Wayne Thiebaud {The First 90 Years}

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“He looked exactly what I thought an artist would look like,” says Ramos, talking from his summer home in Horta de Sant Joan in Northeastern Spain, a town where Pablo Picasso once lived and painted. “He was wearing something like a Kelly green sports jacket and maroon corduroys and a big bow tie. I was blown away.” Ramos enrolled at City College in the fall and, as years passed, the two forged a lasting friendship. “Wayne was probably the most important person in my life when I was younger because of the influence he had on me,” says Ramos, a Sacramento native whose provocative paintings of pinups in the 1960s brought him international fame. “Not so much his work, but how to be an artist and stay focused and true to yourself. What he instilled in students was the notion to excel.”

In the early 1950s, a Steinbeckian desolation plagued the region’s art scene. “Back then it was like The Grapes of Wrath around here,” says Gregory Kondos, a Sacramento painter best known for his vibrant California landscapes. Kondos met Thiebaud when both attended California State College, and together with a band of artists that included Ramos, Jack Ogden and the late Patrick Dullanty, they set about tilling the cultural fields, hanging their paintings anywhere that might lure an audience: on a pegboard wall next to the concession stand at the Starlite Drive-In off Arden Way, inside taverns on J Street, at city and county fairs in Auburn, Woodland, Lodi and points in between.

Sales were scarce when paintings vied with movies or alcohol for the interest of customers, making the art contests at fairs the best chance to turn a buck—a decent profit since first place typically yielded all of $25. Kondos and Thiebaud would swathe their large paintings in oilcloth, strap them to the side of Kondos’s car and hit the road. “After the entry fee and gas, we would end up maybe $5, $10 ahead if we won,” says the 87- year-old Kondos. “But that would buy some groceries or pay a bill, so you were happy.” At the time, the Crocker ran a rental gallery that leased paintings to patrons, providing another small revenue stream for local artists. Though Thiebaud might earn only $10 or $20 a week in fees, he says, “Sometimes that was the difference between whether the kids had shoes or not.”

Above everything else—the natural beauty and open spaces; the cable cars that clanked through downtown; the regal Fox Senator Theatre on K Street—Thiebaud recalls mid-century Sacramento as an ideal city to raise a family. He met his first wife, Patricia Patterson, while stationed at Mather Army Air Field, and the couple married in 1943. Before divorcing in 1959, they had two daughters, Twinka and Mallary, both of whom now live in Portland. (A former photography model, Twinka achieved fleeting celebrity as one of the subjects in a 1974 image staged by respected Berkeley photographer Judy Dater. The black and white photo captures a fully nude Twinka shyly peering around a tree in Yosemite National Park at 91-year-old Imogen Cunningham, a pioneering female photographer shown in a dark dress and wearing a camera around her neck. When Life published the photo, the portrayal of Twinka as an innocent nymph amplified critical debate about how male artists had depicted female nudes throughout history.)

The woman depicted in orange in "Two Kneeling Figures" (1966) is Thiebaud’s wife Betty Jean. (Copyright by Wayne Thiebaud, licensed by Vaga, NY.)Later in 1959, Thiebaud wed Betty Jean Carr, the mother of two sons, Mark and Matt Bult, from a previous marriage. Mark lives in Sonoma; Matt, a collage artist who manages his stepfather’s business affairs, lives near the Thiebauds in Land Park. Wayne and Betty Jean had their only child, Paul, in October 1960, weeks after Wayne joined the UC Davis faculty following a nine-year tenure at City College.

Wayne Thiebaud has seldom spoken publicly about his family, and he declined to discuss Paul’s death in June after a long battle with colon cancer. Married and the father of two children, Paul, 49, owned an art gallery in New York, one in San Francisco—he organized an exhibtion of Matt’s work last year—and he had long explored opening another gallery in Sacramento, as well. Several people close to the elder Thiebaud reveal that he paid to fly his son to Israel on multiple occasions for cancer treatments unavailable in the U.S. But it is perhaps a measure of his guarded nature that he has remained virtually silent about Paul’s death in private, according to friends, none of whom wanted to talk for attribution on the subject. “He hasn’t said anything about it except ‘A son shouldn’t die before his father,’ ” says one person who has known him since the ’60s. “It’s made him conscious of his own mortality.”

Thiebaud has designed a 52-foot-tall tile mosaic of a river for the so-called Tribute Building, a project Paul conceived with Mike Heller Jr., the son of longtime Sacramento developer Mike Heller Sr., to honor their respective fathers. Construction has stalled on the four-story office building at 20th Street and Capitol Avenue owing to the sluggish economy, but the younger Heller has nonetheless pledged to move ahead, and when completed, the building will be only the second to boast a piece of public art designed by Thiebaud. He created a glass mosaic mural for the exterior of SMUD’s headquarters on 62nd Street in 1957. The massive work remains in place today.

A rendering of the Tribute Building as conceived by developer Mike Heller Jr. and Paul Thiebaud. The structure will feature a 52-foottall mural by Wayne Thiebaud. (Image courtesy of Lionakis Architects)Dozens of art books stuff the wall shelves and papers clutter the desk in the office Paul occupied in his father’s midtown studio building. His old chair stands a few inches back from the desk, slightly askew, as though he left in a hurry earlier this August afternoon. The office sits off the building’s main space, a long rectangle with dozens of large paintings sheathed in clear plastic leaning against the walls. Most bear a sticky note with a lone word—Crocker—that denotes their inclusion in this fall’s Thiebaud retrospective.

The works range across his career’s primary themes of food, figures, landscapes and cityscapes. Cheese Display (1969) and Bakery Case (1996) tempt the palate while teasing the eyes with a subtle interplay of shadow and light; Five Seated Figures (1965) assembles three men and two women in a room as vacant as their stares; the shimmering Delta scene in Green River Lands (1998) shoots from the canvas like a page in a pop-up book; Uphill Streets (1992-1994) translates to a flat surface the vertigo roused by San Francisco’s steepled topography.

A less familiar image, saturated in black and dark blues, shows a businessman who, after casting his briefcase to the ground in a city park, has begun climbing a tree. His motive is unclear: He may be planning to hang himself with an unseen length of rope tucked in his suit pocket or simply looking for a spot to meditate. Without delving into the piece’s possible meaning, Thiebaud explains that the subject of office workers has long intrigued him. He has tussled with the painting off and on for 20 years, unwilling to display it in public, and with the Crocker exhibition approaching, his doubts persist. “This one, every time I get ready to show it, I say, ‘If I show that, that’s probably the end of me right there.’ ” The same thought pestered him when he started painting cakes and pies.

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Thiebaud took a yearlong leave from City College to live in New York starting in 1956, and he returned to Sacramento bursting with stories about the East Coast art milieu and with Abstract Expressionism surging from his fingertips. He befriended such titans of the movement as Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Franz Kline and Barnett Newman, and made the acquaintance of leading art critics Thomas Hess and Harold Rosenberg. “It was just a wonderful chance to get to meet these various people and discuss painting and different ideas,” says Thiebaud, who occasionly visited the legendary Cedar Bar, then the cultural epicenter of New York and, by extension, America. “It was transporting.”

The experience motivated him to establish the Artists Cooperative Gallery with Gregory Kondos, Mel Ramos, Jack Ogden and other Sacramento painters, a venture bankrolled in part by Tower Records founder Russ Solomon. Rather than barnstorming the region, they could convene at the gallery “to show our work and have openings and get people interested,” says Ogden, who studied under Thiebaud at City College in the early ’50s. “It was like night and day.”

Thiebaud served as the exhibit designer for the annual State Fair art show from 1950 to 1959, and like Kondos and Ramos, Ogden sometimes helped prepare and hang paintings for it. The group pitched pennies during breaks, and no one played with greater intensity than Thiebaud. “He was making more than us, but he’d still take our pennies,” Ogden says with a laugh. “He’s one of the most competitive guys I’ve ever met. He’s from Gary Cooper country—‘aw, shucks.’ But there’s steel underneath.”

As the ’50s ended, Thiebaud, dissatisfied with the purposeful haziness of his Abstract Expressionist paintings, adopted a more formal method of composition. He sought to combine clean lines, basic shapes and identifiable objects in a style that evoked the works and techniques of painters he admired. An art history maven who long ago outed himself as a “thief ” of his brushwielding forebears, Thiebaud borrowed from painters as varied as Diego Velázquez, Jan Vermeer, Edouard Manet, John Singer Sargent and Joaquín Sorolla. He mined ideas from the work of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, an 18th-century French painter whose images of everyday objects—pots, pans, kitchen utensils— earned him a reputation as a master of still lifes.