A Well-Composed Life

As he turns 100 years old, Wayne Thiebaud continues his painterly reinvention of traditional forms
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Wayne Thiebaud
Wayne Thiebaud at his Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition in 2001.

Wayne Thiebaud says as he first comes on the phone. The icon of late 20th century modern art could be referring to several things. He turns 100 years old on Nov. 15, so there’s that. He goes to his Sacramento studio nearly every day. It’s his favorite thing to do. Once there, he paints or sketches—often both for as long as he wants. To mark his centennial, the Crocker Art Museum has assembled a 100-work, career-spanning retrospective, “Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints and Drawings,” with pieces from the museum’s collection and many rare or never-before-seen works donated by the Thiebaud family. The exhibit runs through Jan. 3, 2021.

Concurrently, Laguna Art Museum will host an exhibit of newer works: “Wayne Thiebaud: Clowns,” which debuted in San Francisco at Paul Thiebaud Gallery last year. This exhibit contains more than 40 paintings, drawings and etchings made during the past five years. Finally, the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis will open “Wayne Thiebaud Influencer: A New Generation” on Jan. 31, 2021. This group exhibition pairs Thiebaud works with ones by contemporary artists and former students. While Thiebaud has long been highly regarded around the world, somehow his oeuvre still gains appreciation from collectors and scholars.

Wayne Thiebaud has much to be thankful for. Luck has nothing to do with it.

He became an “overnight sensation” in the summer of 1962, when a solo show of his early food paintings at the Allan Stone Gallery in New York sold out and rave reviews rolled in from the East Coast art press. “That was my fortunate association with something called pop art, which I don’t ever find myself to be a part of, but they put me there anyway,” Thiebaud says.

pies pies pies by Wayne Thiebaud
Wayne Thiebaud, Pies, Pies, Pies, 1961. Oil on canvas, 20 x 30 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of Philip L. Ehlert in memory of Dorothy Evelyn Ehlert, 1974.12. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), N.Y.

Thiebaud’s New York coming-out actually preceded by six months the now-watershed moment of the “pop art” explosion. Pop art returned fine art to representational figures after a period of abstract expressionism. However, the new take practiced by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Jim Dine rejected classical images, finding inspiration in advertising copy, comic books, mass market packaging and Hollywood movies.

“I think his attitude toward his subject matter was different from them,” says Scott Shields, curator of the Crocker exhibit. “You sense they’re elevating these ordinary things into fine art in a spirit of almost mockery and irony. Whereas I don’t think those things are a part of Wayne’s attitude.”

wayne in his studio
1962. Thiebaud in the studio.

Two major group shows in 1962 placed pop art in mainstream consciousness. “New Paintings of Common Objects” at Pasadena Art Museum in 1962, which included Thiebaud, Warhol, Lichtenstein and others, was the first American museum show dedicated to the new art movement.

wayne at his first new york exhibition
At his first New York exhibition.

Later that same year, the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York also showed Thiebaud in “An International Exhibition of the New Realists,” which included many of the same artists from the earlier Pasadena show.

“I was happy to be called anything,” Thiebaud says. He had labored most of his adult life for that moment—to be called something. Thiebaud wanted his work and his art taken seriously. He wasn’t necessarily seeking the acclaim or even the financial windfall that followed his breakthrough, though he certainly appreciated both. What he had pursued was respect and validation. He got there by building his own stairs to the platform.

Sacramento writer Victoria Dalkey and her husband, artist Fred Dalkey, have been longtime friends of Thiebaud and his late second wife, Betty Jean. Fred estimates he first saw Thiebaud’s work in 1957 in a show at Tower Drugs, where Russ Solomon sold books and records in the back of his father’s store. Solomon had an interest in art, and he sometimes hosted work of local artists in the intimate space. Fred believes Thiebaud should be considered one of the most important American painters of the 20th century.

Boston Cremes, by Wayne Thiebaud
Wayne Thiebaud, Boston Cremes, 1962. Oil on canvas, 14 x 18 in. Crocker Art Museum purchase, 1964.22. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), N.Y.

“The quality of the work for one thing,” Fred says. “The more I look at it, it just continues to grow in terms of my ability to understand it. Wayne has a very significant range.”

Thiebaud’s genius has been to take traditional painting forms and make them specifically his own through subtle creative innovation. Victoria has written and published often on her friend’s work, and Thiebaud has said she is one of his most insightful observers.

“He really blends abstraction and I would call it realism or naturalism—but he calls it actualism,” Victoria says. “You look at them and you think, ‘That’s an ice cream cone.’ Then the more you look at it, the more you see the underlying abstract shapes that he’s dealing with in the more complicated still lifes.”

Betty Jean Thiebaud and Book
Wayne Thiebaud, Betty Jean Thiebaud and Book, 1965–1969. Oil on canvas, 36 x 30 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Wayne Thiebaud, 1969.21. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), N.Y.

Though Thiebaud has famously claimed, “I am not a colorist,” his understanding and use of color have been both clinical and instinctual. Artist Josef Albers developed an influential theory of color, which Thiebaud employed, stating color “is almost never seen as it really is” and it “deceives continually.” In her recent insightful short essay “Reflections on ‘Cup of Coffee, 1961’” Rachel Teagle, founding director of the Manetti Shrem Museum, wrote, “Thiebaud discovered that the smallest amount of electric color enlivens an entire canvas, giving the most commonplace of objects new life.”

The ideas are clearly seen in the painting “Boston Cremes” from 1962, in which the circles of the plates hold the angled triangles of the dessert, and the slivers of color around each pop the images off the canvas.

“There is just amazing geometry and rhythm . . . they dance,” Victoria Dalkey says. “He is a very American painter. He addresses America in ways that I don’t think very many people do at all.”

visiting elaine de kooning
Visiting with Elaine de Kooning in New York.

Teagle thinks Thiebaud is not given enough credit for his celebration and conservatorship of painting.

“Wayne did more than hold onto a tradition of realist paintings—he championed it,” Teagle says. “Because realism is sounfashionable, he’s not given enough credit for what he has
done to perpetuate and innovate within that realist tradition.”

Thiebaud’s presentation of pies and cakes doesn’t really compare to Warhol’s presentations of soup cans or Coke bottles.

All of Thiebaud’s paintings unmistakably bear his hand. “That’s one of my favorite things about him: the quality the paint application has,” the Crocker’s Shields says. “He’s a painter.”

The most innovative aspect of Thiebaud’s work may be his use of shadows. “He has this way of throwing in a shadow that on the face of it, if you don’t think about it too much, it seems to be logical,” observes Malcolm Warner, curator of the Laguna Museum exhibit. “Yet they are derived from a dramatic unseen light source in subtly shaded hues. They give the paintings weight and depth.”

Warner says the shadows add an unreal element. “He’s recreating the world in the act of painting it in a way that it does reflect his playful, joke-loving personality.” Thiebaud’s witty sense of humor and his deep, scholarly knowledge of art history are fundamental pillars of his creativity.

demonstrating painting
Demonstrating painting at Rice University in Houston.

When Thiebaud’s Allan Stone show hit, he was a 41-year-old art professor from Northern California. He had previously worked as an illustrator, cartoonist and advertising art director. He had just started teaching in the newly formed art department at UC Davis, where he would spend the next 40 years.

Just two years before, in 1960, Thiebaud was hustling up solo shows at the Nut Tree in Vacaville and the art gallery at Humboldt State University. He was not unknown and had actually achieved a certain level of success, having placed work in a 1960 group show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and also at galleries in New York. Still, he was eager and exceedingly democratic in seeking opportunities to exhibit his work. In 1961, he won honorable mention at an invitational exhibit at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco and first prize at the 36th annual Kingsley Art Exhibit at the Crocker. His paintings and drawings showed up often around Northern California. Still, he looked at the center of the art world—New York—as the place he wanted to be known.

wayne at his sacramento studio
1987. At his Sacramento studio.

Thiebaud had spent a year in New York in 1956 on an unpaid sabbatical from his teaching job at what was then called Sacramento Junior College. He became friends with artists Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Barnett Newman and Franz Kline. They were abstract expressionists while Thiebaud was representational and figureoriented, but they were also serious art theorists.

Shields says, “He, I think, was given some freedom by their discussions about art and art history, which in California at that time, art history was looked down upon. I think what he found in New York was it’s OK to look backward as well as forward.”

Perhaps the most important lesson was de Kooning’s instruction to find subject matter that fit his sensibility and then apply his mastery of craft to tell unique stories.

Shields says, “Once he hits on his mature style and has a show in New York that is still life, he quickly decides he doesn’t want to become known as just a still-life painter, so he turns to the figure. Then he goes to landscape, and those landscapes then evolve into the San Francisco city scenes. Those evolve into these Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta subjects, and those turn into mountain paintings, and now he’s moved onto clowns.”

wayne at his studio

Fred Dalkey notes, “These are very traditional forms, and each time he’s touched them, he’s reinvented them.”

Thiebaud is famous for his discipline in getting his work done. “I was fortunate to have a family that let me be neurotic about it,” Thiebaud says. The discipline is perhaps a nod to his Mormon upbringing. His father was a bishop in the church while he was growing up. He also maintains a healthy suspicion around the idea of being an “artist,” preferring the term “painter,” with its connotation of someone who works at a craft.

“You just have to take it seriously,” Thiebaud says. “You have to make lots of mistakes. It’s a difficult thing to do. Lots of times it’s agonizing, and you have to paint 12 pictures to get one if you’re lucky. It’s a challenge beyond challenge where you can never be good enough.”

Thiebaud’s life in Sacramento has been crucial to his art in many ways. Besides being apart from the main art marketplace of New York, the regional geography has been a constant inspiration.

He first came here when he was in the Army Air Forces and stationed at Mather Field. “Sacramento was a much different place,” Thiebaud says. “It was quiet. Beautiful trees, but also little trolley cars. This was in 1942. I fell in love with the fall leaves changing colors.”

receiving the medal of arts
Receiving the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton.

When he finally did settle here with his young family, he became a part of the developing city. He hung art at the state fair and designed sets for theater productions at the Eaglet Theatre. In 1958, he co-founded the Artists Cooperative Gallery (later Artists Contemporary) in Sacramento with other regional artists including Patrick Dullanty, Gregory Kondos, Jack Ogden, Mel Ramos and young, art-loving businessman Russ Solomon. Thiebaud’s 1959 show at ACG included some of his first publicly shown food paintings.

Of his adopted hometown, Thiebaud says, “I’ve taken advantage of its closeness to San Francisco, also to the wonderful area of the Delta, where we lived in a historic mansion for four or five years. Each of those have afforded me subject matters of quite different characters. San Francisco cityscapes are very much different from the rural and beautiful landscapes of the Delta. They were so moving—each region, including Tahoe, when I later began to paint mountains.”

painting jolly cones
2002. Painting “Jolly Cones,” which appeared on the cover of The New Yorker.

Thiebaud’s recent “Clowns” series represents if not a departure, then even more remarkably an extension and development of his previous work. His hand and signature are there in the painting, but there is much more. Satire and pathos are palpable; so is a sense of melancholy. Beyond that, though, are feelings of grace and humanized spirituality.

The Laguna show contains 40 of the recent works that were first shown at the Paul Thiebaud Gallery in San Francisco. The highly regarded gallery was founded by Thiebaud’s late son, Paul, in part to show artists he felt deserved wider recognition. Fred Dalkey is represented by the gallery.

The Laguna exhibit circles back emotionally to Wayne Thiebaud’s formative years in Southern California. It was there, as a teenager, that he worked backstage for Ringling Brothers Circus and first encountered clowns and the focused spotlights that followed them around.

at a gala
2018. At the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation gala in Santa Rosa.

“He thinks a lot about his boyhood, all the pleasures and the excitement,” Warner says. “Circuses were a part of them. I think that’s why he loves that breakfast place in Sacramento, Pancake Circus.”

The walls at Pancake Circus on Broadway proudly display an array of kitschy clown paintings. Thiebaud’s are not that. Not even close. There is obvious whimsy in his scenes but also gravitas. In “Clown Angel and Dog,” a robed clown with angel wings, whose face is indistinct, appears to reach out toward a little dog whose back is to us. In “Clown Boots,” a pair of old ankle-high lace-up boots have clown faces on them, recalling the theater masks of “comedy” and “tragedy.” “Comedy” has an expression of genial bemusement, while “tragedy” worriedly looks to the sky as if asking, “What’s next?”

In a 1962 essay Thiebaud wrote about his work, he stated, “My interest in painting is traditional and modest in its aim. I hope it may allow us to see ourselves looking at ourselves.”

At 100 years of age, Thiebaud has outlived family, friends, colleagues and peers. Despite his outsized success, his genuine humility and respected work ethic seem to have neutralized potential rivals. He still finds his work meaningful and challenging. He still transforms commonplace objects in unique personal visual terms. He’s obsessive about the details.

Teagle remembers, “Once when I was driving Wayne into the city, I said to him, ‘This is my favorite time of year. The hills, these are truly the golden hills of California.’ And Wayne
said, ‘No, the color is palomino.’”