, 1986, is a single, nearly uniform blot. Civic Downgrade, 1986, divides into separate bands of deep black charcoal and bright oil paint, so that the restless composite view percolates.

Another surprise appears in the watercolor Running Figures, 1987, which picks up a narrative thread Thiebaud abandoned in the late ’50s. The “running” of the title must be a pun on how the compact couple (male and female on a beach) is rendered—each in a dribble of orange silhouette. It’s one of those pictures that gets everything oddly right, including the liquid properties of the medium it’s made from. Thiebaud is a past master of floodlit dislocation. He now seems absorbed by more intricate zones of facts, emulsified in their own light.

Bill Berkson