A Life of Pie—The Art of Wayne Thiebaud

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The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena has a small exhibition of works on paper by an artist I like, Wayne Thiebaud, which I visited during my trip to Southern California. (The show ends today.)

I first encountered Thiebaud's work as an art student in San Francisco in the late 1980s. He is best known for his oil paintings of cakes, pies and other sweets, which share a sugary pastel palette and luscious brush strokes that resemble frosting. On a purely visual level, they are appealing for the same reasons their subject matter is: they look delicious.

But, as the black-and-white prints in the show reveal, there's more to Thiebaud's work than eye candy. Look at the woodcut print to the right, "Slice of Cream Pie with Cherry (or 'Piece of Boston Cream Pie')," from 1964. With a few spare shapes, he conveys an instantly recognizable image. And it still looks delicious, because your mind fills in the information it already knows: the silky texture of the cream, the contrasting flavor of the cherry on top. As the exhibition curators wrote, "We cannot separate it from the general notion of the cream pie; looking at the pie, we know exactly what it would taste like, even though we have not sampled the unique slice that sits before us."

Similarly to the other Pop artists of his time (such as Andy Warhol with his soup cans), with whom he's often grouped, Thiebaud was exploring iconic cultural (and particularly American) images, as well as "the tension between uniformity and individuality." The idea of the production line is echoed in his use of printmaking, in which many copies of the same image can be reproduced. Many of his pieces, both paintings and prints, show rows of pastries—sometimes a variety of cakes, sometimes near-identical slices side by side. As the artist said of his work, in 1968, "Why must pie always be cut so precisely? Why not just scoop out a helping with a spoon? ... And you can see a pie in Pasadena, or Madison Avenue, in New York, or Madison, Wisconsin, and it's the same damn pie."

Thiebaud was born in 1920 and grew up mostly in Southern California. As a young man he worked in a cafe, whose rows of pie slices in the display case he has cited as an influence on his choice of subject matter. In his early career he worked as a cartoonist and designer, and served as an artist in the United States Army during World War II. Although he had his first solo exhibition in Sacramento in 1951, he gained national critical attention with a 1962 show at the Alan Stone Gallery in New York City. In 2001, the Whitney Museum of American Art held a retrospective of Thiebaud's work, prompting Michael Kimmelman to write in the New York Times, “If the world were a perfect place, the Wayne Thiebaud retrospective that has just opened at the Whitney Museum would be nailed to the walls for good and we would be free to stop by whenever we needed to remind ourselves what happiness feels like.”

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