A Slice of Life

At 97 years of age, he is unequivocally one of the world’s greatest living artists. But back in 1959, Wayne Thiebaud was still trying to find his way as a young college professor at UC Davis. As a new exhibition explores the decade that defined his signature style, the prolific painter and passionate teacher reflects on his not-so-still life.

Wayne Thiebaud in front of his "Pies" painting at his Sacramento home in 1961. (Photograph by Betty Jean Thiebaud, courtesy of the Wayne Thiebaud Foundation.)

Wayne Thiebaud’s friends tell a story about the time a new homeowner moved into his Land Park neighborhood and knocked on the artist’s door to introduce himself. The man asked Thiebaud what he did for a living, and Thiebaud replied, “I’m a painter.”

To which the man said something on the order of, “That’s great! I’m going to need my garage door painted if you’re looking for work.” Thiebaud, whose masterful landscapes, portraits and still lifes have been placed on a continuum of painting along with Vermeer, Manet and Hopper by critics, merely smiled politely and said sure, maybe something could be worked out. This preternatural modesty is something anyone who knows the 97-year-old would instantly recognize.

He may not be a household name on every block, but he’s a familiar (and welcome) presence in the world’s most prestigious auction house catalogs. In 2015, Artnet ranked Thiebaud as the sixth highest-grossing living artist over the last 10 years, with sales reaching upwards of $163 million. In 2013, a painting featuring two slot machines fetched $6.3 million, a new record for his work.

Thiebaud’s 1961 "Pies" painting sold for $4 million at a Sotheby’s auction in 2011. Photo by Douglas Sandberg. Art © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

And the hunger for his output grows each year. In May, Thiebaud visited London for the opening of a major retrospective of his career that spawned rave reviews. And an exhibit of his landscapes is currently running through Dec. 23 in New York’s Allan Stone gallery, the same venue where he had his first brush with fame in 1962.

His international reputation belies his quiet life in Sacramento, where he resides in the same unassuming home he bought in 1971, in which he and his wife of 56 years, Betty Jean, a filmmaker who died in 2015, lived while raising their children. Until recently, he played tennis several times a week. He owned a second home in San Francisco for a while, but never decamped from Sacramento entirely, and during his 30-year teaching career at UC Davis—he retired in 1990 but continued to teach for free for another 20 years—he favored introductory courses for undergrads. If you call him an artist, he will correct you: he’s a painter.

That’s not to say that he fails to appreciate his position in the firmament of art stars. He gets it, and if anything, his understanding of his place in art history is what keeps him humble. “Think how audacious you need to be to pick up a brush when you’ve got Rembrandt and Vermeer staring you in the face with their accomplishments,” he says. “That’s awful. All you want to do is contend with it, be part of it, however small. You’re just awfully lucky to be able to do what you do and take on that challenge. And it’s a pretty big challenge. It’s about as high a goal as a human being can attend to. So you’re damn lucky to enter into that little community the best you can and enjoy the heck out of it.”

• • •

At a critical juncture in life, Wayne Thiebaud almost passed up the opportunity to become Wayne Thiebaud. It was 1959, he was 38 and carrying a full teaching load at Sacramento City College—a job he loved—when UC Davis came calling.

“The head of the art department, Richard Nelson, came to me and said, ‘Would you think of joining us at the university?’ ” the painter recalls. “I was very surprised and pleased.” Still, Thiebaud says, he thought his current gig was awfully sweet. “So I said, ‘I don’t know, it’s pretty nice where I am, thank you very much.’ ”

When he related the exchange to his colleagues at the junior college, he received a mix of opinions. “Some thought it was a wonderful idea,” he says of making the move, “and others said, ‘Well, you know you’ll have to start all over again to earn your tenure. You’re comfortable here.’ That’s when I realized—I am too comfortable.”

The painter at the Manetti Shrem Museum, the site of a new Thiebaud exhibit, in October (Photo by Max Whittaker)

Nelson, charged with starting an art department from scratch at a college heretofore known for its agriculture program, fortunately wasn’t content with no for an answer, and when he came back to ask again, Thiebaud pressed him for more detail on what the job would entail. They were sitting in Thiebaud’s office on campus, and Nelson gestured to a pine tree out the window. “He asked, ‘How big around do you think that tree is? The university will give you a roll of canvas that big for your research,’ ” Thiebaud says.

A little nonplussed by the scientific-sounding terminology, Thiebaud asked him, “What do you mean, ‘research’?”

To which Nelson replied, “That’s your painting. You’ll only work two, or two and a half days a week—so you can do your research.”

“That was absolutely starkers,” Thiebaud says, laughing at the memory. “So I said, ‘I’m your man!’ ”

Thiebaud is a familiar presence in the world’s most prestigious auction house catalogs. In 2015, Artnet ranked him as the sixth highest-grossing living artist over the last 10 years, with sales reaching upwards of $163 million. In 2013, a painting featuring two slot machines fetched $6.3 million, a new record for his work. 

The opportunity to log serious studio time was life-changing for an artist who had grown used to hustling to scrape together a living. The son of a Long Beach Mormon bishop (an unpaid position) who supported the family by working variously as a mechanic and shop foreman, Thiebaud drew cartoon panels for Disney in high school; in the Army during World War II he was an illustrator; postwar he worked in the ad department of the Rexall Drug Company before coming to the River City to attend Sacramento State and later land that first teaching job, which, though a plum for a working artist, ate up 60 to 80 hours a week.

“It’s hard for people to realize how long it takes to make a painting,” he says now. “Not only are you painting it for hours and hours all by yourself, but you’re sitting and looking at the damn thing for that long or longer, in order to come to grips with it and figure out how to make it better.”

By 1961, Thiebaud had taken full advantage of his new situation, producing a substantial body of paintings of lemon meringue pies, cupcakes, barbecued chickens and club sandwiches, according to Rachel Teagle, founding director of the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art on the UC Davis campus. “In 1961 he was given money by UC Davis for a summer trip to New York,” she says. “He loaded up his car with all the work he had produced since joining the faculty.” That work secured him an exhibition at the Allan Stone gallery in New York in April of 1962 that would prove his breakthrough moment.

“The show sold out before it opened,” Teagle notes. “He was in Time magazine, Life magazine. 1962 is the moment we talk about as the emergence of his mature style.” For perspective, one of those 1961 paintings, titled simply Pies, sold at auction in 2011 for $4 million.

Again in 1962, the influential Los Angeles curator Walter Hopps included a slice of Thiebaud’s pie in the first-ever museum show of Pop Art, New Painting of Common Objects, at the Pasadena Art Museum, where it hung alongside works by figures like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Edward Ruscha.

By conjoining him to a movement, the show ensured that Thiebaud’s name would continue to be included in discussions of contemporary art for years to come: He’d become a usual suspect on the scene. But Pop Art is a genre label that makes Thiebaud cringe to this day.

“I don’t even care for it much,” he says. “It’s too much to do with appropriation, and it’s also a kind of insult to some of those great graphic designers they took from, and cartoonists.” That’s right: Thiebaud’s main objection to Warhol’s Brillo boxes and Campbell’s Soup cans and Lichtenstein’s faux cartoon panels is that they disrespect the work product of people he really does see as compatriots. “Illustrators, cartoonists, graphic designers, sign painters—they’re all heroes to me,” he says.

Thiebaud observes a student painting in one of his art classes at UC Davis in 1969. (Photo courtesy of special collections, UC Davis Library)

“Ed Ruscha’s different,” he’s quick to point out, referring to the L.A. artist famous for painting coffee shops and cans of Spam in flames and block-letter words on gradient color fields, and whose craftsmanship is equal to his cleverness. “He is capable of doing great things with his hands, his heart and body. He’s a good one.”

This pivotal era of transformation, when Thiebaud found his groove celebrating everyday objects by lavishing them with the same painterly attention an old master would bestow upon a Madonna and child, is the subject of the upcoming exhibit at the Manetti Shrem, Wayne Thiebaud: 1958-1968 (on view from Jan. 16-May 13), for which Teagle as curator has drawn on the museum’s substantial collection (Thiebaud himself is its most prolific donor, having given over 300 individual works over the years, including 72 of his own paintings and sketches, as well as the work of others) and borrowed major works from as far afield as the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Menil Collection in Houston—60 paintings in all.

“These are literally the paintings that made Wayne famous,” says Teagle. “But the work we know and love didn’t just come out of the blue. I have in the exhibition a candy counter from 1957 and a candy counter from 1962, and even though it’s the same subject, they’re painted absolutely differently, and that’s the breakthrough moment we’re talking about.”

Click HERE to read Sactown's story Wayne Thiebaud: The First 90 Years from 2010

Today Thiebaud talks about what he calls “slow painting,” a verbal play on the slow food movement, which he began practicing long before the culinary trend took off. But his art from the pre-Davis era is far less contemplative. The impasto on his earlier canvases have a kinetic gestural energy that in retrospect seems to describe the kind of pressure the artist was under to produce work without access to the swaths of time he describes. In 1957’s Electric Chair, on loan to the Manetti Shrem from the Smithsonian, the color palette is simple—black and red—and the painting’s tone is urgent, almost angry.

While he’d been experimenting with food and other everyday objects as subject matter before, the opportunity Davis provided to slow down is what led him to develop his signature approach, where light and shadow are amplified, represented by vivid, rainbowlike effects reminiscent of sun halos (he coined the term “halation” to describe it). In 1962, Thiebaud wrote an essay in the San Francisco Chronicle describing his intent to blur the lines between representation and the object being represented, which puts a clever chicken-and-egg-like spin on the relationship between painting and subject: “white, gooey, shiny, sticky oil paint spread out on the top of a painted cake ‘becomes’ frosting.”

The sensual beauty of Thiebaud’s pieces delighted and seduced critics, even as the novelty factor of the subject matter sometimes distracted them to the point where it dominated early critiques. The arranged plates of lemon meringue and jolly ice cream cones were humorous but not, like much of Pop Art, ironic. There was no cant, no flippancy in the lush, pleasing textures, the charged interplay of light and shadow. Eventually, as Pop Art’s star faded, the critical assessments of Thiebaud’s work would finally zero in on his painterliness outside of genre considerations.

“Think how audacious you need to be to pick up a brush when you’ve got Rembrandt and Vermeer staring you in the face with their accomplishments,” Thiebaud says. “All you want to do is to contend with it, be part of [that community], however small. You’re just awfully lucky to be able to do what you do and take on that challenge.”

“Mr. Thiebaud’s pictures prompt something more complicated than plain joy and closer to the nature of memory,” wrote then-New York Times chief art critic Michael Kimmelman on the eve of a 2001 retrospective at the Whitney. “Mr. Thiebaud’s work is … about the fact that the world never was and still isn’t perfect, except perhaps one little part of it, to which we can briefly retreat via these paintings and glimpse the way all things ought to be.”

There would be no periodicity to Thiebaud’s oeuvre over the years. He began to exhibit figures in 1963, and later landscapes of the Sacramento River Delta that seemed to engage in a lively dialogue with his friend Richard Diebenkorn’s signature Ocean Park series, and San Francisco streetscapes that playfully flattened the city’s hills in a way that emphasized their verticality. These themes, all birthed in the ’60s, have stayed recognizably the same in the intervening 50-odd years without losing the energy of constant exploration. To this day, every shadow is different and equally worthy of expression.

“The works are imbued with a subtle Kodachrome radiance,” writer-musician Johanna Fateman penned in Artforum in 2016, in a review about a then-new Thiebaud exhibit in New York that could easily apply to Thiebaud’s paintings from both 1962 and 2002. “And up close, one finds a fanciful mini-sunset at the edge of each object.”

Thiebaud (at right) with Maria Manetti Shrem and fellow artist and former UCD professor William T. Wiley at the opening gala for the Manetti Shrem Museum on Oct. 29, 2016. (Photo by Drew Altizer)

As apt as Fateman’s evocative reference to film stock may be, Thiebaud has never once painted from a photograph. “You see right away that it’s one-eyed,” he says of paintings derived from still images, “not stereoscopic, not the way we see at all. It’s so remarkable what your memory can do.”

That mnemonic quality is probably what keeps us coming back for one more look. Thiebaud hasn’t tired of exploring his pie maker’s craft over the decades, and we haven’t tired of looking at his paintings of pies any more than we have tired—or ever will tire—of eating pie. Some forms of sustenance are simply too superlative to ever retire.

And speaking of retiring, at 97 he still hasn’t.

“I am lucky enough to have had lunch with him several times,” Teagle says, “and I love it when he gets up from the table and says, ‘Time to go make some mistakes.’ By that he means it’s time to go spend some time in the studio, because that’s what it is to be an artist. You’ve got to explore, experiment and make some mistakes to get somewhere.”

• • •

On a visit to the Manetti Shrem in October, dressed in white trousers and a jaunty gingham shirt, Thiebaud slips into the Paul LeBaron Thiebaud Collections Classroom, which opens off of the museum’s expansive, light-filled lobby, just as an art history class is disbanding. The room is named for his son, a noted local art dealer who died of colon cancer in 2010. One of Thiebaud’s paintings, Unfinished Portrait of Betty Jean, is hanging just inside the door.

The facility opened in November of 2016 with an exhibit called Out Our Way in honor of the 12 artists Richard Nelson hired to launch the storied UC Davis art department, where the Funk Art movement flourished in the 1960s and ’70s. The show included vibrant, joyous paintings by Roy De Forest, Manuel Neri’s life-sized figures, William T. Wiley’s doodly, trippy canvasses, Robert Arneson’s anthropomorphic and comically obscene ceramic toilets—and ever-so-slightly to the side, thematically, Wayne Thiebaud’s cakes, doughnuts and cups of coffee, somehow both more lighthearted and more formally sober than the acts of countercultural exuberance on display around them.

Thiebaud was within that storied group, yet he was also, Teagle says, a perpetual iconoclast, and he didn’t fit into the Funk Art mold any better than he did into the Pop Art one.

Still, he thrived on the anything-goes atmosphere of the scene that sprang up in the middle of what were then agricultural fields and describes that time as “very magical,” adding that “any [space] that was left over we got for the art department. There weren’t very many of us so they could put us anywhere: old, abandoned cedar shingle-sided buildings. There even was a Quonset hut.” He smiles, as if he can still feel the flood of creative energy the place unleashed in him. “Lucky, lucky, lucky Wayne.”

“Girl with Ice Cream Cone” (1963), a portrait of Betty Jean Thiebaud (By Cathy Carver. Art © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

The instructors Nelson hired all identified themselves as “makers” and they practiced an unprecedented level of inclusiveness with their students. According to Wiley, Nelson created this incubator for creativity by shielding the artists from university politics. “He told us to focus on the studio and the classroom, and said, ‘Let me take care of the university,’ ” says Wiley. Most, like Wiley and Neri, were clearly extroverts with a flair for the social, but in that regard Thiebaud was, like his work, a little apart from the group. While others collaborated with the drama department on performance art happenings, he wore a bow tie and served students tea and biscuits in his office.

“He was a warm, modest, generous teacher with a great sense of humor, and a brave artist,” says Wiley. But despite working in the same faculty close to 15 years, he and Thiebaud didn’t know each other particularly well. It wasn’t that Thiebaud was standoffish, just focused on his passions: teaching and painting, which he always circles back to describing as a necessarily solitary activity. “Painting is lonely,” he says. “Not lonely, but only—only one person trying to get this little flat thing to give some power, some imagination, some alternate world view.”

While he formed lasting relationships with some of his graduate students and teaching assistants, Thiebaud was most passionate about shepherding undergrads. So much so that after he retired in 1990, he continued to teach introductory courses—working as a volunteer without pay—for many years. And as one of the Manetti Shrem’s main benefactors, he is particularly focused on, and proud of, its role as a teaching museum.

“We’d like to have a collection available to the students that shows the various stages of things,” he says, gesturing to the sketched lines of Betty Jean’s summery dress in his unfinished work at the Paul Thiebaud classroom. “I’m reworking it here with chalk and charcoal, starting to put in the floral pattern.”

Professor James Housefield, wrapping up the art history session in the space, breaks into a delighted grin when he recognizes his impromptu visitor. He had just been talking to his students about the new John Cage display at the museum, a recreation of a show by the avant-garde composer that debuted at UC Davis in 1969 and consisted of a dozen phonographs distributed around the exhibit space, each equipped with a selection of records guests could play simultaneously to create a one-of-a-kind cacophony.

“Were you here in 1969 when Cage was on campus?” Housefield asks.

The early ’60s saw the birth of Thiebaud’s signature dessert pieces, such as this Three Cones painting from 1964. (Courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery)

“We were on a panel together,” Thiebaud answers. “I knew him quite well actually. He was quizzical and very forthcoming—a sweet man, very pleasant. Students really enjoyed him.”

Those were halcyon days, according to students who remember the era. “Marcel Duchamp’s widow came and played chess with John Cage in the plaza. Those kinds of performance things spread. The interdepartmental work between music, art and drama at that time just burgeoned. It was really exciting,” remembers the sculptor Sandra Shannonhouse, 70, whose works occupy the sculpture garden at the museum, two freestanding hoop skirts visitors can step into and “wear,” and who earned her BA at Davis in 1969 and later married Robert Arneson.

Her contemporary, sculptor John Buck, says the usual instructor-student boundaries were broken on a regular basis, with students invited to participate in art making. “Wiley instigated an exhibition called the 24-Hour Show, where [we would all] go to the art gallery and stay overnight. Whatever we did over that period of time was what would be in the exhibition,” recalls Buck, who met his wife, fellow alumnus Deborah Butterfield (her sculpture of a horse stands sentinel in the Shrem’s entryway) at UC Davis. “That’s the kind of openness that was beyond the call.” As a grad student, he didn’t get to take a class from Thiebaud, he says a bit wistfully, because Thiebaud preferred to teach undergrads.

Housefield, a professor in both the art and design departments, is a generation younger than that first class of students, but Thiebaud’s work of that era is the reason he, much like Thiebaud, gave up a position elsewhere when he got an offer to come to Davis.

“I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s in Indianapolis, far from here,” he says, “but I remember very vividly seeing work by Wayne Thiebaud as a child, and really being energized by the idea that something as pedestrian as a display case of cakes or hot dogs could be the stuff of the art of our time. It made art relevant, but also invited me in to look beyond the surface and to see just how complex those paintings were.”

And looking at Thiebaud’s art, Housefield soon began to look at the world a little differently, too. “I’d grown up looking at cakes in a bakery, and seeing each one as something different and dazzling,” he says. “But then to see the painted cake, and to imagine what it took to make it look like it did, I had a new appreciation for the cakes in the bakery. For me, that’s when art becomes powerful, when we not only see the world of art in an accessible way that gets deep, but we also see the world around us in a different way. That’s the magic of Thiebaud.”

“The work we know and love didn’t just come out of the blue,” says Manetti Shrem Museum’s director Rachel Teagle. “I have in the exhibition a candy counter from 1957 and a candy counter from 1962, and even though it’s the same subject, they’re painted absolutely differently, and that’s the breakthrough moment we’re talking about.”

For his part, Thiebaud describes taking much the same genre of pleasure in the counterpart to “slow painting,” which he calls “slow looking.” For him it’s all about appreciating art not for its prestige factor or the cachet of an artist’s name, but for the inherent delights of the shared human experience. He’s always been as concerned with teaching students how to see, as he is with teaching them how to paint.

“Painting is today a kind of secret society where priest and shaman exist,” he says. “But there is a deeper, more interesting level, where you take something ordinary, a piece of paper, a canvas, and put things that come from the earth [on them], and things are brought into being so that we have a kind of duplicate, parallel history of the world through individual creations—I call them little painted worlds. We have a Van Gogh world—we wouldn’t have that world if he didn’t make it. We have Picasso worlds, Michelangelo worlds, Rembrandt worlds that fortify and amplify and engage us in a whole other marvelous dimension we hadn’t counted on.”

Checking himself, Thiebaud smiles. “But don’t let me pontificate,” he says, to which one wants to reply, oh, please, please do.

To show art students the “various stages” of painting, Thiebaud donated an unfinished portrait of Betty Jean to the Manetti Shrem Museum. (Photo of Thiebaud by Max Whittaker. Art © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.)

“He was a great raconteur,” says Grace Munakata, who earned both her undergraduate and MFA degrees in studio art from Davis and was Thiebaud’s student and teaching assistant in the 1980s. She kept her handwritten notebooks from Thiebaud’s theory class, and dips into them to glean a flurry of memorable insights jotted down from his lectures:

“Be ready to commit artistic suicide daily.”

“Painting is an intellectual inquiry—finding out about as many aspects
      of human experience as possible.”

“To be open to experience is to be vulnerable. Dare to be ridiculous.”

Munakata’s future husband, Michael Tompkins, entered the department as a transfer student. “Wayne was teaching almost exclusively beginners’ classes,” he says. “Requirements I’d already fulfilled.” So Tompkins audited the classes several times over, without credit. “He wasn’t interested in teaching students who believed they were already artists,” he adds. “But he was very interested and engaged in teaching the craft of painting and drawing. He exhibited and required the kind of self-effacement necessary to embrace painting as a discipline. We were all expected to show up and work. He embraced the adage that if you sat around waiting for inspiration, all you’d get was a sore ass.”

In an exercise she borrowed from Thiebaud’s classes, Munakata asks her own undergraduate students at CSU East Bay to reproduce the works of well-known artists—and she always throws a few Thiebauds into the mix. “I’ll end up at the end of the quarter with at least four Thiebaud copies,” she says. “I’ve often thought he might find it really funny,” she laughs. “Or he might be aghast.”

To hear Thiebaud describe his own experience in the classroom, it’s a good bet he’d go with funny. “I used teaching ruthlessly to give assignments and have people work on problems that I was interested in,” he says with a twinkle. “In a classroom of 25 people you’d have 25 variations—I’d just go around and steal all the good ones. As they say, by your students you’ll be taught.”

For all his emphasis on rigor and craftsmanship, Thiebaud does seem to believe that the key skill in making art—and seeing art—may just lie in getting out of our own way.

“We all start out as painters,” Thiebaud says. “We make these elaborate, marvelous little paintings, mostly the same across the culture, of the apple tree with some apples, maybe a swing hanging down. In the corner a big blazing sun, and some clouds. Skies are up top blue, and grass is down below green. We know what’s what. So we show them to our loved ones, and they put them in the refrigerator gallery, and we have our first one-person show.” Here he smiles. “I’ve just never managed to leave it.” S