Wayne Thiebaud. American, born 1920

Seen as a predecessor of photorealism. Uses heavy pigment and exaggerated colors to depict everyday objects. Painter and printmaker.

Artist Statement

Painting as a human invention over a period of thirty thousand years has been able to anthologize a kind of sum of human consciousness of our sides, the most wonderful majestic spiritual ideas all the way down to the brute level of terror and the horrendous humanity to man. You can certainly paint anything you want it is just that you have to be good.

The Thiebaud Papers
by Bill Berkson
from Vision and Revision Hand Colored Prints by Wayne Thiebaud
Chronicle Books, San Francisco, CA, 1991

Little else in art makes as much sense as taking something real and making a picture of it. There is some malice in the fact that an image thus put forth can remain both paradoxical and clear. The paradox, after all, is a lifelikeness we have no reason to expect from the formalities of the art. This vivid apparition, soon recognized develops and insists beyond its occasion and become decisive simply enough, you can see it there and wonder at it, again and again.

Wayne Thiebaud's images have that sort of quick and insistently baffling visibility. They are bright and objective, and they never let you off the hook as to what is really being shown. They are eminently formal and "put," with resonance extending from each thing's being just where you see it, from its distinct placement. Thiebaud is a complex professional with a justly popular appeal, just as Chardin was, and Matisse. In a way, his subjects are no more complicated or absurd that the standard realist's stock-in-trade of problems inherent in fixing a believable image on a discrete surface; what will stick or slip away? how much detail can be seen and grasped, and how much of that is manageable, in the moment-to-moment looking and limning?

Fairfield Porter once remarked that what counts in abstract painting is the subject matter, while in realism a picture's abstract, formal qualities often deepen our interest past what the obvious subject matter seems to intend. Thiebaud's realism asserts abstractness so as not to encumber itself with the formulas of either convenient sentiment or too easily apprehensible design. The concomitant tensions among his forms issue their own interpretations. It could be noted, for example, that he has carried on a love affair with the ellipse as passionate and fructifying as Josef Alber's with the square. His shadows are Platonic; they refer to another world, close but parallel, of alternate forms, and, as characters, more actual at times than the solid objects themselves.

From the everyday world Thiebaud takes those incidentals that vision generally casts aside and relocates them as sudden disclosures of fact observed out of flux. The odd motif he delights in - sardines in a can, billiard balls racked up just right, a Brasilia of ornate cakes spread out under fluorescent glare - registers spatially as at once blunt and dubious. It is as if, being scrutinized all of a sudden from a perspective disconcertingly like it own (the anthill perceived at some distance by an ant), a peculiar thing will appear forever after on edge, unsure of its whereabouts. Thiebaud suggests that things are a little beside themselves in situational time, because the situation, like pictorial space, is controvertible.

The images in Thiebaud's paintings partake of the slippery character of paint, along with the tactility of the brushed-up surface. In the graphics, the range of sensation is different, more delicate, statelier, and more succinct. Smears are replaced by blots, halating contours by sharp or squiggly incisions, smooth, fat, horizontal strokes by cross hatching and stark reaches of bare white sheet. Taking a discarded or trial proof of a print one step further by adding colors and adjusting details in more than a matter of mere touching up or busywork; the modified object elaborates upon a set theme of reveals aspects that previously might have been omitted. Here Thiebaud's professionalism gets to stretch out and celebrate itself. Like the oil paintings, these works on paper are task-specific, using the nature of whichever medium - or more specifically, medium over medium - to show us more about the subjects at hand.

Thiebaud began making his composite cityscapes in the early 1970s. Through the 1960s, he had been acknowledged as much for his depictions of rigidly posed human figures as for his still-lifes. But toward the end of that decade, he stopped painting the figure, feeling dissatisfied with the results. Recently, he resumed putting images of people into his pictures, but this time with a story telling edge that his floodlit 1960s settings had disallowed. The most unexpected of these new pictures is Dancing Couple, a heavy-set, mustachioed man and a slender young woman in a light blue gown locked upright together in what appears to be a frozen instant of mutual contrition. Part of a projected series of narrative images, the washed-over drypoint print recalls similarly chilling moments in the pictures Edvard Munch. Its closely mottled nostalgia - the couple's 1920s-style formal attire and chromo gestures lend the work a period look - is countered by the near-sculptural firmness of an attenuated wedge formed by the distracted pair, for which their reflection on the buff-colored ballroom floor makes a witty kind of pedestal. How did these remnants from the throes of Jazz Age melodrama insinuate themselves into Thiebaud's contemporary repertoire? One answer might be found among the artist's memories from his brief career in the 1940s as a stage designer; another might refer to his abiding admiration for Munch as well as for that other master of the erotic charge set crackling in parlor contexts. Balthus. Be that as it may, the image signals a surprising advance in Thiebaud's art towards more variable psychological pressures, while leaving the symbolic message as ever open.

"Inquiry," as Thiebaud uses the word, is the gentleman-scholar's term for what another sort of artist- Mondrian, for one - would call his "search." In his worked-over prints, with a studio ecologist's proviso of avoiding paper waste, Thiebaud shows less interest in going himself one better than in simply continuing, refining as he goes, and getting more deeply into his process. (It's pertinent that, at seventy, he shows no signs of let-up in this regard.) In art, the true professional knows there is no finished business, just the next interplay of conception and handling. The precise terms of Thiebaud's vision are such that each juncture demands its own sense of provisionality as much as hieroglyphic completion. His clarities exemplify present-day consciousness threading its way through the multitudinous and ordinarily quizzical arithmetic of material life.


Wayne Thiebaud was born Mesa, Arizona in 1920, and his family soon moved to Los Angeles in 1921. In high school he became interested in stage design and lighting, and worked part-time at a movie theater where he made posters for lobby displays, 1935-1938. During this time he also worked as a summer apprentice program in the animation department of Walt Disney Studios, 1936. From 1942 to 1945, Thiebaud served in the Air Force, assigned to the Special Services Department as an artist and cartoonist, and eventually transferred to the First Air Force Motion Picture Unit, commanded by Ronald Reagan. It is not difficult to detect the influence that this commercial experience had on his later paintings attributed to Pop Art; Thiebaud's characteristic work displays consumer objects such as pies and cakes as they are seen in drug store windows. Thiebaud uses heavy pigment and exaggerated colors to depict his subjects, and the well-defined shadows characteristic of advertisements are almost always included. Objects are simplified into basic units but appear varied using seemingly minimal means. From 1949 to 1950, Thiebaud studied at the San Jose State University and from 1950 to 1953 at the California State University in Sacramento. He had his first solo exhibition at the Crocker Art Gallery in Sacramento, and between the years of 1954 and 1957, he produced eleven educational films for which he was awarded the Scholastic Art Prize in 1961. Thiebaud lectured at the Art Department of the Sacramento City College until 1959, when he became a professor at the University of California in Davis. Today, Wayne Thiebaud lives and works in California.

from www.berggruen.com


born 1920, Mesa, AZ

"I didn't go to art school. I worked in commercial art ... and you get up, and you go to work whether you like it or not. That's what I thought painters do, you get up and go to work."

Public Collections
most major museums including:
Chicago Art Institute, IL
Library of Congress, Washington DC
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Phillips Collection, Washington DC
San Francisco Art Museum, CA
Seattle Art Museum, WA
Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington DC
Walker Art Museum, Minneapolis MN


The New York Times
Life Is Sweet
Published: February 17, 2008

Wayne Thiebaud, Pies, Pies, Pies, artline
The hungriest artist: "Pies, Pies, Pies" (1961), by Wayne Thiebaud.

"Delicious: The Life and Art of Wayne Thiebaud," is the story of a happy man known for his happy paintings of cakes and pies. It turns out he also has many happy things to say about painting. For example: "I love art history" and "I was a spoiled child. I had a great life, so about the only thing I can do is to paint happy pictures."

The writing in "Delicious" is untroubled and straightforward, which is, apparently, like the man and the life it describes. There is no struggle in it at all. The story goes steadily from subject to verb, rung to rung, up the ladder of life and good fortune. "Wayne grew up in the American West," we learn. "His mother, Alice, was a wonderful cook and baker." His Uncle Jess was a cartoonist. When he was a kid, he wanted to be a cartoonist too, and he did become one for a while.

Events that other people might have found trying turn out to be nothing more than fine challenges: "Wayne broke his back playing football in his junior year of high school," and "kept himself busy by drawing." While still in school he got a job in the animation department at Walt Disney Studios, where he drew Goofy, Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket. During World War II, Thiebaud wanted to be a pilot, but instead became an Army artist, creating a comic strip called "Aleck." After the war, when his career as a cartoonist didn't pan out, he became an art director for the Rexall Drug Company and studied Michelangelo and Rubens. He kept drawing: "The more I drew, the more I improved."

In the 1950s Thiebaud showed his early paintings at a drive-in theater in Sacramento, but he aimed for New York and, after a while, made it there. Thiebaud hung out with painters and became friends with Willem de Kooning. He painted pictures of pinball machines and gumball machines and topped them off with a layer of what he calls "arty strokes."

By the 1960s Thiebaud got rid of the abstract expressionist glaze and replaced it with frosting — thick, slick strokes. He also found his subject: pies, candy and cakes. "Cakes, they are glorious, they are like toys." His first painting of a row of pies made him laugh. But those paintings did not sell. A critic called him "the hungriest artist in California." So Thiebaud looked for a gallery in New York. "His last stop" — isn't it always the last stop? — "late one afternoon was the Allan Stone Gallery." He and Stone became friends, and in April 1962 Thiebaud got a one-man show. Everything sold. And the rest is art history. Landscapes followed lollipops and portraits followed popsicles.

The story of Wayne Thiebaud's steady march to art stardom is not, however, all icing. The author of "Delicious," Susan Goldman Rubin, who has also written books for young readers on Andy Warhol, Margaret Bourke-White and Edgar Degas, dives under the surface to examine Thiebaud's pictures and his thoughts.

She discusses his love of creating a "spatial tension" between repeated forms (not all drum majorettes or candy apples look alike); his feelings about pop art (he does "not want to be lumped with Warhol," whose work he finds "flat" and "mechanical"); his trouble conveying in a realistic mode "the scary feeling" of San Francisco's plunging intersections; his penchant for outlining cupcakes in blue and green; his obsession with lighting (which he learned in the theater in high school) and shadow. ("He usually tries six or eight different shadow shapes to find the one that is just right.")

Still, the general impression of "Delicious" — a cheerful monograph that includes an index and a bibliography and is punctuated with many large-print quotes from Thiebaud and colorful reproductions of his paintings — is of a flat, smooth road. He married, twice, and raised four kids, and all of them now do something or other with art. One son, Paul, who runs a gallery in Sacramento, is his art dealer. Now, at age 87, the artist is happily painting every day and playing tennis twice a week.

It's enviable, but will it play with struggling child artists? It's hard to know. Just as it's hard to know whether the happy prose of the story is meant to match the artist's voice and sentiment or not. The fact that Thiebaud is fond of signing his name with a heart (an upside down "W," he says) is probably a clue, as are his earnest statements: "I think an artist's capacity to handle the figure is a great test of his abilities." That's true. And an artist's capacity to paint row upon row of cakes and pies is a great test of his sanity. This man must be crazy sane.

Sarah Boxer is the author of a cartoon novel, "In the Floyd Archives," and the editor of a blog anthology, "Ultimate Blogs."

Figures: Thiebaud. Stanford; Stanford University Press, 1965

John Coplans. Wayne Thiebaud. Pasadena: Pasadena Art Museum, 1968

Wayne Thiebaud Graphics 1964-1971. New York; Parasol Press, 1971

Wayne Thiebaud: Survey 1947-1976. Phoenix: Phoenix Art Museum, 1976.

Wayne Thiebaud: Paintings, Pastels, Drawings and Prints. San Francisco: John Berggruen Gallery, 1980.

Graham W.J. Beal. Wayne Thiebaud: Painting. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1981

Wayne Thiebaud. Santa Cruz, California: Art Museum of Santa Cruz County, 1981

Wayne Thiebaud: Paintings, Drawings, Graphics 1961-1983. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Dickinson College, 1983.

Karen Tsujimoto. Wayne Thiebaud. San Francisco and Seattle: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and University of Washington Press, 1985

Wayne Thiebaud: Private Drawings, The Artist's Sketchbook. New York: Abrams, 1987

Thiebaud at Seventy. Moraga, California: Saint Mary's College, 1990

Wayne Thiebaud: Prints and Hand Colored Etching. London: Karsten Shubert, 1990

DELICIOUS The Life and the Art of Wayne Thiebaud. Susan Goldman Rubin.Chronicle Books, 2007

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