The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2010

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JUL-AUG 2010 Issue


Wayne Thiebaud, “Three Prone Figures” (1961). Oil on canvas, 14 x 18 inches. Collection of Paul LeBaron Thiebaud. Photo: Ira Shrank, Sixth Street Studio
Wayne Thiebaud, “Three Prone Figures” (1961). Oil on canvas, 14 x 18 inches. Collection of Paul LeBaron Thiebaud. Photo: Ira Shrank, Sixth Street Studio

On View
San Jose Museum of Art
February 27 – July 4, 2010
San Jose, CA

The graphite drawing Towards 280 (Study) (1976) proved to be a useful lens through which to consider this exhibition of drawings and paintings, drawn almost exclusively from the Thiebaud Family Collection, the Artist’s Studio, and from family members. From an elevated vantage point—the viewer imagines he is floating slightly above the crest of a hill – a black-tarred avenue slants sharply downward until it joins with a more delicately drawn street below (which starts from the lower right hand corner). The artist has, in fact, drawn five distinct streets zigzagging from the lower left to the upper right. All of them go in different directions. This work evidences that Wayne Thiebaud has reinvented Cubism, stretching out its faceted, interlocking planes until they collide, slip, and crash, becoming responsive to the hurly-burly mess of urban life, its streets and highways.

In his cityscapes, which were initially influenced by Richard Diebenkorn’s 1960s cityscapes and subsequent Ocean Park series, Thiebaud brought to the surface what his contemporary and friend submerged, abstracted, and refined in the shallow space of his interlocking, planar paintings. Rather than making a unitary painting that swings between “essentials and incidentals,” as Diebenkorn put it, Thiebaud brings unruliness back into painting by courting pictorial chaos; for him, the incidentals (sky, lampposts, streets, buildings, rooftops, trees, cars, pedestrians, reflections and shadows) are the essentials. In cityscapes, such as Uphill Streets (1992-1994), City Streets & Pathways (1996), Palm Street (2006-2007), and Big Condominium (2008), he extends the tension between large and small, surface and depth, abstraction and representation, highly articulated patterns and monochromatic fields until the scene becomes vertiginous, at once exhilarating and haphazard, ready to plunge into the unseen Pacific.

Towards 280 (Study) sums up one part of Thiebaud’s project: he wants to give himself permission to go in any direction at any time; to paint figures, portraits, still-lifes, landscapes, cityscapes, beach scenes, animals, hot dog stands; to make the shadow as visceral as the figure or thing; to warp, bend, fold, and reconfigure the picture plane, like an accordion that’s been run over by a bicycle; to use high contrast colors, work tonally, have multiple light sources, and employ halation to underscore the subjects; to be simultaneously representational and abstract, rendering meaningless the distinction between them. The various technical means at the artist’s disposal aside, Thiebaud’s subject matter reminds me of the writer Georges Perec’s interest in the “infraordinary,” the humdrum of daily life when, as he put it, “what happens when nothing happens.” In Condiments (2008), he depicts three sunken containers of ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise on a messy, stained counter, and deftly conveys volume through the angle of the view and consistency of the paint. It is a self-reflexive painting at once humorous and slightly self-accusatory—painting is just a condiment, a necessary enhancer. It also makes clear that direct observation and conceptual art were not separated at birth.

Thiebaud’s paintings come at the viewer fast, but they are slow to reveal themselves. The secondary part of the viewer’s experience—the thinking part—is what I want to focus on. This duality is something he shares with Edward Hopper. However, even in his most dramatic paintings, such as Viewer (2003), where a bald man in a white suit sits under a bright light holding a painting on his lap, Thiebaud’s works cannot be reduced to psychologically charged anecdote. They don’t become sentimental and are never didactic. In fact, narrative doesn’t become story in Thiebaud’s paintings. While direct observation, memory, and imagination all play their part, it is observation that leads the way, although it does not necessarily determine the outcome. Rooted in palpable reality, in the world he sees and is familiar with, Thiebaud, like Catherine Murphy and Thomas Nozkowski, is an artist who has never tried to develop a style or set an agenda. Since his early, highly celebrated paintings of rows of pies and other prepared foods, which were briefly seen in the burgeoning context of Pop art, he has always quietly gone his own way. The extent of his idiosyncratic independence wasn’t clear to me until I saw this exhibition, which included a number of real surprises.

One of the surprises was Three Prone Figures (1961), a small painting depicting three people in bathing suits lying face down in creamy, off-white sand. With the bristles of the paintbrush conveying grooves and ruts, Thiebaud turns the paint into fine-grained sand, building up where the bathers’ feet have dug into it, and hollowing out where a head might have been resting earlier. He doesn’t turn the sand – basically a monochromatic field – into an image, but subtly underscores the particulars of its materiality. It is a masterful achievement that never calls attention to itself.

While many artists might have been satisfied with such a display of painterly virtuosity, there is far more to Three Prone Figures than first meets the eye, and this I would advance typifies Thiebaud’s strongest paintings. A woman and man lie close together, and just a little bit away from them is another man. How are we to read this configuration? One bathing suit has a pattern of blue stars edged in red on a white ground, while another consists of red and white stripes. While the date of the painting precedes the disastrous escalation of the Vietnam War, Thiebaud seems to have anticipated the sight of corpses waiting to be placed in body bags and shipped back to America. Finally, there is something funny about the sight of three figures lying face down in the sand—and is that a blue shadow or towels beneath them?

Three Prone Figures is a modest painting both in scale and composition, but a lot can be unpacked from it. At the same time, Thiebaud never strains for effects, never tries to make a painting hold more than it can. He is sharply attuned to human behavior, and sees much of what we do with a disarmingly gentle sense of humor. And yet, for all its gentleness, it is not soft. He recognizes that our relentless search for leisure is part of our human folly – a view that he fully expresses in Sea Resort (2007), where people frolic on a vast, manicured, horseshoe-shaped beach in the shadow of a supersized high-rise hotel. Through pastel colors and extreme shifts in scale he celebrates the elemental beauty of the landscape while also recognizing the shortsighted greed that built the resort. Basically, we have destroyed a landscape in order to enjoy it, though this is not so cut and dried in the painting.

And those rows and rows of pies and thickly frosted cakes for which he became known in the 1960s and 70s—isn’t Thiebaud keenly attuned to the desire to eat ourselves into a stupor? The olives, egg salad, and cupcakes might not be full of hemlock, but they are made of paint. Yet staring at paintings of the beach and the counters full of food, might we not see ourselves as being hedonistic gluttons? What about the painting of the woman on all fours, part of her belly hanging down, like a flap, the result of her having recently lost a lot of weight? The artist’s engagement with, and detachment from, subject matter are indistinguishable.

We live in a material world, but everything is fleeting. Cakes, pies, and cooked fish have a limited shelf life. We can only stay at the beach so long. The streets are full of cars carrying passengers to another destination. We all want to hit the jackpot when we put our nickel into the slot machine. We dream about building a house on a hill, high above everyone else, as if we were royalty. We want to irrigate and till every inch of land, so we can reap what is rightfully ours.

In 35¢ Masterworks (1970-1972), Thiebaud depicts a card stand on which there is a grid of art reproductions, including works by Thomas Eakins, Piet Mondrian, Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, Giorgio Morandi, Henri Rousseau, Giorgio de Chirico, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso—heady company. This is the community that Thiebaud elected to belong to when he committed himself to painting. In that regard, he is no different from other painters. He doesn’t see it as a burden, but as liberation. To honor those before him who went their own way, he must do the same without seeking the approval of those who believe it is their solemn duty to point everyone in the right direction. It is easy to hate this long, rich, and varied tradition, and set about defacing it, especially if it gains you approval. Defacing things is deeply ingrained in the fabric of our life, as Thiebaud’s paintings of oversized resorts and traffic clogged roadways make clear.

Thiebaud is the oldest member of the self-taught, over eighty club, the others being Jasper Johns and Robert Ryman. Having not gone to art school or immersed themselves in academia, they continue to go their own way, never claiming to have achieved mastery. They recognize that paint, at once visceral and visual, is a highly susceptible material open to investigation, and have never attempted to codify its identity. In different ways, they have made the color white their own. Glamour and the selling of it are not foremost in their minds or projects. All of them share something with William Carlos Williams who famously said, “No ideas but in things.” The fact that they have stayed open to the world at this stage in their life is something we should not lose sight of.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2010

All Issues