His art may be playing the same games as other mid-century paintings on the wall — plunging familiar icons of American culture into a surreal space between representation and abstraction — but it does it with an unfailing invitation to indulge. As the waitress places a big plate of not-what-you-think-it-is and sometimes-pie-isn’t-just-pie on your table, she does it with a smile and a chipper, “There you go, hon.”
Thiebaud turns 100 years old on Sunday, and the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento is honoring that milestone with a survey of his career, “Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings.” Like the desserts under glass in his 1993 “Bakery Counter” or the cold cuts and mayonnaise-based salads in his 1992 “Food Bowls,” the exhibition will be beyond reach for most people. When the exhibition opened in the middle of October, the museum was open four days a week with timed ticketing to control visitor volume during the pandemic, but it wasn’t easy for many fans to travel there. And the usual galas and festivities that one might expect for a beloved centenarian artist were moved mostly online. On Friday, the museum was forced to close again and remains so until further notice. So this exhibition heightens, through frustration, one of the essential lessons of the pandemic: that art functions like magnetism, attaching us more deeply to things, to other people, to our desires and need to be in the world.
For those who couldn’t see it in Sacramento, including this critic, there is always the hope of accessing it when it travels to other cities, including Toledo, Memphis, San Antonio and, finally, Chadds Ford, Pa., where it is scheduled to open at the Brandywine Museum in February 2022. Until then, there is the catalogue and an online exhibition on the Crocker’s website. The overall impression is a curious mix of philosophical consistency and freewheeling breadth of inspiration.
“I have always tried to paint anything that I want, any subject, any day, any time; so as a result, it is an insane mix of subject, media and all of that,” says Thiebaud, from his studio in Sacramento. “It is sort of a crazy way to go about it.”
The exhibition includes not just the works for which he is most famous, the pastel-colored desserts and lunch-counter fare, but also the landscapes he made in dialogue with those of Richard Diebenkorn, his portraits and figure paintings, his still lifes and a recent series of clown paintings made in his 90s, which give the longer arc of his career an even more deeply surreal tinge. But, for all the diversity of material, it is his consistency of approach that is even more striking. His paintings make the language of painting as palpable as the objects he paints, objects that are often reduced to the most elemental geometries. His shadows, cool and deeply blue, are shadowed by the history of shadows, a centuries-long struggle to get this elemental visual detail just right; and his application of paint will make you want to refresh your memory of artists as far-ranging as Delacroix, Tintoretto and Picasso.
Thiebaud is still painting, still driving, still in touch with students and disciples gathered over a career that included decades of teaching. He works most days and describes himself as “still a struggling painter.” He is, he says, “very much influenced. I have taken from other painters, other people, even my own students. Anything that I can use, I simply steal and try to get into my own painting, in some way.” And painting is a necessity: “I have a family that puts up with that, this kind of neurotic fixation, but they have been generous by letting me have this privileged time.”
Thiebaud is pithy, focused and forthright. The world, he acknowledges, has changed since he settled on a repertoire of images that were useful, in part, because they were so familiar. Cakes and ice cream cones were visual staples of American life in the years after he had a 1962 breakthrough exhibition in New York. They were, for Thiebaud, a bit like a folk song is for composers who write musical variations: pure material, instantly recognizable, infinitely pliable.
But that world of mid-century popular iconography has largely disappeared, which means that Thiebaud’s painterly riffs on everyday life impart something very different today. Now they are also missives from a fading past, when people used to wear bow ties and hats, write letters by hand and keep track of time with things called clocks.
Even the light is different.
“I can remember being in rooms with a single lightbulb in the middle of the room, or even before that, with candlelight, and oil lamps,” he says. “I worked on a farm in southern Utah, where we didn’t have electricity.” The world today, he says, feels “hyped up,” faster paced, perhaps a bit relentless. When he sees the city at night, with office lights left on and telltale signs of cleaning crews or after-work meetings keeping buildings perpetually aglow, he misses the dark.
“That seems bizarre, since I don’t see stars any more,” he says. “Having grown up with these wonderful black skies. . . . That has been a great change to endure.”
There isn’t a hint of resentment in the observation. It is just that — an observation — just as he has been observing the world for decades. During the most recent chapters of Thiebaud’s career, the art world has gone through some of the most radical transformations of the past century, opening up for question the whole mid-century canon, and its racial, political and cultural underpinnings. A visual world that was, for Thiebaud, so familiar that it was almost invisible, was in fact deeply coded with messages about privilege, consumption and class. Thiebaud has lived long enough, been productive enough, that his work is now subject not just to criticism and interpretation, but to archaeology, a link to an increasingly remote world that is also increasingly contested.
And he understands that: “I grew up in the ’20s and ’30s and ’40s. That was my world in that particular time, and since I work from memory, that was reflected in the work. Particularly the American spirit, the American world at that particular time. They are very nostalgic.”
Meanwhile, he keeps working, still connected to the only world any of us can ever know intimately, which is the world we lived in.
“For me, making a good painting, or a special painting, is probably one of the great achievements of mankind. It is on the level with scientific research. So, my feeling is, once you enter that community of painting, which is a sort of secret society — dependent on art history — you want to compete, you want to contend, however small, or however inadequate.”
To be a painter, he says, is to grapple with the world of Velázquez and Rembrandt, and probably fail in the process, and then keep going, hoping to create some “little world” or “alternate universe” that persists and matters to people.
“You can never paint well enough, hard enough or long enough, but the doing of it — just the pure pleasure of picking up that stick with some hairs on it, dipping it into some color or something, then taking it to this flat surface and trying to make a little visual world — what a wonderful challenge. We are privileged.”
He probably meant to say, “I am privileged.” But “we are privileged” is true, too.
Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings is at the Crocker Art Museum through Jan. 3. For more information, including any scheduled reopening, visit crockerart.org.