Since Thiebaud is one of a few still-living artists from the group of modern painters who changed the face of art in the mid-to-late 20th century, you might expect a more ego-infused monologue about the nature of art. Patrons were swooning even over his early drawing studies and sketches, a sure sign for an artist that he or she has arrived. But Thiebaud openly conceded that not only does he not know what art is, “I don’t have any single original idea in my head.”
Few in any field discuss their life’s work with such humility. And plenty of artists are cagey about the subject of appropriation. But Thiebaud, who believes that the history of art is an “anthologized version of human consciousness,” has no problem whatsoever copping to borrowing and stealing during his 70 years of painting. This is brazenly evidenced in particular in Thiebaud’s painting 35¢ Masterworks, where bargain-priced works from great artists are showcased and available on a magazine rack. Although the references and stolen goods are discernable in his paintings, the distinguishable Thiebaud-ness is the lingering aftertaste.
With contemporaries and peers such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Willem De Kooning and Richard Diebenkorn, there is a hard-to-shake tendency to lump Wayne Thiebaud in the pop-art category. Buzzy colors and subject matter such as bright sunbathers, majorettes, gumball machines and somewhat exalted desserts make labeling his work “pop” an understandable inclination—what with the heavy dose of all-American tokens.
Perhaps it’s not altogether untrue, at least according to the artist’s response to being asked about this label, and his role in the pop movement. “What you are as a painter … do you decide for yourself?” said Thiebaud, referring to the fact that artists generally resent being pigeonholed. “I don’t know really any card-carrying pop artists.”
And, as for the way he modestly described his work and motivation for “making something to look at,” it seems that “pop” may be off the mark. His background in commercial design, cartooning and sign painting assert their presence in his work and, in many ways, inform his technical sense of design. They ultimately led to his curiosity and search for something more. He talked about objects being metaphors for things beyond themselves and also about getting lost in the mechanics of constructing a painting. He got vigorously engaged in describing his relationship with white paint. When the lecture was over, I perused his work—snippets of a 70-year career complemented by real, live, dainty baked delights.
As I pored over Thiebaud’s confections in two dimensions—as well as ocean cities and landscapes with wayward perspective, poppy portraits and beach beasts—I confirmed what I had begun to think during the classification questioning in the lecture. More than what category or movement the work fits into, it seemed to be about indulgence—both in subject matter and execution. Two Majorettes (although inconspicuously placed downstairs away from the rest), Two Kneeling Figures and Hot Dog Stand, as the titles imply, reflect more anonymous, deadpan and somewhat guilty pleasures. Even the paintings that aren’t ice-cream cones or candy apples look like they are painted with frosting, though, in fact, it is paint. Thiebaud indulges in moving paint around, in making electric lines and crusted edges, constructing edibles—in making something to look at.
I was able to ask Thiebaud himself about my theory regarding the subject of indulgence. “I am and have always considered myself a representational painter,” he says, “but, I would say you are right on.” Even after shuffling around the exhibition reading informative text panels about pop and pigeonholing and formal issues and influences, I had still wanted to hear something from the artist himself. Sometimes it’s nice to witness enthusiasm for painting in the flesh rather than once removed.
The opening lecture and show itself provided a lovely excursion; don’t be afraid to venture south to feast your eyes on Thiebaud’s dishes. The space is amazing, the show was thoughtfully hung and the work won’t disappoint. It’s splendidly indulgent in object and in application, in icons and in paint. In short, it’s delicious.
WAYNE THIEBAUD: 70 YEARS OF PAINTING @ Springville Museum of Art, 126 E. 400 South, Springville, March 28–July 27 SMofA.org