Death of Wayne Thiebaud: The Californian painter was 101 years old


For the record:

12:54 p.m. December 27, 2021In a previous version of this post, Potrero Hill in San Francisco was misspelled as Portero.

Wayne Thiebaud, an artist whose images of cakes, tarts, and other mass-produced desserts evoked pop art, but whose loose, expressive brushstrokes and deliberate use of light eventually proved him to be a misunderstood realist painter, has died. He was 101.

Thiebaud was a faculty teacher at UC Davis for more than 40 years and died Saturday at his Sacramento home. His death was confirmed on Instagram from his gallery Acquavella.

“It is with great sadness that we celebrate the passing of a truly remarkable man, Wayne Thiebaud,” Acquavella said in a statement.

“An American icon, Wayne lived his life with passion and determination, inspired by his love of teaching, tennis and, most importantly, making art. Even at the age of 101, he still spent most of his days in the studio, driven by what he described with characteristic humility, “that almost neurotic fixation on trying to learn to paint”. It was an honor to work with you.”

In his memory, the gallery also shared a quote from Thiebaud from 2021, in which he saw art as “our saving grace”.

“It can almost ignore our animal premises and spirits,” Thiebaud said.

“It’s worth investing in as many deeply committed people as we can muster, because I think that’s where our hopes lie: to give us lives full of joy, challenge, comfort and joy – all the things that make us human and make friendly relations with one another.”

Thiebaud came to the visual arts after years of experience as a cartoonist, including a stint at Walt Disney Studios as a teenager, and as a commercial artist. He retained his talent for drawing and his interest in the art of advertising.

In the 1950s he began painting baked goods and children’s toys in oils to capture the “haunting reverie” they evoked in him. Lavishly painted cupcakes and gumball machines were reminiscent of its idyllic past. “I’m one of those lucky people who had a great childhood,” Thiebaud said in a 1995 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle.

His pastry shop still lifes, with their cheerful mood, initially seemed to him to be a misstep.

“When I was painting those damn pies, I said to myself, ‘This is ridiculous, I’m a respectable painter, I can’t make pies,'” Thiebaud recalled in a 1985 interview with the San Jose Mercury News. But the sensual beauty of the desserts proved irresistible. “I couldn’t stop,” he said.

He later recalled thinking that he had nothing to lose. He said to himself, “Nobody’s going to look at these things anyway, so what the heck,” he said in a 2001 interview with the New York Times.

Fundamentals, including the obscured geometry of its compositions and the tactile beauty of its surfaces, sustained the interest of art lovers. His first show in New York City at the Allan Stone Gallery was sold out.

“My first reaction to his pictures was, ‘This guy must be crazy,'” Stone said in a 2002 interview with CBS News. “They were just rows of pies and cakes and looked silly.”

“After a while, there was a kind of tenacity and integrity with them that couldn’t be denied,” Stone said. After the first, sold-out show in 1962, he represented Thiebaud for more than 40 years.

By the early 1960s, Thiebaud’s skill as a draftsman and his penchant for mass-produced items drew comparisons to pop artists. His pies had something in common with Jasper Johns beer cans and Claes Oldenburg’s giant hamburgers.

“Pop art stormed the art world, and Thiebaud’s work was seen as something of a West Coast counterpart to Warhol … and other New York pop stars,” art critic Alice Thorson wrote in a 2003 article for the Kansas City Star.

Thiebaud argued that he was not interested in social criticism or tongue-in-cheek jokes like pop artists. He wanted to make images that would draw attention to “things we’ve overlooked… those quiet corners of life,” he said in a 1986 interview with the Kansas City Star. Birthday cakes and ice cream cones are “hugely important but often don’t seem so important in an active, electronic society,” he said.

Despite his protestations, his name seemed permanently associated with pop in the 1960s. It wasn’t all bad luck. “Thiebaud’s diner and deli still lifes caused him to be misunderstood and famous,” wrote critic Robert Hughes in a 1985 article for Time magazine.

The longer Thiebaud painted, the more critics agreed with him. He was on a different wavelength. The way he layered paint on a canvas in vivid strokes and played with variations in light was “the traditional occupation of a realist painter,” Hughes wrote in 1985.

Thiebaud described his work primarily as a dialogue with artists through history. “I see painting as a kind of tradition of its own,” he said in a 1995 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. “One of commemoration, of layering, of attempting to evolve into the richest possible source of human consciousness…”

After painting still lifes for a decade, Thiebaud expanded his repertoire to include human figures. Typical is “Five Seated Figures”, a painting from 1965. Two women and three men sit close together, but are benevolently indifferent to each other. Comparisons with the art of the American realist painter Edward Hopper followed.

Some critics suggested that the blank facial expressions in Thiebaud’s art drew attention back to the technical aspects of his art. “We are beginning to see that Thiebaud painted about art, especially realistic art,” wrote critic Henry Seldis in a 1977 article for the Los Angeles Times. The distant facial expressions are reminiscent of works by the French realist painter Édouard Manet, Seldis wrote.

In the 1970s, Thiebaud became increasingly interested in landscapes and cityscapes, which he painted from a bird’s eye view. In “Potrero Hill,” a mid-1970s painting, he jammed highways, hills, and buildings together in a steep vertical of color and light.

“They have a kind of unrealizability that has to do with longing for something beyond, something I can never reach,” Thiebaud said of his cityscapes in a 1995 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle.

At 80, Thiebaud was the subject of a retrospective exhibition that opened at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco and traveled to the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City. The show confirmed what critics had grappled with for decades.

“Thiebaud has been an anomaly for so long that it hardly seems to matter anymore,” Hughes wrote in his 2001 review of the show for Time magazine.

Thiebaud was born on November 15, 1920 in Mesa, Arizona and moved to Long Beach with his parents when he was a child. He attended Long Beach Polytechnic High School when he got serious about drawing cartoons. He worked briefly in the animation department at Walt Disney Studios, where a senior animator would draw the first and last frames of a strip and Thiebaud the middle frames. He was fired after six months for his pro-union activities.

After high school, he joined the US Army Air Forces and worked as an artist and cartoonist in the Special Services Department. He also worked in the Air Force Motion Picture Unit in Culver City.

Discharged from the military, he became an art director and cartoonist at Rexall Drug Co. in Los Angeles. He quit the job, went back to school, earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Cal State Sacramento in 1951 and a master’s degree two years later.

He taught at Sacramento City College in the 1950s and joined the faculty at UC Davis in 1960, becoming Professor Emeritus in 1991. In later years he contributed more than 20 of his paintings to the school.

As his reputation grew, Thiebaud received solo exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and many other museums.

His paintings are included in the permanent collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, among others.

Thiebaud married Patricia Patterson in 1943. They had two children before divorcing in 1959. He then married Betty Jean Carr.

He is survived by his daughters, Twinka and Mallary Ann, from his first marriage, and a stepson, Matthew Bult, from his second marriage. His son Paul from his second marriage died of colon cancer in 2010 and his stepson Mark Bult died in 2013.

Rourke is a former Times contributor. Death of Wayne Thiebaud: The Californian painter was 101 years old

Caroline Bleakley

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