(Wayne Thiebaud, 1920-)
Unbalancing Acts: Wayne Thiebaud Reconsidered
...Then at the end of 1959 or so I began to be interested in a formal approach to composition. I'd been painting gumball machines, windows, counters, and at that point began to rework paintings into much more clearly identified objects. I tried to see if I could get an object to sit on a plane and really be very clear about it. I picked things like pies and cakes - things based upon simple shapes like triangles and circles - and tried to orchestrate them.
"Thiebaud's paintings of food and consumer goods, which first emerged in mature form in 1961-62 have become such a familiar part of our art historical landscape that the risks they first posed can easily be taken for granted. As already seen, the inclination towards depictions of commonplace objects from middle-class America - decidedly "blue collar" subjects in the hierarchies of still-life painting - began to emerge for Thiebaud in the mid-1950s, well before the romance with similar iconographies that characterized the Pop movement. Thiebaud's choices may gesture backwards to such precedents as Stuart Davis's Odol bottle, Gerald Murphy's safety razor, or even Marcel Duchamp's urinal, but they mostly embrace objects that happened to be close at hand and that impressed him as interesting in character or presence. Also important in this development was his experience in advertising design and, for example, his layouts of simple objects in drugstore ads.
"It was the cafeteria-type foods, of course, the cakes, pies, ice creams, hamburgers, hotdogs, canapes, club sandwiches, and other staples of the American diet - all of which have a stereotypical this-can-be-found-any-where-in-the-country-but-only-in- this-country quality - that brought Thiebaud most of his early notoriety. He described the almost giddy feelings he experienced with his first daring paintings of these subjects:
When I painted the first row of pies, I can remember sitting and laughing - sort of a silly relief - "Now I have flipped out!" The one thing that allowed me to do that was having been a cartoonist. I did one and thought, "That's really crazy, but no one is going to look at these things anyway, so what the heck.
"With this concentration on simple objects or groups of objects came simultaneously a much clarified means of representation -the "isolation of the object" and "interest in objective painting" to which Thiebaud had referred - the rapid development of which can be traced by comparing the Oakland Museum of California's fine Delicatessen Counter of 1961 with the Delicatessen Counter from 1962 in the Menil Collection. Already by the time of the earlier work, Thiebaud was pressing his subjects forward against the picture plane, simplifying the objects into basic formal units, and aligning them in strictly ordered progressions. A possibly coincidental relationship exists here with the comparably architectonic ordering principles seen in work by the turn-of-the-century American Realist John Peto, with whom Thiebaud also shares a love of vernacular objects. Undoubtedly more direct was the influence of still-life paintings by Giorgio Morandi, long admired by Thiebaud for their contemplative quiet, the palpable sense of protracted looking that they convey, and their delicate, varied effects achieved with seemingly minimal means. Not only is the basic organizational structure of such works germane to Thiebaud's paintings, but also their use of modulated light and discrete, slow-moving strokes to model the forms. Between the two delicatessen paintings under consideration, a process of even greater rationalization took place. In the Oakland Museum's picture, the alignment of forms is not as rigid as it would soon become. The positioning of the different objects - trays, containers, and cheeses - is still slightly loose, the countertop and bottom of the counter's window are angled slightly downward as they cross the picture plane, and the definition of individual shapes is somewhat rough and irregular. By the time of the Menil painting, these relationships had tightened considerably. The shelves and counters reach out now to grip the sides of the painting, forming a resolute, Mondrian-like grid. (Perhaps "Mondrian of the cake shops" is an equally valid epithet!) The brushwork is highly viscous but individual forms are nevertheless defined with increased clarity, and the colors also have brightened compared to the slightly grayed palette in the Oakland example.
"This signature style of Thiebaud's paint handling - the rich, smooth dragging of paint across a surface or around a shape in a way that both proclaims the luscious texture of oils and often transforms itself into the very material being depicted, from frosting or whipped cream to metal - is referred to by the artist as "object transference." Its origins can be traced not just to Morandi but also Thiebaud's interest in the bravura effects of such artists as Joaquin Sorolla, clearly apparent in the transitional Beach Boys of 1959, the work of Willem de Kooning, and the Bay Area Figurative painters Richard Diebenkorn and David Park. Thiebaud's mature style had crystallized rapidly. The enthusiasm that greeted his still lifes when exhibited in New York at the Allan Stone Gallery in the spring of 1962 and later that year in San Francisco at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum reflect their strength and appeal.
"A great deal has been written about the possible meanings these still-life subjects held for Thiebaud beyond their purely visual delights and the problems in formal composition that they posed, though Thiebaud himself has warned against reading too much into their symbolism. "The symbolic aspect of my work is always confusing to me - it's never been clear in my mind.... I tend to view the subject matter without trying to be too opaque with respect to its symbolic reference, mostly from the standpoint of problematic attractions - what certain aspects of form offer." Nevertheless, he has also indicated that the foods he returned to again and again did hold an emotional or poetic resonance relating to the demotic Americanism of his boyhood memories. These paintings were made from memory, from mental images, not from actual setups of food or other objects:
Most of [the objects] are fragments of actual experience. For instance, I would really think of the bakery counter, of the way the counter was lit, where the pies were placed, but I wanted just a piece of the experience. From when I worked in restaurants, I can remember seeing rows of pies, or a tin of pie with one piece out of it and one pie sitting beside it. Those little vedute in fragmented circumstances were always poetic to me."
"Thiebaud has also pointed out many times that his foods were always processed and prepared, not raw, "which mostly ... has to do with some sort of ritualistic preoccupation... that interest in the way we ritualize the food, play around with it." Thiebaud's personal associations with the objects in his paintings, part of the personal voice he has spoken of trying to attain and open to others, reflect back upon family picnics with tables full of home cooking, his work in restaurants and small stores, and the displays of food and consumer goods he admired in drugstores, bakeries, and hardware stores. Distinctly different from the imagery in Pop Art, which simultaneously draws upon and satirizes consumer society, mass production, and advertising, his work relates an honest, Thornton Wilderesque appreciation for aspects of American experience that for decades have slowly disappeared:
"[My subject matter] was a genuine sort of experience that came out of my life, particularly the American world in which I was privileged to be. It just seemed to be the most genuine thing which I had done."
"Thiebaud's language can be decidedly low-key and limited in its formal agendas, but even then, his objects say a lot about the people who make them and enjoy them. They also comment on the abundance that is part of American society and the longing or desires that go with it: desserts lined up in rows stretching far into the distance like trees in a landscape but held separate from the viewer by the glass of window or case. The tone, however, is celebratory, not negative.
Commonplace objects are constantly changing, and when I paint the ones I remember I am like Chardin tattling on what we were. The pies, for example, we now see are not going to be around forever. We are merely used to the idea that things do not change.
- By Steven A Nash, in "Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective"