Wayne Thiebaud {The First 90 Years}

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Near the end of 1944, however, as the Battle of the Bulge loomed, the military ordered more troops to Europe. He had his barrack bag packed on the day his company would leave when he was summoned to the office of “an adjutant general or a major or a colonel—whoever the boss was.”

“You’re shipping out?”

“Yes, sir,” Thiebaud replied.

The man dropped a black and white photo of a woman on his desk. “You think you could paint a picture of my wife for me?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ll take you off that duty.”

Thiebaud remained at Mather until August 1945 when the military reassigned him to the First Motion Picture Unit near Los Angeles. The division, headed by movie actor Ronald Reagan, produced educational films about the war effort and designed largescale models of Japan’s islands to prep pilots for bombing runs. Unit members played basketball in their downtime, and the future famous painter took the court with the future governor and president. “He wore a big mask because his face was insured for all kinds of money,” Thiebaud says. Ogling actress Jane Wyman, Reagan’s first wife, rated as another popular diversion. “We were all falling out of the windows trying to get a glimpse of her when she walked her dog.”

Seven Suckers (1970) (Copyright by Wayne Thiebaud, licensed by Vaga, NY.)The war ended the next month, and following a brief, impoverishing stay in New York trying to sell cartoons to newspapers and magazines, he returned to Southern California. Universal-International Studios hired him to design movie posters, and some of the era’s biggest screen idols—Marlene Dietrich, Susan Hayward, John Wayne—posed for the young illustrator. Thiebaud met Ava Gardner when she starred with Burt Lancaster in The Killers in 1946 and realized that, despite the swooning her long legs induced in men around the world, “she had the ugliest damn knees—all scarred, beaten up.” He gave the illustrated Gardner a double knee replacement after studying a figure in a 17th-century painting by Peter Paul Rubens.

The same year, after losing his job during a studio labor strike, he went to work as a cartoonist and layout designer in the ad department of Rexall Drug Company. Urged by a colleague—a fellow artist—to devote himself to painting, Thiebaud, his compositions tinged with Cubist and Expressionist touches, gained entry in 1948 to his first major exhibition, a survey of area artists at what is today the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. A year later, not long after taking part in the E.B. Crocker Art Gallery annual group show, Thiebaud broke from his commercial art career to pursue painting full-time. In 1950, he moved north, and soon after began attending California State College (now California State University, Sacramento). “I had really loved Sacramento when I was here with the Army Air Force,” he says, “and I had a desire to come back. I loved the trees, the light, the weather.” He had found his path and his destination.

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Boston Cremes (1962) (Copyright by Wayne Thiebaud, licensed by Vaga, NY.)Fred Dalkey and Wayne Thiebaud drove down to the Sacramento River one day in the mid-’90s and set up their easels on the bank opposite Freeport. The two men, friends since the early ’80s, worked side by side: Dalkey sat as he produced what he describes as “a very mundane little painting”; Thiebaud stood as he made a small drawing. “I really didn’t think anything would come of it,” says Dalkey, a former longtime art instructor at Sacramento City College, who had tagged along at Thiebaud’s invitation. “I just thought it was an odd event.”

Enlightenment of a sort dawned after Thiebaud debuted more than three dozen Delta landscapes at a San Francisco gallery in 1997. “I was shocked,” Dalkey says. “I thought, ‘What on Earth is he doing?’ It took me a good year or more before I realized the brilliance.”

Several Delta canvases, measuring as large as 72-by-60 inches, form the heart of the Crocker’s Thiebaud retrospective. The images, balancing incandescent rainbow hues and warm earth tones, portray the region from varying aerial perspectives that nudge the horizon off the top of the canvas; geometric assemblages of serpentine rivers and roads, furrowed farmland, clumps of trees and tidy clusters of homes create a kind of two-dimensional origami. The effect is something like floating in a paraglider while holding a telescope to one eye and a kaleidoscope to the other.

Thiebaud deepens the sense of giddy dizziness by mashing up familiar locales into a single scene. “A lot of people think they know exactly where the places are,” says Dalkey, acclaimed for his landscape and figure paintings. “Those places don’t exist. They exist from all kinds of bits and pieces—little sketches in sketchbooks that he’s reassembled. But he has a way of tapping into a collective idea of the way things look. Not the way they necessarily do look, but the way we think they look.”

Three Machines (1963) (Copyright by Wayne Thiebaud, licensed by Vaga, NY.)The images stamp Thiebaud’s imprimatur on the region in a manner that Elaine O’Brien, a Sacramento State professor of modern and contemporary art who has written about his ties to the area, considers as distinct as that of one of history’s greatest landscape painters. “When you go to Southern France and you look around, you say, ‘That’s a Cézanne,’ ” she says. “Thiebaud does that. He gives us our [sense of place] like no one else does.”

The Delta paintings represented another tectonic shift in subject matter after his still lifes of cakes and pies attracted national notice in the early ’60s. He switched his attention to figures for the rest of the decade, creating works that critics, noting Thiebaud’s portrayal of and fixation on human isolation, likened to those of New York artist Edward Hopper. For much of the 1970s and ’80s, Thiebaud painted dramatic cityscapes of San Francisco—he and Betty Jean kept a second home there for many years—and drew favorable comparisons to the works of the seminal Bay Area artist Richard Diebenkorn, who became a friend. Later his brush fell on the Delta, and in recent years, he has painted Southern California beaches, returning to a theme he plied before his still lifes.

“Every time he’s done something new, he’s known he was leaving his audience behind,” says Dixon artist Chris Daubert, a City College art instructor who from 1986 to 1988 served as his teaching assistant at UC Davis, where Thiebaud retains the title of professor emeritus. “But he has never been afraid to keep experimenting.” Or perfecting. Daubert equates Thiebaud’s painting method to a golfer hitting a putt. After drawing lines on a canvas and applying underpainting, “he’ll back up and he’ll take two or three practice strokes with the brush hovering over the surface, then just drop in and hit it. It’s very physical.”

Pies, Pies, Pies (1961) (Copyright by Wayne Thiebaud, licensed by Vaga, NY.)He paints about 40 hours a week, waking early to work for a few hours before heading over to the Sutter Lawn Tennis Club to play doubles with ex-mayor Burnett Miller and a few other friends. (“He’ll run you to death,” Miller says of Thiebaud, who names Roger Federer as his favorite player, a fitting choice given the Swiss star’s artistry on the court.) He stops home for lunch with Betty Jean before returning to the studio to resume painting—or to cull his inventory. “He produces more than a hundred paintings a year,” Daubert says, “and he destroys a huge number of paintings a year.”

Thiebaud has cultivated an unassuming public profile that allows him to turn up around town with little fanfare, whether eating at Biba and Pancake Circus with friends, dropping by Freeport Bakery to pick up a cake or buying sweets from See’s Candies. Across the region’s art scene, meanwhile, he has a pervasive presence. A partial list of his donations to area institutions includes River Views, a Delta landscape completed in 2003 and valued at approximately $1 million, to the Sacramento Central Library; a collection of 78 sketches, studies and prints, appraised at more than $1 million, to the Crocker; and more than 100 works valued at nearly $1 million to UC Davis. Taken as a whole, his largesse suggests that, 60 years after settling in Northern California, the area’s best-known painter wants to reciprocate the support that has sustained him since before anyone had heard of him.

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If Thiebaud would rather forget his somber images of fairy-tale characters exhibited at his first one-man Crocker show in 1951, he remembers the “kindly and indulgent” reaction of those who attended. “The people of Sacramento have always been wonderful about coming out to see shows,” he says. “They’ve shown genuine interest from the beginning.”

Thiebaud received his bachelor of arts degree the same year as his solo debut—California State College fast-tracked him based on his painting and commercial art experience—and started teaching at what is now Sacramento City College, earning less than $10,000 a year. He had added a masters degree by the time he visited McClatchy High School in 1953 on “career day” to talk about City College’s arts program with graduating seniors. Mel Ramos knew which school he wanted to attend before Thiebaud uttered a word.