Wayne Thiebaud Is Not a Pop Artist

He’s best known for his bright paintings of pastries and cakes, but they represent only a slice of the American master’s work

Wayne Thiebaud may be best known for confections, but friends and critics point to his underappreciated depths. (© Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)
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These days Thiebaud is painting a series of mountains. They look sheared in half—huge cliff-like mounds of dark, stratified earth—and he paints the earth and rock heavily, like the rich frosting of his cakes. Little clusters of houses or trees tend to teeter on top of these geological formations. The pictures, like Man in Tree, are strangely ominous.

“I think there’s a dark side to his work,” says the Sacramento painter Fred Dalkey, a friend of Thiebaud’s. “But he won’t talk about emotion in his work.” Even his pastel-colored pastry paintings, for all their inherent cheeriness, have an aura of melancholy. “Though all dressed up as if for their own birthday party,” the critic Adam Gopnik said of two cakes in a picture, they seem “plaintive—longing.”

Such undertones aren’t anything that Thiebaud cares to address. What he does, with astonishing virtuosity, is paint a pie, a river or a girl in a pink hat in a way that such a thing has never been painted before. That’s all and that’s enough. And now, he has to run. He has a date on the tennis court.

Cathleen McGuigan, who lives in New York City and writes about the arts, profiled Alexis Rockman in the December 2010 issue.


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