Everyday Enchantments
Recent paintings by Wayne Thiebaud at Paul Thiebaud Gallery in New York City

AT 87, WAYNE THIEBAUD PAINTS WITH AS MUCH VERVE, WIT AND GRACE as the day he appeared, unknown and unannounced, on Allan Stone’s doorstep. This exhibition at Paul Thiebaud Gallery is his first show of recent work in New York since his longtime dealer Allan Stone died last December.

Wayne Thiebaud, River Sides, 2007, oil on canvas

Olivia Stone’s 2006 film tribute to her father, “The Collector,” includes a delightful exchange of reminiscences between Wayne Thiebaud and the dealer who became a lifelong friend. The camera alternates between Mr. Thiebaud in Sacramento and Mr. Stone in New York. Between them, they recount their epochal meeting — a chance hit — in the early 1960s. Their telling has a stand-up Ziegfield Follies charm to it, with Mr. Stone and Mr. Thiebaud playing Gallagher and Sheen.

“Can I help you?” asks the dealer of the stranger slumped in his doorway, tell-tale packages under his arm. “No, just resting,” replies the man. Neverthless, the dealer coaxes the reluctant artist inside to display his work. “You won’t be interested. No one is.” laments the artist as he unwraps paintings of pies, cakes and ice cream cones.

Weird stuff, thinks the dealer, but there’s something to it. Out of left field, he asks the artist, “How old are you?”. The answer: 41. “What? You’re 41 and never had a show in New York? I’ll give you a show!” The artist, incredulous, blurts, “You’re giving me a show because I’m 41?”

Positively, Mr. Gallagher? Absolutely, Mr. Sheen. So began a fruitful and enduring relationship that ended only with the death of Allan Stone.

That first show sold out, setting Wayne Thiebaud on his way to becoming one of the leading figures in modern American art. He is an American original whose roots go deeper than Bay Area figuration and bypass Pop Art altogether. This exhibition is a clear demonstration of the diversity and complexity of his demotic enchantments.

Paintings range from smaller iconic images of the foodstuffs that captured national attention at the outset of his career to the landscapes that demonstrated the range of his disarming imagination. Here are vertiginous urban landscapes of San Francisco, exuberant Fauvist celebrations of the Sacramento River Delta, and whimsical beach scenes held in the same warp of exaggerated perspective.

“Two Streets Down” (2007) is a dizzying view downward onto the incline of a steep San Francisco Street. It brings up to date the quality of invenzione that characterized the spiraling rocks of Byzantine landscapes and fantasias of Giotto, Andrea Mantegna and Cosimo Tura.

Few calm horizontals quiet Mr. Thiebaud’s rambunctious elaboration of established visual convention. Quite the opposite. “Sunlit Trolley” (2007) balances, metastable, on the crest of a hill. The slope pitches toward infinity, pushed along by street markings that appear as verticals headed straight up.

The contemporaneity of three large landscapes completed this year (“Riversides,” “Down River,” “Day at the the Beach’) and “River Channels,” a gem-sized companion piece, is rich in historical resonance. Certainly, there are suggestions of Derain’s 1905-06 coloristic ebullience. And “Yellow Resort” (2007) has fun with beachside condos set against the yellow sky and water that startled original viewers of Derain’s “St. Paul’s Cathedral from the Thames.”

But the taproot reaches all the way to Vasari’s complaint against that other fantasist, Paolo Uccello. Vasari was put out by Uccello’s disregard for local color: “He made the fields blue, the cities red and the buildings varied according to his pleasure.…”

Vasari deemed Uccello’s delight in pattern, formed by furrows and ditches, a lack of decorum. But his contemporaries found as much pleasure in Uccello’s spatial geometries and linear harmonies as we take in the convincing spatial games of a artist who, as a boy in Utah, once ploughed fields himself.

“Tulip Sundae” is typically deceptive. An ice cream sundae in a tulip-shaped glass stands with the poise and balance of a dancer in fifth position at the barre. The glass is set slightly left of center, anchored to the compositional field by a cool, cast shadow that balances the design with a diagonal thrust to the right. A striped straw — a delicious detail — breaks space on the left at an opposite angle. These opposing diagonals bracket the rush of raspberry, strawberry and orange mid-tones that fill the transparent glass. A medley of darkened reds — a maraschino cherry on chocolate topping — provides dramatic accent.

This is serious painting freed from academic restraints and expansive in spirit. It treats a homely subject with affectionate generosity sharpened by high skills made subject to simplicity of arrangement. Mr. Thiebaud’s items of mass consumption, standing at attention singly or in pairs, assume a dignity equal to Van Gogh’s shoes.

“Beach Eats” (c. 2000) is a small, sensitively rendered oil of a beachside concession stand. It is the kind of finely detailed, fey image that Mr. Thiebaud has translated so successfully into drypoint etching. It made me wish the exhibition had included at least one work on paper, if only for tutorial purposes.

The beauty of his line and delicacy of touch are most readily seen in his prints and pastels. These are mediums in which everything depends on quality of line. Even color gains authority from the character of the individual strokes which apply it. One look at his mastery of these linear mediums tells you everything you need to know about his distance from a Pop sensibility built on the mechanical vocabulary of mass reproduction.

Mr. Thiebaud’s exquisitely wrought, tactile paint surfaces are so thoroughly modern that they obscure a crucial point about his importance. He is that rare thing: a classicist in comic mode.

He has a classical hand that would delight a Quattrocentro eye. That, and an affinity for the ideal that breaks through quotidian things, insures that his work will endure long beyond contemporary fashion, beyond even the vacant sublime of Abstract Expressionism. There is something prophetic, deeply humane, about his sympathy with the ordinary.

Before Wayne Thiebaud, who knew that gumball machines, beachballs and triple-layer parfaits were among the gifts of creation?


“Wayne Thiebaud: Recent Paintings” at Paul Thiebaud Gallery (42 East 76 Street, 212-737-9759).

This review first appeared in The New York Sun, November 8, 2007.

Copyright 2007, Maureen Mullarkey

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