If anyone can be dubbed “dean of California artists,” Wayne Thiebaud can. Still making art as he approaches his mid-90s, Thiebaud continues to innovate and modulate within his readily recognizable style. If we define “style” as the intersection of technique and sensibility, we can marvel at Thiebaud’s consistency over the past half-century or more. Yet for all that, he has never been entrapped by mere method.
A foolish consistency, wrote Emerson, is the hobgoblin of little minds. Thiebaud’s is anything but foolish. The earmarks of his practice–the rich brushwork, the luminous palette, the succinct but sensuous form–and imagery–the oddly intense elucidation of banal objects or fantastical landscapes–characterize his work from 1958 as readily as they do his work from 2013. Thiebaud’s art has thus been easy to brand; but his ability to wrest endless variations, most of them unpredictable, from his signature approach means his art has not been easy to pigeonhole.
Thiebaud’s inclusion in several early-’60s museum shows of “common object” art made perfect sense at the time. As the nature and meaning of Pop Art were sorted out, it seemed defined by its then-radical subject matter. But, while influenced by Johns and Rauschenberg, Thiebaud’s grasp of the everyday was less ironic or hermetic, and his technical treatment of it more traditional in its naturalism and its rich painterliness. Thiebaud didn’t paint objects as they appear on billboards; he painted objects–including billboards–as they appeared in real life. “True” Pop Art, an art of signs, comprised shapes and notations a la cubism (especially the “colonial cubism” of Stuart Davis). Thiebaud’s common-object realism came more or less directly out of Edward Hopper’s American-Scene naturalism, as filtered through (or, more accurately, enhanced by) the Bay Area Figuration of Richard Diebenkorn and David Park.
Thiebaud’s artistic background, however, was rooted in the “popular arts,” rather more so than those of most of his Pop compeers. Before attending college, he worked for a decade as a cartoonist and designer (and served during the War in the Army’s First Motion Picture Unit). Earlier still, as a Long Beach teen, he’d worked for a summer at the Walt Disney Studios. “I had that kind of apprenticeship,” Thiebaud told John Seed in a recent Huffington Post interview, “where you are supposed to just work and you are obliged to not ignoble those traditions, the great traditions of design and typography and the decorative arts, the ideas of design and drawing.”
To be sure, Thiebaud’s interest in stacks of pies and rows of cakes and beach umbrellas and people in swimwear and the like testifies to a fascination not just with the everyday, but with today’s everyday, with the transient markers of contemporary society. On one level, the only thing that prevents him from painting Campbell’s soup cans is the label. It’s doubtless an aesthetic decision that steers Thiebaud away from that kind of specificity rather than any fear of copyright infringement (his summer at Disney notwithstanding), but it’s also a decision to regard his historical moment as embodied in people and customs, as art always has, rather than in logos and languages. Where Andy Warhol was cool and ironic, Cathleen McGuigan noted in her 2011 Smithsonian Magazine article, Thiebaud is “warm and gently comic, playing on a collective nostalgia just this side of sentimentality.” He also clearly feels a responsibility to the traditions of art history, wanting to maintain the still life practice of the Spanish and Dutch Baroque, of Chardin and Morandi. Pop Art deals with stuff; Thiebaud deals with things.
He also deals with places. Although he put himself on the map with his still life subjects, Thiebaud may endure in art history with his land- and cityscapes. Indeed, he has covered a far vaster terrain, literally and figuratively, in his renditions of urban spaces and rural terrain than he has in his beach and bakery spreads. It’s in these depictions of towns and mountains–and, notably, towns apparently clinging to the sides and tops of mountains–where Thiebaud has let his imagination and wit really go to town. The sense of droll exaggeration wafting from row upon row of baked goods unleashes itself like a happy hurricane on his vistas, imagining hills like hats or fingers or, yes, upended loaves of bread, or remodeling tidewater ponds and surrounding farmland into improbably decorous symmetries, or wreaking crazily vertiginous improvisations on a theme of San Francisco.
For all the gale force with which Thiebaud refashions the land, he bathes it in brilliant, lambent light. He is, among other things, a painter of light and its dramatic, ineffable qualities. McGuigan quotes him as wondering, “‘What kinds of varying light can you have in one painting?… Direct glaring light, then fugitive light, then green glow…” The biographical reason for this is obvious: having lived in various parts of California pretty much his whole life, Thiebaud has basked in a fantastical array of natural light and traversed a similar variety of topographies, all of which can be identified as peculiar to his home state.
In fact, in both its subject matter and its visual treatment of that subject matter, Thiebaud’s entire oeuvre is as rooted in California as is that of Diebenkorn, Steinbeck, or the Beach Boys. It can even be averred that his style has incorporated (and often anticipated and even influenced) various artistic tendencies local to California–for instance, plein-air landscape painting, or gestural abstraction, or photorealism, or even Funk and Light and Space. His vision, one could argue, is singular in great part because it is so hybridized, because it so readily and naturally synthesizes and displays all these parallel, but not usually intersecting, directions.
Whatever his influences and his influence, Thiebaud is a–perhaps the–quintessential California artist. He makes pictures of California and makes them like a Californian, with a natural craft and almost self-indulgent grace driven by a deep-rooted and restless intellect, all dedicated to addressing matters of perception, of how we see the world. From this position he had the insight early on to look at traditional subjects with a Popped eye, wanting to ennoble vernacular subjects with virtuosic rendering, and then later to reverse that formula, to skew landscape subjects that require virtuosity with a strangely vernacularized and surrealized approach.
It was logical, then, to select Wayne Thiebaud as the designer of the California Arts license plate, palm trees, ocean sunset and all. It is also fitting that he be honored time and again with museum shows, such as the 2010-2011 retrospective at Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum and the new survey of his work on paper at Pepperdine University’s Frederick R. Weisman Museum in Malibu (opening January 11). This past October, the Laguna Art Museum–which hosted its own Thiebaud survey in 2007 and will host another this spring–gave him the California Art Award. He in turn gave Laguna six of his prints, as well as the 2002 painting Jolly Cones.
And he continues to ring changes on his own m.o., as seen in his recent exhibition at his late son’s San Francisco gallery of “Memory Mountains,” paintings done from recall of one of his favorite subjects. The peaks and cliffs in these paintings may bear some resemblance to Thiebaud’s previous hills, but their lopped, sheared sides and the unlikely cities balanced precariously on their crowns are new, weird, very funny variations on familiar themes. As with California itself, nothing in Wayne Thiebaud’s art is more consistent than change.