Among the familiar Wayne Thiebaud paintings on display at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento—the still lifes of gumball machines and voluptuous bakery cakes, the brightly dressed, sober-faced figures, the San Francisco cityscapes with their daredevil inclines—was one mysterious picture, unlike anything else in the exhibition. It was a darkly comic painting of a man in a business suit hanging on for dear life from the limb of a leafless tree, his briefcase tossed on the grass below. A downtown city street loomed beyond the little park where this puzzling drama was playing out. Was the man trying to climb up or down? And why was he there? Thiebaud tries to explain: “Essentially, it’s about urban atmosphere, and the need to escape it.” But Man in Tree illustrates something else. Dated “1978-2010” on the wall label, it’s a testament to Thiebaud’s tireless pursuit of the challenge of painting—in this case, a 32-year run during which he started the picture, stopped and revisited it again and again, delving into its forms and colors, light and shadows, even when he felt as stuck as the man in the tree.
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Thiebaud (pronounced tee-bow) may be the hardest-working artist in America. The Crocker’s retrospective this past fall, “Wayne Thiebaud: Homecoming,” honored the longtime resident and coincided with a milestone—he turned 90 in November. But the painter seems many years younger. A legendary teacher at nearby University of California at Davis, he retired at age 70 but has continued to give his hugely popular classes as professor emeritus. Friends say his energy hasn’t flagged. Indeed, he draws or paints nearly every day and plays tennis about three times a week.
In a contemporary art world enthralled with such stunts as Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull, Thiebaud is wonderfully ungimmicky. He belongs more to a classical tradition of painting than to the Pop revolution that first propelled him to national attention in the 1960s. Then, the sweet everydayness of his cake and pie pictures looked like cousins of Andy Warhol’s soup cans. But where Warhol was cool and ironic, Thiebaud was warm and gently comic, playing on a collective nostalgia just this side of sentimentality. He pushed himself as a painter—experimenting with brushstrokes, color, composition, light and shadow. The cylindrical cakes and cones of ice cream owed more to such masters of the still life as the 18th-century French painter Chardin, or the 20th-century Italian Giorgio Morandi, as critics have pointed out, than to the art trends of the time.
Over the years Thiebaud has repeatedly tackled the same subjects—not to perfect a formula but to keep exploring the formal possibilities of painting. “What kinds of varying light can you have in one painting?” he asks. “Direct glaring light, then fugitive light, then green glow. It’s a very difficult challenge.” We’re standing in a quiet room at the Crocker, in front of Bakery Case, painted in 1996, three decades after his first successful gallery show in New York City featured baked goods.
Bakery Case, with its half-empty tray of frosted doughnuts, pies and a festooned wedding cake, summons references to influential artists such as Bonnard and Matisse, as well as Josef Albers’ color theory that the perception of color is altered by the colors around it. When Thiebaud paints an object or form, he famously surrounds it with multiple colors, often stripes or lines, of equal intensity, to create a halo effect—though you might not notice that unless you look closely. “They’re fighting for position,” he says of the colors. “That’s what makes them vibrate when you put them next to each other.”
The cakes and pies, the best known of Thiebaud’s work, are painted from his imagination and from long-ago memories of bakeries and diners. But he also paints from life. He points to the woman in the short skirt in his Two Seated Figures (1965). “Those are a lot like Rubens’ knees!” he says. He likes to say he steals from the best. The woman with the pinkish cupid-like knees is his favorite muse, his wife of 51 years, Betty Jean. Other pictures in the show reflect their life together: scenes from Laguna Beach, where they have a second home; the streetscapes of San Francisco, where he had a studio in the 1970s; a pair of beautiful drawings of their two sons as little boys. (Thiebaud has two daughters from an earlier marriage.) As we move through the galleries, we begin to collect a dozen or so museum visitors, who are surprised to discover the celebrated artist in the midst of his own show. They listen to every word of his mini-tutorial, and two take his picture with their cellphones.
“Now, here’s this mess,” says Thiebaud, with typical self-deprecating humor, as we head toward a wall with several landscape paintings. They represent a new direction in his work begun about 15 years ago and inspired by an almost forgotten corner of nearby countryside. South of Sacramento and a turn off the Interstate is an old state road that can take a person back in time, like an episode of the “Twilight Zone,” to a California that existed long before the turn of the 21st century. As the road winds along a levee, high above the Sacramento River delta, the banks are dotted with funky fishing stations and bait and tackle shops; houseboats are moored to creaky docks; orchards and farm fields spread out like counterpanes on either side of the silvery water. Thiebaud comes here to sketch, then returns to his studio to paint.
With wildly shifting perspectives and geometric patterns created by sharp curves and hard edges, the delta paintings recall his vertiginous San Francisco cityscapes. They look like aerial views—there’s barely any sky or horizon line—but there are multiple vantage points. In Brown River (2002), some fields are painted in traditional perspective while others tilt up precariously, like a view from a roller coaster. Thiebaud sometimes paints patches of fields in unexpected hues—candy pink or baby blue—with tiny stands of trees and toy-like farmhouses along their edges.