Wayne Thiebaud | The Icing on the Cake

By Rose Fredrick

Wayne Thiebaud is a humorist at heart. In the middle of serious conversations he may interrupt himself to relate amusing anecdotes. His playful nature is evident, too, in the subject matter he paints: cakes and pies, cupcakes and ice cream cones, hot dogs and gumball machines. While he is best known for his still lifes of sugary confections, his oeuvre extends to figurative paintings as well as abstracted landscapes and cityscapes. The breadth of his work is currently on display in a traveling exhibition titled Wayne Thiebaud: 70 Years of Painting. With more than 100 paintings and drawings, from his earliest works to his most recent, the show examines Thiebaud’s long and impressive career—a career defined by an artistic vision that is distinctly his own.

Sitting in his son’s bright Sacramento office, with floor-to-ceiling shelves of art books punctuated by his own small works and those by his children and grandchildren, Thiebaud is surrounded by the symbols of his life: art and academia. He earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art from California State College and in 1951 received an appointment to teach at Sacramento Junior College, where he later chaired the art department. In 1960 he began a long tenure at the University of California, Davis, teaching art full time until he retired in 1990. Today, as professor emeritus, he still gives guest lectures and teaches one course each semester.

Thiebaud, who turns 89 in November, is a contemporary of such luminaries of American art as the late abstract expressionists Willem de Kooning and Richard Diebenkorn, who were also close friends of his. And though Thiebaud has lived most of his life in California, extended forays to New York City in the ’40s and ’50s, when he worked in advertising and illustration, introduced him to a broad and illustrious range of artists and their work.

“My heroes were people like de Kooning and Arshile Gorky. It was that whole wonderful period of New York painting,” says Thiebaud. “I spent evenings and weekends getting to meet those people, going to exhibitions, gathering at the Cedar Tavern, which became such a famous place. It was a relatively small art world, and at openings you saw critics, artists, writers, musicians, and poets. It was a great, changing experience for me.”

At a time when abstract expressionism dominated the art scene, Thiebaud resurrected representational painting, though he often employed the bold palette and thick brushwork of the abstract expressionists he admired. His work has been mistakenly linked with the Pop Art movement, perhaps because his paintings portray commonplace items reflective of American culture: desserts, candy, toys, cosmetics. The difference, however, is that Thiebaud is not mocking his subjects or making some grand statement about, perhaps, gluttony, but is instead using them as vehicles to express his ideas about painting.

Painting these simple, everyday objects allows Thiebaud to explore the essentials of art—basic forms such as circular cakes, square bakery cases, and triangular slices of pie. To this he adds his own unique approach to color, light, and texture. His paintings have a tactile edge to them, with heavily textured surfaces that look as if he is literally frosting his cakes and confections with gooey layers of paint.

Critics and writers have described Thiebaud’s work as “what happiness feels like” and pictures made of “radiant rainbow hues.” This leaves one to wonder: With formative artistic influences such as the angst-filled works of de Kooning and other abstract expressionists, just how did these delightful, lighthearted subjects come to dominate Thiebaud’s work?

“Those pictures are the result of my being a spoiled child,” explains Thiebaud, who was born in 1920 and raised during the Great Depression, a time he remembers as “an astounding experience.” Like so many people, his father had lost nearly everything. He did, however, manage to keep a small sum that he pooled with other family members to buy a ranch in Utah. “We always had plenty to eat because we grew crops,” Thiebaud remembers. “My parents were hard-working and dedicated to the fact that we would make our way out of it.”
Thiebaud’s own belief in hard work is evidenced by a lifetime of art and accolades. When asked whether talent or determination is the most important ingredient for success, Thiebaud doesn’t hesitate in his answer: Determination. “The main thing is to work at it,” he says. “You can get a lot of talent from working at it.” Thiebaud credits sculptor Robert Mallary for instilling in him the importance of making lots of work—even if most of it is destined for the trash heap. “He made me understand what real critical interrogation of work was about,” says Thiebaud, who cites Mallary as a major influence in his artistic development.

Thiebaud and Mallary met in 1946. Thiebaud, age 26, had just been discharged from the Air Force (he had served as an illustrator during the war) and landed a job at the Rexall Drug Company in Los Angeles, where he worked as a cartoonist and layout designer in the advertising department. Mallary was a co-worker. He stressed to Thiebaud the need to take risks in art, to not be afraid of failure. This uncomfortable place of vulnerability is an essential aspect of painting, what Thiebaud refers to as the “nerve of failure.”

“You have to do things over and over again, to make twelve paintings and, out of that, chose two or three and destroy the rest,” says Thiebaud, who may take decades to complete a series of work. He first started his San Francisco cityscapes—abstracted urban scenes with multiple perspectives—in 1971, but did not show them for many years. “Painting is about research, confrontation, taking risks, and trying to challenge yourself to always get better. You have to continually hone and amplify and enlarge your critical capacity for interrogation.”

And interrogate he does, so much so that the label “artist” is one that he does not assign lightly. “Most of us will never be artists. And that’s an important distinction: to be careful about calling yourself an artist and to be proud to call yourself a designer, a craftsman, or a painter,” says Thiebaud. “You are in the world of Rembrandt, Degas, Picasso, Michelangelo. How audacious is it to pick up a brush in light of what’s been done before?” Thiebaud does, however, offer up those he feels have achieved the lofty rank of artist—like Rosa Bonheur, Berthe Morisot, Pierre Bonnard, and Paul Cézanne, along with de Kooning, Gorky, and Diebenkorn.

Thiebaud, in his self-deprecating way, refers to himself as simply a painter. Though in looking back at his life’s work, the label of artist most surely applies. At the age of 28 he was included in his first major museum show at what is now the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. His first solo show followed three years later, as did other exhibits, though it wasn’t until 1962, with a one-man show at Allan Stone Gallery in New York, that his career really took flight. (Stone represented Thiebaud for 45 years until his death in 2006.)

Over the years, Thiebaud’s work has been exhibited in many of the world’s major art museums, and he has received countless honors and awards. In 1994 President Clinton presented Thiebaud with the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given to artists by the United States government for “special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support, and availability of the arts.”

Thiebaud still paints and exhibits new works, with a solo show every other year at his son’s galleries in San Francisco and New York. His most recent show, Confection Memories, opened in April at Paul Thiebaud Gallery in San Francisco and continues through June 21. The artist stays in shape with regular tennis matches and also remains involved in teaching, a responsibility he takes seriously.

A lover of poetry, Thiebaud often reads poems to his students. Poetry, he contends, has a close connection to painting, as it is an “x-ray of literature”—a way of seeing literary bones. Like painting, poetry defines itself by its ability to describe things that people have not seen. He also connects painting and sports, pointing out that there is a muscularity to painting as well as the need for grace and balance, all things developed through physical activity and muscle memory. He believes in the importance of drawing constantly to develop one’s memory as a kind of “visual dictionary.”

“My paintings are all done from memory and from observation, never from photographs,” he says. The use of photography handicaps painting, partly, he explains, because it lacks physicality. And also because photography and painting are two different animals, in that photography starts with everything while painting starts with nothing to make something.

A lifelong teacher, Thiebaud admits he is also a perpetual student, noting that “painting is a chance to educate yourself forever.” From still lifes to landscapes, cityscapes, and, more recently, figurative paintings of sunbathers at the beach or by the pool—Thiebaud says he is continually learning, continually expanding.

“Painting is my one chance to be omnipotent, because I am making this little world myself,” says the artist. “When you are painting, you’re extending your life. You are living.”

Featured in June 2009