“My pleasure in painting these is to be at as many different levels as seems to make sense to the pattern,” he says. “What’s intriguing about a series like this is to see how many different seasons you can use, how many different times of day, how many different sources of light.” When he unveiled the delta paintings in the mid-1990s, many of his admirers scratched their heads. But the British philosopher and critic Richard Wollheim was an early champion. “These paintings exhibit a complexity,” he wrote in Art Forum in 1999, “and, above all, an old-masterish cultivation of detail, completely without ironical intent, that has not been observed in art since the drip paintings of Pollock or the glorious late Ateliers of Braque.”
It is early in the morning in a leafy Sacramento neighborhood, and Thiebaud is standing in a modest one-story building that has been converted into a private gallery for his works. Dressed in white trousers, white shirt and athletic shoes, he’s busy arranging about two dozen paintings against one wall—a summary of his career, which goes back even farther than the Crocker’s half-century retrospective. The earliest work is a portrait of a fisherman in a black rain hat, painted in boldly expressive brushstrokes when he was only 16. At the time, Thiebaud, who grew up mostly in Long Beach, California, didn’t think he was headed for the world of fine art. He loved cartooning—he still cites “Krazy Kat” as an influence—and that summer he worked in Disney’s animation department as an apprentice cartoonist. He later turned to commercial art, illustrating movie posters for Universal Pictures and working in the advertising department of Rexall Drugs. “At one point, all I wanted to be was a red hot, highly paid advertising art director,” he says with a grin. “But I had a great friend, Robert Mallary, who showed me how dumb I was—how limited and off course I was about what was important in life.”
Thiebaud never lost his admiration for commercial art, but in the late 1940s he began to pursue serious painting, and earned a master’s in art history. He joined the UC Davis faculty in 1960 as an art instructor. He preferred teaching undergraduates and “raw beginners,” says the painter Michael Tompkins, who was his student and assistant in the 1980s. “He wanted people who were wide open. Without any irony, he told us his work was about scrambling around with the basic issues, like a baseball player who still goes to spring training each year to brush up on the basics.” In teaching, Thiebaud says, “you have to constantly rethink things.”
In the 1950s, Thiebaud, like many young artists, went to New York City. He worked at an ad agency and frequented the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village, where he became friendly with such artists as Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning. But he was turned off, he once said, by the “churchy feeling of a lot of New York painting,” with all its elaborate theories and air of reverence. As Scott Shields, senior curator at the Crocker museum, puts it, “New York’s Abstract Expressionism didn’t work as well for the West Coast people—that brooding angst didn’t fit.” Though Thiebaud had his first big critical success in New York in 1962 at the Allan Stone Gallery, where he would show his work for decades, he never became part of the city’s art scene.
“My own sense is being American is a very important part of what I feel and do,” Thiebaud says. That Americanness, along with his appreciation of commercial art, infuses his work, starting with the pie slices and sandwiches, the pinball machines and drum majorettes that were his early subjects. California artists also influenced him, especially Richard Diebenkorn, who was making representational paintings in the late 1950s and whose later series Ocean Park is reflected in the colorful, flat geometric planes of the delta paintings.
Thiebaud has outlived many of the painters who were his friends or colleagues—the price of a long life. But the most grievous loss for him and his wife was the death last year of their son, Paul, from cancer, at the age of 49. Paul Thiebaud owned the private gallery in Sacramento and two others that represent his father and other contemporary artists. “I am very proud of him,” says the painter. “We were very close. That part made it possible to go on.”
Going on, for Thiebaud, means going to work. “He is an extraordinary painter,” says Tompkins, “but he puts in the time. If you sit around and wait for inspiration, he would say, all you get is a sore ass.” Thiebaud can make art almost anyplace. “I’ve worked in basements, garages, even kitchens,” he says. “I work mostly under fluorescent lights, combined with incandescent, that allow for a certain kind of controlled lighting, wherever I am.” His wife had a second-floor studio built onto their Sacramento house, where he says he sometimes goes “in my pajamas.” And he also has a work space at the private gallery.
Strolling that space, Thiebaud pauses to look at an elegant little picture of an ice-cream sundae, rendered less sumptuously than his other odes to dessert (personally, he prefers to eat a tart lemon meringue pie to a gooey cake). The Morandi Museum in Bologna, Italy, has asked for the donation of a Thiebaud, and he’s thinking of sending this polite parfait. He and his wife are creating a foundation in which to deposit his works and art he has collected—a Cézanne watercolor, an Ingres drawing, a Rousseau jungle picture, a Balthus portrait, several de Koonings, prints by Picasso and Matisse, among others. There might also be abstract pictures he’s rumored to have painted over the years but never shown.