Cathleen McGuigan on “Wayne Thiebaud Is Not a Pop Artist”

Cathleen McGuigan
Journalist Cathleen McGuigan covers art, architecture, design and culture. Her latest piece for Smithsonian profiles artist Wayne Thiebaud. David Berridge

Based in New York City, journalist Cathleen McGuigan covers art, architecture, design and culture. She has written for Newsweek, the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, Rolling Stone and ARTnews. She last wrote for Smithsonian about the painter Alexis Rockman.

You have written profiles of several artists. What do you like about this type of assignment?

I think it’s interesting to figure out how artists work and how they come up with their ideas and what their intentions are. A lot of artists aren’t very good at talking about what they do and why they do it. I think I’ve been fortunate in having some subjects who were very interested in engaging in conversation about their art and doing so articulately.

What drew you to this story about Wayne Thiebaud?

When I started to research, I went online and there was a video that he had done for CBS Sunday Morning. What I loved about it was the way he talked about art. He was very down-to-earth and unpretentious, but very clear.

How did you go about your reporting?

I went to California right after he had a big retrospective show open at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. It was really a treat. Sometimes you have to be inventive to think of venues in which to conduct interviews so that you can see your character or subject in a little bit of action. I just really wanted him to walk me through the show. It was wonderful to be in front of his work and have him talk about the paintings. Then, I talked to him privately for a while. His late son has a gallery in Sacramento, a place where Thiebaud keeps a lot of work that he hasn’t necessarily shown. He showed me a lot of pieces that I had not seen before—another cross section of his life’s work.

I think the great treat for any reporter who covers culture is to meet and talk with some of these fantastic figures in the arts in America. He is extremely open and easy to talk to. It was interesting to hear about the things that have influenced him, the museums in the world that he loves, the painters who really matter to him, how he actually works. He’s a modest man. I think it’s fair to say that he’s an artist who is his own sharpest critic. If you have one of 20 paintings that you like, he thinks that’s good.

What do you find most interesting about his work?

The most interesting thing about it is what he is trying to do with paint. The reason he paints some of the same subjects again and again is that he is trying not to create something that’s more real or paint the most perfect slice of cake you ever saw, but to do different kinds of things in each painting—to see if he can generate light through the use of color, to see if he put certain colors together what kind of effects would he get. He works with shadow. He works with composition, which is why I compared him in the piece, as many other critics have done, to some of the great still life painters of the past like Chardin or, of the 20th century, Giorgio Morandi.

What was the biggest surprise?

I think the biggest surprise to me was how much he values all kinds of art. He just feels like the act of human creation has something worthy in it. He’s been known to buy art at the Goodwill. I don’t think he gets so many ideas for his own work from paintings like that, but he values the actual act of art no matter how amateurish it is.

What do you hope readers take away from this story?

I’ve always been a person who thought it was more fun to go to a museum and really spend time looking at three or four or five paintings than spend two hours exhausting yourself looking at 50 paintings. The idea that you really look at things very hard and try to figure out how the painter created an effect or an illusion can really enrich the experience of looking at art. I think that he is really an advocate of looking, really looking and seeing. I hope people come away with some appreciation for that.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.