Wayne Thiebaud {The First 90 Years}

Portrait by Max Whittaker

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The Crocker Art Museum is honoring him with a major retrospective. The California Hall of Fame is about to induct him alongside Barbra Streisand and James Cameron. And The New York Times’ chief art critic says there’s “no painter in America that is more satisfying or skilled.” But on the eve of his 90th birthday, after a career that took him from Disney to the Whitney, Sacramento’s Wayne Thiebaud is hardly resting on his laurels. In fact, he’s just getting warmed up.

TThe man considered one of the preeminent American painters of the last half-century is sweating ever so lightly. A few droplets stipple the faint lines of his forehead in a pair of neat horizontal rows, as if applied by his own brush. Say this for Wayne Thiebaud: He even perspires with precision.

He is not nervous. He has not been standing outside in the searing August sun. The 89-year-old painter—an appellation he prefers to the nebulous “artist”—has spent the early afternoon chasing the same old grail. “Still looking for that good painting,” he says. He has the low, scuffed voice of a cattleman in a ’50s Western. “Nothing fancy about it.”

Those who have watched Thiebaud work talk of his “athletic” and “aggressive” approach to the canvas. Hence the damp brow. Yet nothing else about him betrays the exertion that ended moments ago when he stepped from his studio into the hallway of the one-story midtown building that doubles as his office and storage space. His thinning ash-white hair lies in dignified strands across the arc of his crown. His short-sleeved white dress shirt and beltless beige trousers, outlining a sapling-straight frame toned from almost daily tennis, appear as unwrinkled as they would on hangers. His palm is dry to the touch when he shakes hands.

Little Wayne: Thiebaud at about 5 years old in Long Beach. In high school, he worked at food stands on the boardwalk selling hot dogs and ice cream. (Photo courtesy of the Thiebaud family)The long fingers that have created paintings worth untold millions form a grip at once firm and gentle, a description that extends to his refusal to provide a peek of the work in progress. “I don’t like to show my studio,” he says, softening the rejection with a smile. “I don’t want people to see all my mistakes.”

Self-deprecation has defined Thiebaud’s career in equal proportion to sustained success. He remains rooted in Sacramento, where he has lived and blended in since 1950, while his art-world cachet and auction prices grow steadily higher. The then-unknown painter first captivated the cognoscenti with his New York gallery debut in 1962. Critics and collectors slavered over his creamy, dreamy, so-appealing-you-could-eat-them images of cakes and pies represented with a luminous palette and droll wit. The unexpected coupling of lushly textured brushwork and prosaic subject matter— ice cream, hot dogs, gumball machines, deli counters—earned rhapsodic reviews from The New York Times, Life and ArtNews. Time placed him in the vanguard of the emerging “slice-of-cake school of art,” or what soon would be better known as Pop Art. The Nation dubbed him “the poet laureate of the coffee break.”

Thiebaud’s first painting, "Fisherman," which he created in 1936 at age 16. (Painting copyright by Wayne Thiebaud, licensed by Vaga, NY)The paintings, most priced for $500 or less, sold out; the Museum of Modern Art purchased a piece titled Cut Meringues. The public appetite for Thiebaud’s work in ensuing decades has proved as ravenous as his creative curiosity, with his gaze shifting back and forth from contemporary still lifes and human figures to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the San Francisco cityscape and Southern California beaches.

Since 1985, major retrospectives of his oeuvre have traveled to museums coast to coast, spanning Sacramento to New York, San Francisco to Washington, D.C.; museums worldwide that own his work include London’s Tate Britain and the National Gallery of Australia. Three years ago, Christie’s auctioned Seven Suckers, a 1970 painting of colorful pinwheel lollipops, for $4.5 million, a record price for one of his pieces. The bid topped his previous auction record of $3.4 million—set hours earlier for his 1969 painting Tie Rack. (Prior to that night, Freeways, a 1975-1979 piece that sold for $3.1 million in 2002, held the mark.)

The rising value of Thiebaud’s work parallels the upward trajectory of his status in art history. In 1994, President Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Arts, the country’s highest honor for artistic excellence, and critical acclaim for his work has since only appreciated. “Wayne is without question one of the great painters of the later decades of the 20th century in America and into the first decade of this century,” says Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times’ chief art critic. Reviewing a Thiebaud exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2001, he wrote that in a perfect world the paintings “would be nailed to the walls for good and we would be free to stop by whenever we needed to remind ourselves what happiness feels like.”

“Right now,” Kimmelman says, “there’s no painter in America who is more satisfying or skilled or, in certain ways, complex. His works leave an impression when you see them. They stay with you.”

Corporal Thiebaud, in 1943, working on his comic strip Aleck for the Mather Army Air Field base newspaper. (Photo courtesy of the Thiebaud family)Thiebaud reacts to praise—or, for that matter, the mere mention of it—with gracious mistrust. Sitting in a wheeled office chair in the hallway outside his studio, humble Timex around his left wrist, he squints when the topic surfaces, almond-brown eyes narrowing behind wire-rimmed glasses. “It isn’t humility so much as it is a recognition that you’re in a world of tradition which is so rich with such supreme accomplishments,” he says. “It’s almost audacious: pick up a brush and you’re in the same business as Rembrandt? That’s overwhelming. But it’s also terrific because then you’re responsible not to [tarnish] that tradition.” The tradition finds itself in good hands, as revealed by an expansive retrospective of his work at the Crocker Art Museum on display from Oct. 10 to Nov. 28. “Wayne Thiebaud: Homecoming” consists of some 50 paintings and drawings dating back to the late ’50s and opens in tandem with the museum’s new exhibition space, the $100 million, 125,000-squarefoot Teel Family Pavilion. The show, along with a sampling of his famed still lifes, emphasizes the radiant, abstracted Delta scenes he began painting in the mid-’90s, and premieres several works that he completed as recently as this summer.

One new piece, River Intersection, an iridescent aerial view of the Sacramento and American rivers, will move into the museum’s permanent collection following the retrospective, occupying wall space near a handful of Thiebaud paintings, among them the iconic Pies, Pies, Pies. He has donated River Intersection to the institution that nearly 60 years ago gave him, at age 30, his first solo show. “Influences on a Young Painter” opened in 1951 at the E.B. Crocker Art Gallery and presented his images of Peter Pan, the Three Blind Mice and other fairy-tale characters depicted in improbably solemn poses. He recalls the concept with a raspy laugh. “It was pretty terrible,” he says. “But having the exhibition allowed me to do something which I think is crucially important: to see your work away from where you’re used to seeing it, which is in the studio.”

As Thiebaud’s reputation went national, his images moved from museums into still another setting, that of the culture at large. Earlier in his career, he sought in vain to place cartoons in the pages of The New Yorker; now his work regularly graces the magazine’s cover, including the last three annual food issues. In 2006, the Sacramento Philharmonic commissioned a composition by André Previn to honor him, and two of his paintings made a brief cameo in the film The Devil Wears Prada, garnishing the Manhattan home of the Anna Wintour-ish magazine editor played by Meryl Streep.

And since 1994, Thiebaud has made his own contribution to highway beautification in California: To raise money for public arts programs, the state sells a specialty license plate he designed that shows a sunny, palm-lined coastal scene. The “arts plate” so far has generated $20 million, and earlier this year the state launched a campaign to sell one million of them by Jan. 1 in an effort to raise an additional $40 million.