Wayne Thiebaud | A Retrospective


Three Machines by Wayne Thiebaud, painting, southwest art.
Three Machines by Wayne Thiebaud

By Steven A. Nash

Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective, the first major retrospective of the artist’s work in 15 years, is on view at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco through September 3. The exhibit includes 100 oils, watercolors, and pastels. Following is an excerpt from the exhibit catalog by Steven A. Nash, associate director and chief curator of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

For today’s artists, realism is a risky option. Faced with so long and rich a visual tradition and challenged by strong modernist pressure toward the nonobjective and conceptual, how is it possible to sustain and also reinvigorate basic realist values? Wayne Thiebaud found his own way. For over 40 years he has worked prolifically in a variety of media to define a figurative idiom whose individualism lies very much in his ability to balance apparent opposites: representationalism and abstraction, seriousness and wit, immediacy of touch and rigorous compositional control.

Cakes by Wayne Thiebaud, painting, southwest art.
Cakes by Wayne Thiebaud

His work has a unique look. In its focus on the here and now of consumer goods and deli cuisine, portraits of friends and associates, grand landscape views near his Northern California home, and the improbable geometries of the San Francisco cityscape, it tells a colorful story of popular culture and aspects of the world around us. Although the connections often drawn with Pop Art are overstated, his work does share with that movement a fascination with brash Americana. For all of its bright modernity, however, Thiebaud’s art depends heavily on tradition. He readily pays homage to a long genealogy of favorite artists, including such diverse figures as Hopper and Mondrian, Chardin and Sargent, Morandi and Diebenkorn. As Thiebaud himself put it, “I’m very influenced by the tradition of painting and not at all self-conscious about identifying my sources. I actually just steal things from people that I can use just blatant plagiarism.”

This admittedly larcenous interest in the past is just one of the factors that make Thiebaud’s art more complex than is sometimes assumed. His development over the past 40 years has been gradual and sustained, marked not by dramatic shifts of style but by inflections of handling and expression arising from a steady examination of recurring themes. He has gone in his own direction with little concern for broader artistic trends and at age 80 is working with as much vigor and inventiveness as ever.

Andy Warhol remarked famously that his art was mostly “about liking things.” With the things in Thie-baud’s work the household goods, people, roadways, or mountain cliffs—we feel not only the empathy of the artist but other attributes as well. Thiebaud’s paintings are deeply reasoned but still allow instinct and emotion to thrive. His objects are nuggets of nostalgia, encoding fond memories from his youth but also aspects of American life meaningful to a great many of us. Even the cityscapes and landscapes are vehicles of subtle symbolic content, as much as Thiebaud distrusts any foregrounding of such content.

His works are object lessons in looking hard and thinking about the processes of perception, recollection, and the transferal of form into two dimensions. They immerse us in the magic by which paint transforms itself into the things being described and back again into raw substance. For all their topicality, they achieve permanence that raises them beyond the moment and the region. In this way, Thiebaud forcefully answers painter Francis Bacon’s call for modern reinventions of realism. We may not be able to describe fully the artistic alchemy involved, but we can enjoy the fruitful intersection of observation, memory, and painterly manipulation that his art represents. He has established his own vantage point in contemporary culture. In many ways he is the prototypically American artist but with old master, international savvy.

Featured in “Museum Preview” July 2000