Wayne Thiebaud / Retrospective at Fondation Beyeler

The American painter Wayne Thiebaud (1920-2021) is considered as one of the leading exponents of American figurative art, in the tradition of painters such as Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe. Thiebaud is known for his colorful works depicting commonplace objects as well as for his landscapes and figure paintings. Because of his interest in objects of mass culture he is also associated with the pop art movement. The Fondation Beyeler currently presents a retrospective of Wayne Thiebaud’s work that features 65 paintings and drawings, organized by themes, including still lifes, figure paintings, cityscapes and river landscapes. The exhibition has been curated by Ulf Küster, Senior Curator at the Fondation Beyeler. Wayne Thiebaud at Fondation Beyeler runs until May 21, 2023.

Wayne Thiebaud / Retrospective at Fondation Beyeler. Press preview, January 27, 2023.

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Press text (excerpt):

This spring, the Fondation Beyeler presents the first major solo exhibition in the German-speaking world devoted to the remarkable American painter Wayne Thiebaud (1920–2021), until now virtually unknown in Europe. Thiebaud’s still lifes of everyday objects rendered in seductive pastel shades are powerful evocations of the promise and profusion of the “American way of life”. At the same time, his striking portraits, multi- perspective cityscapes and landscapes showcase the painter’s versatility and dazzling technique. Featuring 65 paintings and drawings on loan from mainly American public and private collections, the retrospective presents Thiebaud’s most important bodies of work and invites viewers to discover his unique painting style and his tactile handling of colour. Celebrated in the United States for his still lifes, Thiebaud explored the possibilities of painterly expression at the limit between the world as we see and as we imagine it, developing a distinctive visual idiom that balances irony, humour, nostalgia and melancholy.

Wayne Thiebaud ranks among the leading exponents of American figurative art, in the tradition of painters such as Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe. He developed an early interest in comics and cartoons, briefly worked in the animation department of Walt Disney Studios and later as a commercial artist. From 1949 to 1953, he studied fine art at San José State University and California State University in Sacramento. He held teaching positions all his life and trained several generations of artists. Thiebaud operated at a remove from the major art capitals and remained independent of successively dominant artistic movements. On account of his interest in the objects of popular culture, he is often regarded as an exponent of Pop Art, a label that he himself consistently rejected. In view of his distinctive take on the aesthetics of mass production and his firm focus on painting, Thiebaud might rather be considered a precursor of Pop Art. He himself named Diego Velázquez, Paul Cézanne, Henri Rousseau and Piet Mondrian as major touchstones, yet as a cartoonist he was also strongly influenced by commercial artists and poster designers.

Thiebaud’s paintings feature many motifs drawn from everyday life in modern-day America, from gumball machines to brightly coloured cakes and convoluted highway entanglements, often bathed in West Coast sunshine. At first glance, his images appear almost blatant and self-explanatory. Looking more closely, however, another level reveals itself. The compositions comprise countless combinations of oftentimes intensely vibrant colours, which take precedence over the motif itself. For Thiebaud, the boundaries between representation and abstraction were fluid: with his precise and sophisticated use of colour, he subjected all the elements in an image to a process of abstraction. His interest thus centred mainly on the possibilities of painting, and especially of colour.

The exhibition presents Thiebaud’s main bodies of work organised by themes, including still lifes, figure paintings, cityscapes and river landscapes. The show opens with three key works: Student, 1968, 35 Cent Masterworks, 1970, and Mickey Mouse, 1988. Thiebaud’s Mickey Mouse shows his attachment to early American pop culture. The cartoon character can be viewed as a counter-project to the traditional Western canon of art and is the very quintessence of “pop”. With Student, Thiebaud showcased the principles of portrait painting. It features a young woman sitting on a chair facing the viewer, seemingly looking out at us. Yet despite her intent gaze, on closer scrutiny her individuality begins to blur as the effect of the painting’s colours supersedes the perception of her person. The closer we move to the painting, the more pronounced this effect becomes, until finally all the young woman’s individual features seem to dissolve into myriads of vibrant colour combinations. In 35 Cent Masterworks, Thiebaud has assembled his artistic influences. Twelve significant works of art history are shown neatly lined up on a newspaper rack. According to the sign above them, Mondrian’s Tableau No. IV, Monet’s Waterlilies and Picasso’s Nature morte à la guitare are all to be had for a mere 35 cents. Thiebaud, who was well-versed in art history, is humorously questioning the “value” of the very masterpieces he admires, while also addressing the relation between originals and reproductions. It is further interesting to note the parallels between Thiebaud’s choice of works and the collection of the Fondation Beyeler.

One entire room of the exhibition is dedicated to Thiebaud’s best-known body of work, his still lifes. Rows upon rows of sweet treats can be seen prettily arranged on plates and in various displays. Toys, stuffed animals and ice cream cones recall the greatest temptations of childhood. In Pie Rows, 1961, several slices of pie are lined up behind and alongside one another, forming a pattern. For viewers, their sugary seductiveness is at once soothing and overwhelming. Thiebaud thereby exposes the supposed innocuousness of the food items and the objects he depicts and unmasks their sheer availability as a significant driver of our consumer behaviour.

Another room is dedicated to the motif of slot machines. Jackpot, 2004, features a so-called one-armed bandit, which holds the promise of big winnings in exchange for just a few coins. Not unlike the slices of pie, this still life lures us with the prospect of having our secret cravings sated. Closing this series of still lifes, shiny paint pots dripping with paint and colourful pastel crayons grant us an almost intimate glimpse of another motif: the artist’s everyday working life and his painting utensils.

Thiebaud’s figure paintings echo his still lifes: while the figures are depicted in a realistic manner, they are shown in unusual, static poses—submerged up to the neck in a bathtub, kneeling alongside each other in bathing suits or eating ice cream. Girl with Pink Hat, 1973, takes its cue from prominent Renaissance portraits by artists such as Sandro Botticelli or Giorgione. Yet unlike these forebears, here complementary contrasts and vibrantly colourful contours serve to make the girl and her pink hat shine. By contrast, Eating Figures, 1963, displays the comic streak to be found in so many of Thiebaud’s images: a man in a suit and a woman in a dress are sitting very close together on bar stools, looking forlornly at the hot dogs in their hands. The painting uses irony to lead the craving for fast food and the pleasure of tucking into this popular snack ad absurdum.

Thiebaud’s cityscapes and landscapes are less well known. Rock Ridge, 1962, and Canyon Mountains, 2011/12, show precipitous rock faces plunging down off high plateaus featuring at times highly detailed landscapes. In the 1960s, Thiebaud began painting landscapes. He focussed on dizzying views of San Francisco, flattened bird’s-eye views of the Sacramento River Delta and imposing panoramas of the peaks and mountain ranges of the Sierra Nevada. The abysses painted by Thiebaud give the impression of falling into the depths of colour itself. His cityscapes are mainly inspired by San Francisco, a city whose rollercoaster hills and steep streets he captures in imaginative compositions featuring sharp contrasts and commanding diagonals. Street views are dizzyingly tilted upward, leaving the astonished viewer to wonder as to their sheer practicability, be it on foot or by car. These are symbolic images of contemporary urban landscapes in the United States, with their dense networks of roads and conurbations in which even the most inhospitable natural environments are technologically conquered by man and yet appear strangely deserted. Later paintings such as Ponds and Streams, 2001, Flood Waters, 2006/2013, or White Riverscape, 2008–2010, feature artificial lakes and rivers. Beginning in the 1990s, the expanses of intensively farmed land near his home in Sacramento inspired Thiebaud to produce a series of panorama- like landscape paintings. Ponds and Streams features a typical Northern Californian agrarian landscape, far removed from the region’s better-known tourist spots. Yet the fields, the clusters of trees and the water reservoirs do not exactly replicate local topography. Rather, they combine to form a fragmentary composition, pieced together from a wealth of recollections and defamiliarised by the use of pastel hues.

In his paintings, Thiebaud drew on impressions from his life. His shimmering colours, harmonious contrasts and vibrant lines bring pastries, landscapes and people to life in a unique manner. Even though his images appear playful and ironic—they make us smile, entertain us or revive our childlike sense of wonder in much the same way comics do—they also carry a nostalgic, melancholy edge. Past our initial delight at the sight of opulent pastry displays and shelves of stuffed toys, a tinge of unexpected sadness comes upon us, a yearning for a bygone world or a long-lost love. Beyond this nostalgic longing, Thiebaud’s images also trigger a sense of oppression and unease, ignited by the artificiality of his still lifes, figures and landscapes. Especially in view of current societal developments, the absence from his depictions of all that is natural and wholesome is felt acutely; for all their colourful temptations, Thiebaud’s images can therefore also be perceived as sites of artificiality, loneliness and toxicity.

Wayne Thiebaud was born on 15 November 1920 in Mesa, Arizona, and grew up mainly in Long Beach, California. His ancestors had been among the first Mormon settlers to make a new home for themselves in Utah in the mid-nineteenth century. During the Great Depression, Thiebaud and his family temporarily moved back to Utah to manage a farm. In 1935, Thiebaud began attending high school, where he drew caricatures of his classmates and teachers. He spent the summer of 1936 working in Walt Disney Studios’ animation department, where he learned among other things to draw Mickey Mouse. While serving in the army, he worked on the Aleck comic series for the bulletin of Mather Air Force Base and designed posters and murals. This period marks the beginning of his career as a painter. From 1949 to 1953, he studied fine art at San José State University and California State University in Sacramento, where he began playing tennis, a sport which was to develop into a lifelong passion. While still a student, his works were featured in a solo show at the Crocker Art Gallery in Sacramento in 1951, and that same year he took up a teaching position at Sacramento City College. During a stay in New York in the 1950s, he became acquainted with Willem and Elaine de Kooning; in 1962, he exhibited for the first time at the renowned Allan Stone Gallery in New York City. Ten years later, Harald Szeemann featured his work in the groundbreaking Documenta 5 in Kassel. Thiebaud also enjoyed an outstanding reputation as a painting professor. He trained several generations of artists, among them Bruce Nauman, who for a time worked as his assistant. In 1978, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art staged the exhibition “Wayne Thiebaud: Recent Work”. In 2001, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York held a retrospective of his work.

Wayne Thiebaud, whose works can be found in the collections of major American museums, continued painting right up to the end of his life. On the occasion of his 100th birthday, in 2021 the Crocker Art Museum staged the exhibition “Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings”. Despite the boom in figurative painting, Thiebaud’s works are only very rarely exhibited in Europe and barely feature in public collections. There had so far been only three exhibitions of his paintings in Europe, at the Wallraf-Richartz- Museum in Cologne in 1975, at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol in 1976 and at the Voorlinden Museum in Wassenaar in the Netherlands in 2018.

The exhibition “Wayne Thiebaud” has been curated by Ulf Küster, Senior Curator at the Fondation Beyeler.

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