Wayne Thiebaud {The First 90 Years}

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Kondos gained insight into Thiebaud’s new direction when the two friends, who in those years took frequent plein air painting trips to the Sacramento River, the Sierras and the Nevada desert, visited San Francisco. As they strolled past a pastry shop, Thiebaud peered at a display case of baked goods. “I’m sure I can paint those,” he told Kondos, “but what I want is to get the dimension between the viewer and the glass and the object. If I can get that to work in a composition, I’ll have something.”

In June, the governor and first lady kicked off a campaign to raise funds for the arts by selling license plates designed by Thiebaud. (Photo courtesy of California Arts Council)Painting images mostly from memory, Thiebaud felt liberated by his decision to depict subjects he deemed “genuine”: cakes, pies and ice cream; hot dogs, hamburgers and French fries; bakery, candy and deli counters. Yet beneath the sense of freedom lurked anxiety over how the public and critics would judge his work. “I thought to myself, ‘Jesus, this’ll be the end of me. Nobody’s going to take me seriously,’ ” he says. “But I couldn’t leave it alone.”

The fears were realized in spring 1961 when he unveiled his still lifes at the Artists Cooperative Gallery and a San Francisco gallery. Not a single painting sold and the sole newspaper review of his work belittled him as “the hungriest artist in California.” Kondos overheard a conversation between two men at the San Francisco show as they stood before Thiebaud’s painting of five hot dogs, appalled at the $500 price tag. “Can you believe it?” one said. “He wants $100 a hot dog.”

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Thiebaud and Ramos drove to New York a couple of months later, intent on catching their big break. Rolled-up paintings tucked under his arms, Thiebaud, whose lean build, plume of dark hair and Everyman good looks lent him the aspect of a theater actor, walked door to door to art galleries, hoping to persuade an owner to grant him a show. He had tired legs and a battered ego by the time he reached the Allan Stone Gallery.

Less than a year old, the gallery already owned a robust reputation on the strength of showing works by Barnett Newman and Willem de Kooning. In an interview five years before his death in 2006, Stone recounted his initial reaction to Thiebaud’s array of dessert works: “I didn’t know what to make of them.” But he asked the painter to leave the images with him, and Stone brought them home to hang next to original artworks from the likes of de Kooning, Kline and Jackson Pollock. Claudia Stone, who runs her late father’s studio, remembers him explaining his rationale for assessing a new artist’s paintings.

“Everything feels great in the studio because they’re in the center of the [action], so you need to take the work out and see what happens. Can they hold up? My father would say that he took the ‘pie guy’s’ pictures and couldn’t get them out of his head,” she says. “The paintings were sitting there with all these other works and were very strong and kept resonating.”

Allan Stone agreed to give Thiebaud a show in 1962. As it happened, the exhibition opened not long before Thiebaud visited New York with a group of UC Davis students, and when he called Stone after arriving, he learned that a critic from Time wanted to interview him. The Nation’s critic had stopped by the gallery earlier. In a New York minute, the obscure painter from California had morphed into a national sensation.

His work had the good fortune of appearing at the time of Pop Art’s ascension, and critics initially lumped him with Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and their ilk. But he was “misunderstood into fame,” as former Time art critic Robert Hughes later wrote, an analysis Thiebaud echoes. “I think I was wrongly given fame which I wouldn’t have gotten without that movement. I’m aware of the fact that occurred and thankful for it, except I’ve never thought of myself to be part of the Pop Art movement.”

A fan of his contemporaries Jasper Johns and Claes Oldenburg, Thiebaud never warmed to other Pop artists, whose detached, mechanized images lampoon America’s consumer culture. Rather, Thiebaud’s paintings, while offering their own commentary on ritualized mass production of food, serve up affection and nostalgia.

“His works summon these deeper feelings and yet there’s a streak of very deadpan, ironic, kind of laconic American humor,” says Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times. “It’s not so much making fun of these things but recognizing them as part of our family and part of our experience. The familiarity is funny in the same way that you love your crazy uncle or slightly oddball aunt.”

Or as Crocker chief curator Scott Shields says, “Andy Warhol seems to hate soup, but Wayne Thiebaud seems to love pie.”

For a painter who has balked at attempts to attach meaning, symbolism or consequence to his work, the alpha and omega of good painting lies in craftsmanship. In reflecting on the significance assigned to his still lifes when they first appeared, Thiebaud says, “I still can’t believe it. They’re really just representational paintings covering the basic requirements of trying to get some decent space, some decent color, good design…” He lets the thought drift away.

Thiebaud’s "Jolly Cones" on the cover of The New Yorker’s annual food issue in 2002.Critics and curators are more loquacious on the topic of what resonates in his paintings. “There’s a gap between his incredible skill and the humility of the things he paints that’s extraordinary,” Kimmelman says. “Plus, they’re just beautiful to look at.” In his 1998 book Portraits, a collection of profiles of renowned artists, including Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Richard Serra, Kimmelman devotes a chapter to Thiebaud and offers perhaps the best analogy to describe the unearthly light in his images of sweet edibles: “a painted pie will be isolated and illuminated on the canvas as if it were Olivier playing Hamlet on an empty stage.”

Karen Tsujimoto, a senior curator with the Oakland Museum of California, organized a Thiebaud retrospective in 1985 when she was with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. As the painter continues to investigate new subjects and circle back to old favorites, she says, “What hasn’t changed is his mastery of painting. The fact that he can create a painting that still captivates a viewer when we’re bombarded with all this visual information in the Internet age shows how he’s also mastered the skill of understanding people.”

Thiebaud has mentioned to friends that Allan Stone once joked, “Gee whiz, if you’d just kept those dessert paintings going, we could each own our own island in the Bahamas.” In truth, Stone recognized that Thiebaud’s protean tendencies were the essence of his success. If the painter had been 20 instead of 41 when he made his New York debut, Claudia Stone recalls her father saying, “I don’t think he would have had the career he’d had. We both were so enthused by the overwhelming response—a younger artist might not have the courage to take that market response, put it aside and go back to the studio to pursue that which is intriguing to him.” Those who have known him since his days of painting sullen fairy-tale characters remember that as everything appeared to change around Thiebaud, nothing changed within. “He became instantly famous, but I think he was always suspicious of that kind of fame,” says Ramos, who in 1964, two years after Thiebaud, earned his first New York gallery show and catapulted to national prominence. “He’s not full of himself like a lot of artists.”

Almost a half-century since the press ordained him “the poet laureate of the coffee break,” Thiebaud admits that with recognition comes ambivalence. “It’s always wonderful to have honors; one would be an ingrate not to appreciate it,” he says, referring to his imminent induction into the California Hall of Fame. “But it also makes you uneasy. You never feel you quite measure up to it.” And so he will wake early tomorrow to begin the struggle anew, a man with a brush, bound by a sense of purpose and a search for that good painting.

“It’s like Marlon Brando said: ‘I coulda been a contendah.’ It doesn’t mean winner. Doesn’t have to be winner. You just gotta play the game with some real respect.”  S