Few artists could make a viewer’s mouth water in quite the way that Bay Area figurative artist Wayne Thiebaud (1920–2021) did with his sumptuous renderings of cakes, pies, candy, ice-cream cones, and sandwiches from the early 1960s, when he was tipped as a rising star of Pop Art. Rendered in a soft pastel impasto that looks like frosting, Thiebaud’s ranked arrays of confections beckoned viewers like goodies in a bakery.
But while his efforts were initially lumped in with those of Pop artists Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and James Rosenquist, notably in curator Walter Hopps’s 1962 exhibition “New Paintings of Common Objects” at the Pasadena Art Museum, Thiebaud’s place in American art was something of a puzzle: On the one hand, his work spoke to the rampant consumerism occasioned by a postwar prosperity ignited by waves of returning veterans joining the middle class. On the other hand, his work didn’t deal with brands (as Warhol did with Campbell’s Soup and others) or the mass media. There was no way to read a implicit criticism of pop culture into Thiebaud’s canvases, the way one could with, say, a painting like Rosenquist’s F-111 (1964–65).
And then there was his technique. The effects of Thiebaud’s thick swirls of pigment were far removed from the slick facture of Warhol’s silkscreened paintings, Lichtenstein’s benday dots, and the broad, smooth brushwork that Rosenquist brought from his days as a commercial billboard painter.
Claes Oldenburg was, perhaps, the Pop artist who came closest to sharing Thiebaud’s sensibility. The subject matter of his “soft” sculptures—Brobdingnagian versions of quotidian objects stitched together from vinyl and stuffed with kapok fiber—often included foodstuffs such as hamburgers, French fries, and yes, slices of cake. But even here, the analogy with Thiebaud was imprecise.
The truth is, for all his associations with Pop Art, Thiebaud was really a kind of quirky realist, putting him in league with figurative artists such Alex Katz or Philip Pearlstein. More interestingly, Thiebaud’s oeuvre echoed that of another Northern California painter, Robert Bechtle, who, like Thiebaud, tuned in to the cultural reverberations of America’s booming suburbs.
A retrospective of Thiebaud’s work will be on view at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland, through May 21, 2023.
Born in Arizona, Thiebaud was raised in a family of Mormons who moved to Southern California when he was a child. Interestingly, given his later affiliation with Pop Art, Thiebaud worked at Disney while still in high school, taking a job as an “inbetweener,” an artist who render the series of drawings that smoothly created the illusion of movement within a cartoon. He continued making a living as a cartoonist, and during World War II he served in the First Motion Picture Unit of the U.S. Army Air Forces, which produced training and propaganda films that employed Hollywood stars like Clark Gable and movie directors like William Wyler. In this respect, Thiebaud’s experiences acquainted him with how popular culture is manufactured, a familiarity that arguably informed his paintings, however obliquely.
After the war, Thiebaud took up teaching and was on sabbatical from one such position at Sacramento City College when he visited New York in 1956–57. While there, he became friends with Elaine and Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline and saw the work of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, whose proto-Pop paintings proved to be an influence. In 1960 he joined the art faculty at the University of California, Davis, where he remained until 1991.
Throughout the 1960s, Davis was a hotbed of the “Funk” aesthetic, a rowdy mixture of abstraction, cartoonish figuration, and found-object assemblage, reflecting an anything-goes attitude toward expression. Funk informed the work of many of the artists teaching at Davis, such as painters William T. Wiley and Roy De Forest, and no less a figure than Bruce Nauman graduated from Davis’s MFA program. Thiebaud’s relatively restrained compositions departed from his colleagues’ uninhibited approach. But if his cakes were sedentary, placed frontally as if sitting on a counter, their dynamic swirls of candy-colored pigment were not. So, while Thiebaud couldn’t exactly be tossed in with the Funk cohort, his approach to pigment was in sync with their exuberant aesthetic.
Thiebaud started out as a figurative Expressionist, with Beach Boys (1959) being a prime example of that period. Pictured within are the eponymous subjects (one seated, the other standing) at the ocean’s edge, limned with vigorous slashes of color that blur the scene. By 1960–61, though, shortly after starting to teach at U.C. Davis, he began to paint in his signature style, which remained remarkably consistent over the course of 60 years. Pie Rows and Cut Meringues (both 1961), for example, are not much different in substance and style from later works such as Cakes and Pies (1995) and Dessert Rows (2002).
Still, Thiebaud took some interesting detours: 35 Cent Masterworks (1970–72), for instance, depicts a display rack of 12 artist monographs priced to go. Each features a titan of art history (Velázquez, Cézanne, Monet, De Chirico, Mondrian, Morandi, and more) identified by a meticulously rendered reproduction of their work on the cover. He also regularly forayed into figure studies and landscapes, the latter of which would occupy much of his later years.
The best known of Thiebaud’s figure studies is Girl With Ice Cream Cone (1963), an unabashedly erotic portrayal of a woman in a green and blue bathing suit. Facing the viewer on an undifferentiated background of creamy off-white, she is seated with her legs splayed as she suggestively brings a phallic cone of pink ice cream to her lips. Her image graced the original cover of Sunshine Muse; Contemporary Art on the West Coast, a seminal survey of art in postwar California published by the artist and critic Peter Plagens in 1974 (which is still available, albeit with a less provocative cover). Indeed, the painting neatly encapsulates the Golden State’s reputation as a sand and sex utopia.
Generally, Thiebaud’s work was known for its anodyne tone, but as the NSFW frisson of Girl With Ice Cream Cone demonstrates, he did sometimes use his figurative canvases to probe the human condition in all its complexity. In Bikini Figure (1966), a woman wearing the titular swimwear is seen in full-length profile with her arms at her sides and her hair tied into a chignon at the top of her head. Her posture, and the fact that she’s staring at something beyond the picture, suggests an existential weariness that recalls the pose of Edward Hopper’s nude model in A Woman in the Sun (1961). Thiebaud’s Two Seated Figures (1965), meanwhile, portrays a man and woman looking away from each other with their arms crossed, as if they are in a couple’s therapy session that isn’t going well.
Thiebaud’s landscapes and cityscapes deserve attention as the fertile ground for his most eccentric compositions. These include his views of San Francisco and its roller-coaster roads that undulate along its precipitous hills. Thiebaud exaggerates the city’s terrain by radically tilting its streets into vertical forms, creating an impression that almost begs comparison with the vertiginous, gravity-free metropolis in the film Inception. The aptly named Steep Street (1980), for example, provides and aerial view of an asphalt highway crawling with tiny cars and trucks, running straight up the canvas just left of center until stopping short of the top. On either side are buildings arrayed like staircases, creating a clash of perspectives that make the painting nearly abstract. Other paintings play similar tricks, like Ripley Street Ridge (1977), in which a street and traffic intersection form a canted, inverted T interrupted by blue shadows cast by houses along the road.
Thiebaud accorded his landscapes a similarly unorthodox treatment, turning fields, farms, and forests into crazy quilts of conflicting perspectives. In Green River Lands (1998), a group of trees are strung along the horizon in a conventional line of sight, while just beyond, the perspective suddenly shifts to an aerial view of a patchwork of cultivated land.
Ultimately Thiebaud’s art was much more than the sum of its pies or cakes, not only because of its eclectic content but also because of the stylistic arc it took, swinging between Pop Art and what amounted to a kind of Left Coast Cubism. His art was hard to pin down but ultimately committed to its medium. As Thiebaud himself put it: “I haven’t the slightest idea what art is, but to be a painter is something . . . you have to prove.”