Wayne Thiebaud: “What Happiness Feels Like”
I love Wayne Thiebaud’s work.
Who doesn’t ?
For want of a less tired description, there’s something simply magical about his paintings of cakes and pies and sugary treats and vertiginous streetscapes: the way they seem to suggest a world of childhood wonders, or a child’s-eye view of the world, as it slowly shades into lengthening shadows and a sense of melancholy and – inexplicably – loss …
Or, as Mike Kimmelman puts it: “It slowly registers in our minds as the gap between what actually was — between those cloying Boston cream pies that we really ate and the gum-ball machines that ate our pennies — and the world as we wished it to be. He gives us not real cheese but Platonic cheese. And this gap between reality and desire ushers in sadness after the first leaping rush of pleasure. Mr. Thiebaud’s work is not about a perfect world. It is about the fact that the world never was and still isn’t perfect, except perhaps one little part of it, to which we can briefly retreat via these paintings and glimpse the way all things ought to be.”
(Kimmelman’s NYT review of the Thiebaud retrospective at the Whitney in 2001 reproduced in full below. Or read the original here.)
I think ol’ Mikey hit the nail on the head there.
This one’s for N., who seems to be having a pretty rough time of it lately. Here’s hoping he derives as much joy from Thiebaud’s work as I do.
Pie Counter (1963), Wayne Thiebaud. In the collection of the Whitney Museum.
Three Machines (1963), Wayne Thiebaud. In the collection of the de Young Museum.
French Pastries (1963), Wayne Thiebaud. In the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum.
Apartment Hill (1980), Wayne Thiebaud. In the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
WISTFUL JOY IN SODA-FOUNTAIN DREAMS
By Michael Kimmelman. Published: June 29, 2001.
If the world were a perfect place, the Wayne Thiebaud retrospective that has just opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art would be nailed to the walls for good and we would be free to stop by whenever we needed to remind ourselves what happiness feels like. The world not being perfect, the show is around through the summer, so consider yourself forewarned. At the Whitney, as in life, happiness is fleeting.
Meanwhile, you are free to bask in these pumpkin pies, meat and cheese deli counters, lipsticks, hot dogs and gum-ball machines, which, as Mr. Thiebaud has painted them for the last 40 years, have the aura of loves lost and too fondly recalled. Objects of conflicted nostalgia, rimmed in blue halos, they appear suspended in weightless isolation and glow with a brilliance so peculiar and unreal that it looks as if it must be from either the light of heaven or the glare of an operating theater.
By this I mean to say that after a while Mr. Thiebaud’s pictures prompt something more complicated than plain joy and closer to the nature of memory, which is always a tricky affair. It slowly registers in our minds as the gap between what actually was — between those cloying Boston cream pies that we really ate and the gum-ball machines that ate our pennies — and the world as we wished it to be. He gives us not real cheese but Platonic cheese. And this gap between reality and desire ushers in sadness after the first leaping rush of pleasure.
Mr. Thiebaud’s work is not about a perfect world. It is about the fact that the world never was and still isn’t perfect, except perhaps one little part of it, to which we can briefly retreat via these paintings and glimpse the way all things ought to be.
This experience is akin to what we feel before the works of certain painters to whom Mr. Thiebaud owes longstanding, explicit debts: Giorgio Morandi, the turn-of-the-century Spanish virtuoso Joaquín Sorolla, his fellow Californian Richard Diebenkorn and especially Chardin. What Proust wrote about Chardin’s views of brown crockery and dead rabbits applies also to Mr. Thiebaud’s hot dogs:
”You have already experienced it subconsciously, this pleasure one gets from the sight of everyday scenes and inanimate objects, otherwise it would not have risen in your heart when Chardin summoned it in his ringing commanding accents. But your consciousness was too sluggish to reach down to it. It had to wait for Chardin to come and lay hold on it and hoist it to the level of your conscious mind.”
Joy yielding to melancholy yields to the less jolting but more durable satisfaction of being in the presence of pictures so lovingly made. Mr. Thiebaud’s Americanness has as much to do with this devotion to craft as it does with the objects of Americana that he depicts.
Craft and, I might add, an American brand of wit. Melancholy and wit not being mutually exclusive, these pictures belong, as writers have pointed out about Mr. Thiebaud, to the tradition of Chaplin, Keaton and other memorable comics who have captured the American ethos. Whether it is with a row of cakes in a store window or spaghetti entanglements of highways or cartoonish visions of San Francisco wherein the streets shoot straight up like raised drawbridges, Mr. Thiebaud demonstrates the fine art of telling a dry joke.
”This sandwich, and then this sandwich again, and then the same damn sandwich again” is how the writer Adam Gopnik puts it in one of the show’s catalog essays. Right. We smile at the hot dogs and lipsticks solemnly arranged like so many receding headstones at a cemetery not just because of the solemnity but also because of the repetition. People talk about Mr. Thiebaud’s work as representing American abundance (all that food and all that land), but the pictures, which include big empty spaces and isolated shapes, don’t connote abundance so much as they approximate the movie routine of the guy who leaves his house and drives around only to end up where he started, so he tries another direction and ends up in the same place. And on and on, the gag being the deadpan sight of the house, on which the camera dotes as Mr. Thiebaud does on his pies and cakes.
Simultaneously, we can’t fail to note that there are variations, subtle differences between one slice of cream pie and the next, which betray an expressive hand, and which separate Mr. Thiebaud from Pop. They are the same pies, but not painted quite the same way.
The quality of paint handling is, again, the key: if it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint whether the psychological tone is ironic or affectionate or detached, it is obvious that the works are about geometry and pigment, and they are the opposite of mechanical.
This applies even to the human figures that Mr. Thiebaud began to paint in the early 1960′s, when like Philip Pearlstein, Alfred Leslie and Alex Katz he evolved an unsentimental way of depicting people. The effect, he once explained, is meant to be ”like seeing a stranger in some place like an air terminal for the first time: you look at him, you notice his shoes, his suit, the pin in his lapel but you don’t have any particular feelings about him.”
At the Whitney, a room is devoted to these blank-faced zombies, endearing like the pies and equally presented as if they were soldiers at attention. The usual comparison is to Edward Hopper, but psychologically speaking these figures are less like Hopper’s lonely souls than like Vermeer’s women or the subjects of early Northern Renaissance portraits, which is to say, they are minutely described but affectless.
We can therefore read what we want into them. Here is Mr. Thiebaud’s Willy Loman, in ill-fitting business suit hunched over a paperback. There is Twiggy’s look-alike in yellow dress and groovy white boots, her slim face framed by a severely cropped bob and giving nothing away, the payoff of the image being the jog of her skinny elbow outlined in blue, which breaks the vertical plane of back and chair, a formal flourish.
And then there are the twin majorettes, beaming in the sunlight, batons held high, an image with the sentimental whiff of a faded photograph. They may conjure up people we knew or feelings we had, the way the gum-ball machines can conjure up a row of gunslingers — the Earps ready for a showdown in the slanting light of late afternoon — if that’s how we choose to see them.
I have delayed mentioning an obvious source, namely cartoons. People writing about Mr. Thiebaud typically describe his stint as a Disney animator, movie poster illustrator and comic strip writer, and it is a pity that the retrospective doesn’t include any of that work.
But it’s useful to recall, and less frequently noted, that Mr. Thiebaud spent time as a boy on his grandfather’s farm in Southern California, then on a big family ranch in Southern Utah, milking cows, shooting deer for meat, plowing wheat and planting alfalfa. For a while he even thought about becoming a farmer.
And along with the cakes and cheese, he has painted incandescent, slightly antic landscapes, too, the views turned into complex, almost abstract grids of irregular patterns, seen from a bird’s-eye perspective. They are different pictures from the other works. The art-historical sources include Chinese painting, Monet and Cubism, as in ”River and Farms,” for instance, a dizzy jigsaw-puzzle design in which flattened fields under hazy skies turn from deep blue to pink, and a solitary poplar, a slender cone, casts a blue-green shadow against a patch of mustard.
The affection and eccentricity of these landscapes, which are partly inspired by views of the deltas in the Sacramento Valley, provide obvious signs of firsthand experience. Mr. Thiebaud (his maternal grandmother was one of the Mormon pioneers who settled in Utah in the mid-1800′s) is as much an artist of the American West — of Western light, Western space, Western silences, Western attitudes — as he is an heir to Krazy Kat or Mickey Mouse.
Organized by Steven A. Nash for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, where it was first shown, and installed at the Whitney by Marla Prather, who has added drawings as well as paintings from local collections, the exhibition concludes with these landscapes. Some aren’t great. Mr. Thiebaud occasionally employs a childlike mode of painting, uncharacteristically fey, and a few images (cityscapes included) are too coy, like fairy-tale illustrations — although resistance to these works may partly stem from short-circuited expectations: seeing something different from an artist who in general has been so constant over the decades.
Detractors will say constancy is a fault, not a virtue, and fail to smile at the gentle in-jokes whereby a drawer of neckties becomes a mock Morris Louis, a bathtub brings to mind Donald Judd, and scattered crayons suggest Richard Serra.
I say, thank goodness somebody around here has a sense of humor, especially somebody who paints and draws so gorgeously. (Check out Mr. Thiebaud’s drop-dead lifelike rabbit if you are wondering what happened to good old verisimilitude in art.) Humor deflates pretense, which Mr. Thiebaud entirely lacks. In the end, his pictures provoke happiness if for no other reason than that they are content to be what they are, which is enough. This is the same message they convey, by extension, about the modest objects and people they depict.
See the cakes on their spindle-legged platforms. Notice how the vertical stripes of the lemon cake in the back balance the horizontal layers of cream inside the chocolate cake in the front, while the hollow circle made by the empty center of the angel-food bundt cake to the side complements the yellow circle of the meringue pie near the center, and how the number of cakes adds up to seven, with three on either end of the one with the heart drawn in red icing on top.
Street and Shadow (1982), Wayne Thiebaud. In the collection of the Crocker Art Museum.