Not Just Desserts

In the late fifties and sixties, Pop began to drop the temperature of American art. Only a cool hand and a deadpan eye, many artists and critics came to believe, could capture the character of contemporary America. The land of supermarkets, sitcoms, malls, and Hollywood now demanded the irony and smarts of a Warhol. But there were exceptions to this worldview. None was more important than that of Wayne Thiebaud, who approached pop America with a scrupulous but playful eye. If a future historian were to look back at our time and say of Warhol’s deadpan style, “This was America,” another historian could point to the warmer vision of Thiebaud and say, no less truthfully, “This, too.”

The retrospective of Thiebaud’s art that recently opened at the Whitney includes many fine depictions of the artist’s two main subjects – his still lifes of pies, gum balls, hot dogs, candied apples, and other confections, and his landscapes of hilly Northern California. Organized by Steven A. Nash for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the exhibition has been enhanced, for its New York viewing, by the addition of drawings selected by Marla Prather. (The Allan Stone Gallery, where Thiebaud has shown since 1962, has also mounted an exhibit of his work.) This is a good show for both adults and children to see – not just because of the visual pastry on display but because Thiebaud, a highly sophisticated artist, brings such a wonderful “Gee whiz” to art.

When Thiebaud began his still lifes in the early sixties, it was not fashionable to make pictures with lushly painted, “tasty” brushwork; the very idea of “good taste” was regarded with suspicion. Thiebaud, who loved a lusciously tongued surface, turned this predicament into a joke by mimicking the buttery look of desserts, making tasty pictures of tasty subjects. At the same time, his rigorous compositions owed much to geometric abstraction. (Realism does not always precede abstraction; it can also emerge from abstract art.) Thiebaud enjoyed, as he put it, “organic messiness combined with geometric clarity.” He discerned the grid in the layer cake, the order in the display case. His brushstroke enlivened the areas around objects, giving them a kind of shimmer or halo: His objects seemed to disturb, slightly, their surrounding space, much as living creatures do when they stand still. As a result, the pictures can often appear suddenly more than themselves. They become comic American altarpieces, where we celebrate without condescension the lively commercial rituals and heightened energy of a land of milk and honey.

The landscapes, which Thiebaud began in the mid-sixties, also toy with the sublime. The facts of California light and space, together with its buildings and roads, are brilliantly observed – but he also tips these facts toward fantasy. Thiebaud exaggerates the rhythmic ripple of San Francisco’s roads, turning them into waving ribbons and dizzying roller coasters. The city, it seems, is just a blink away from the extraordinary; or perhaps a child is playing God with his Lego set. As with the Hudson River School paintings of the nineteenth century, the landscape in Thiebaud’s art overshadows the tiny inhabitants. But this does not lead, in the usual modern manner, to images of despair or deracination. The predictable alienations do not tire Thiebaud’s art. He paints only what he knows and likes. He tasted those pastries himself, for example, having worked around the places that sold candied apples. He lived in the rolling landscape of the Bay Area. Now he is painting the Sacramento River Valley, which reminds him of the carved farming country where he once worked. He seems firmly connected to the history of Western art, to the jazzy vernacular of California, and to his own personal story. You can no longer think seriously about American places and things without thinking of him.

Wayne Thiebaud
At the Whitney Museum of American Art; through 9/23.

Not Just Desserts