Wayne Thiebaud at Acquavella Galleries

Wayne Thiebaud
Acquavella Galleries Oct 23 - Nov 30, 2012

Today we know Wayne Thiebaud as a painter best known for his exploration of American genre. He has made this category the subject his life’s work. Through the themes of still lives and landscapes he explores the style, character and nature of things American. In some way it can be read as a kind of inventory of things native to the American psyche. This psyche is represented through representations of the natural California landscapes, its lakes and rivers or things man-made like tools or traffic or ice cream parfaits. In either case it is always presented in a clear, concise, often cool headed dispassionate manner. And while appearing cool the real passion in Thiebaud is in the paint itself and in the talent he has to create and cut into a unique view of the world time and again. His masterly viewpoint is one that always looks at the familiar and yet through his vision it is both halting and sharp because of his command of his medium. Thiebaud’s work is, as the young Allan Stone, Thiebaud’s first champion commented five decades ago contemplating this then unknown artist, haunting. - Michael Klein, New York City Contributor

Wayne Thiebaud | Girl with Ice Cream Cone, 1963, Oil on Canvas, 48 1/8 x 36 1/4 inches (122.2 x 92 cm), Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest Fund, Smithsonian Collections Acquisition, Program and Museum Purchase, 1996 (96.19), Art © Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

If Edward Hopper can be called the painter of the East coast certainly Wayne Thiebaud can be considered the painter of the West coast.  What Thiebaud represents is post war America, what we’ve made, built, lived in and called our own. He champions a vocabulary of the commonplace and like his hero Morandi he makes monumental compositions from the simple and the ordinary; objects that you and I could find in our home on a shelf or in the garage. Not surprisingly Thiebaud can paint on a variety of scales and with a variety of materials as the works in this exhibition demonstrate. Nothing diminishes the impact of their character; one that is revelatory in color, light and execution.

While many may be familiar with Thiebaud’s works in major public collections around the country this exhibitions provides an insight as to works held back by the artist for his own. The show is segregated by themes: things, people, and places. The very good catalogue with essays by John Wilmerding and Pepe Karmel follows the same format and propose numerous comparisons of Thiebaud with his peers like Alfred Leslie and Alex Katz and 19th century historic models like Eakins and Bellows.

Wayne Thiebaud | Shoe Rows, 1975, Oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches (76.2 x 61 cm), Collection of Betty Jean Thiebaud, Art © Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Look at Trucker's Supper from 1961. It is a small tableau that could be an ad for a truck stop or diner. Like Vuillard or Bonnard before him it is a domestic scene yet unlike his French counterparts Thiebaud dispenses with family members here and allows the objects center stage. As if ready to eat we are given a place setting, a kind of deadpan inventory if you will of the modern table. Thiebaud in fact has written about another metaphysician of objects, Giorgio Morandi and his” arresting little dramas “ as he described the Italian painter’s still life tableaux. It is Thiebaud knowledge and appreciation for the traditions of European painting from Chardin to Morandi that are the basis for his ideas and efforts.

From such a painting of the 60s Thiebaud returned to similar themes and territories and never quite finished with the topic. Over some five decades he has plied his talents for ways to reinvent the still life. Deli counters for example, a school flag or a row of ladies shoes have equal measure in his view. There is something very familiar, even mundane, and yet equally hypnotic about these themes. It is the manner in which Thiebaud approaches his subjects and handles each tableau that is most stunning. Thiebaud is always the keen observer; yet also a tough and diligent editor, but never a commentator.  Some works in fact are based on memory. He reviews everything and anything that may distract the viewer removes it. The subject remains center most and the atmosphere around it is secondary to the experience of seeing and representing what is seen. There is something methodical in his power of visualization and it is apparent in the variety of works that are presented in this unique selection of treasured works that include masks, a hat rack, donuts, a candy bag and plenty of girls, some nude and some dressed.

Wayne Thiebaud | River Pool, 1997, Oil on canvas, 36 x 35 3/4 inches, (91.4 x 90.8 cm), Acquavella Galleries, Art © Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Throughout the exhibition of some sixty-five works one will find examples of Thiebaud’s ability to shift, stage and recreate subjects that allowed him to return to what he loved best. What is further remarkable about Thiebaud’s life long enterprise is the quality and variety of mediums that are included: paintings; pastel; a few graphite drawings, and prints in which Thiebaud explored the use of aquatint, silkscreen, or lithography

Describing his process Thiebaud commented in a 1993 interview with Richard Wollheim, the English philosopher:

Whenever a system gives you a formula, the most important thing in painting is either to add to the system or destroy or disrupt it, or some combination.

Thiebaud’s shopping list repertoire of subjects also includes landscapes and cityscapes. River Pond 1997 and Big Condominium, 2008 are but two examples of paintings that demonstrate Thiebaud’s capacity to master color and light, and change his system to accommodate a different kind of picture and a different kind of scale.  On the one hand there are the dark silhouettes that make up the palette of the central California fields in mid-day and on the other the contrasts of light color high-rise set within the shadows of San Francisco’s hilly topography.

While his early works found him being categorized and included among Pop artists and in Pop art shows his art lacks a key Pop idea: irony. Perhaps a painting of ice creams cones and lollipops would seem ironic to some but how far is it from Manet’s plate ofasparagus, or a group of Cezanne’s apples? What Thiebaud sees, draws, paints is as it is. He is fully relying upon a different tradition for his art, a tradition that stretches back hundreds of years in the history of Western painting. Yet, like the Pop artists he is obsessed with surface and with the physical qualities of his subject or object. He doesn’t really care about atmosphere; the material quality of a piecrust and filling or the aroma of a french fries or the breeze in a landscape. There is the photographic  “time stood still” factor of each composition because in the end shape, color, form and scale are everything.

Wayne Thiebaud, Trucker’s Supper, 1961, Oil on canvas, 20 1/2 x 30 1/8 inches, (52.1 x 76.5 cm), Collection of Wayne and Betty Jean Thiebaud, Art © Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

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