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“Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective”

“The Icing on the Cake: Selected Prints by Wayne Thiebaud”

Why is everyone trying to be so sensible about Wayne Thiebaud? It’s getting so I barely recognize him. At the Phillips, Thiebaud is no voluptuary firebrand, no cornucopian prophet; he is, rather, a fine-eyed empiricist, a meticulous craftsman, a gentleman painter too classical and affirmative for Pop whose coolly composed edible spreads, Western-hued San Francisco declivities, and sun-dappled alluvial plains have earned him, at age 80, a little East Coast attention. In their catalog essays, curator Steven A. Nash and critic Adam Gopnik, both writing as if not to run afoul of unnamed sumptuary laws, make measured, borderline-apologetic cases for Thiebaud’s majority, clouding their arguments with intimations that they like the artist a tad more than is warranted by his position as one who holds down the fort rather than storms the gates.

Am I alone in thinking Thiebaud to be the foremost realist of the past half-century, in judging his to be the sexiest mind in painting? You know, painting—our sexiest medium?

Restraint wasn’t even an option for me on my first run through the most sensual outpouring of oil painting this town has seen since the National Gallery’s 1994 Willem de Kooning retrospective. The Phillips graciously attempted to sate the appetites of the press corps with a pre-viewing breakfast, but even after—let’s see, where’d I write this down?—a fat sausage; two thick ribbons of bacon (one burned just the way I like it); a custardy yogurt parfait; a smooth, peppery quiche thing; fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice; plenty of water; two cups of coffee with cream and sugar, thanks; and a gorgeous, demotic, pink-frosted, glazed, raised doughnut, Thiebaud is a painter to be devoured, not appreciated in hushed tones.

At the Corcoran is where you’ll find the monk’s Thiebaud. To get his graphic works, you have to assume the posture of their manufacture, leaning in close, just as the artist hunched over his plates, blocks, and stones. Thiebaud is an accomplished, inventive printmaker. But unless an artist is a printmaker above all else and is developing completely original subjects for his prints rather than experimenting with variations on his painterly vocabulary, his graphic work will likely smack of the also-ran. The graphics repay study, but they are utterly punchless. Temperate admiration of Thiebaud would make sense if his prints were all we had to go on.

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The Phillips show opens with a panoply of consumables. There are dangling dried meats, moon-green slabs of cheese, and cakes tipped up on spindly stands, hovering like a Candyland subdivision of John Lautner houses. There are Salad, Sandwiches and Dessert, Cream Soups, Five Hot Dogs, and Pies, Pies, Pies. There are slot machines, gumball machines, and pinball machines, yo-yos, tops, and teddy bears—all arranged with an eye to the concupiscent, quotidian quid pro quo of the marketplace. It was almost more than I could stand. Bouncing from one canvas to the next, my skin tingling, I found myself stifling grunts of pure pleasure. In toto, my notes for Black Ice Cream, an oil not much bigger than a sheet of notebook paper that depicts a cone of the dark, unlikely delicacy suspended by the tight circle of the holder it’s wedged into, read as follows: “yes, yes, yes.” One woman shot me this look when she caught me licking my lips. What could I say? Something is offered for my delectation; I am delectated.

To Thiebaud, the sensual is a deep, deep current that flows through everything you see. And since triumphalist, mass-cult commercial/sensual display is one of the crowning achievements of 20th-century America, one in which Thiebaud participated fully as a working man before he late-bloomed into a fine artist, he couldn’t stay away from it, even at the expense of his rep. Commodity fetishism? You bet. Thiebaud comes at it, though, not with the distanced censoriousness of the late-’80s academic, but with the delight, good humor, and poignancy available to a populist and a humanist.

For 40 years, Thiebaud has known better than to overchoreograph the national ballet of abundance. His pre-mature work of the mid-’50s, however, was weighted down with infelicitous period touches. Crazy hashes of brush strokes turned simple forms into galaxies of clotted lines; flat fields of color bore no relation to rambunctious underpainting; and a too-cool palette reduced everything to muck. He’d gotten the subject matter right—mercantile agglomerations of brightly colored things—but the manner was lacking. By the early ’60s, he’d pared back the busyness, pumped up the chroma, and pushed his brushwork into the realm of spatial erotics.

The border zone between figure and ground, the no man’s land where lazier or less capable hands mask their bungling beneath thickened reapplications of paint, became the premier stage for Thiebaud’s virtuosity. In 1963’s Three Machines, a cushioning white void cradles gumball globes packed to the perimeter with atoms of chewy, sugary joy. In 1964’s Cosmetics, the viscous, almost puttylike space of a warm gray tabletop enfolds scattered stand-ins for the artist’s tools. If you place a premium on buttery paint handling, you can be made to swoon by a single blue-smeared curl of glistening white winding around the bottom edge of one of Thiebaud’s yo-yos.

Nestled just inside the resilient void of the background is another zone of pure delight: rainbow-hued ribbons shimmer at the edges of his objects like the halos of an arbitrary optics. A dowdy pair of black dress shoes, complete with pinked tongues and black waxed laces, ooze jellied strings of red and orange light. In the intimately scaled Orange Grove, Thiebaud applies his edge effects to the landscape and then adapts their coloration to the tiny fruits. They glow like Christmas lights, like pointillist dots strewn among the foliage: periwinkle, berry, blue, magenta, avocado, and harvest gold, as well as several shades of the expected orange. And in the Death of Marat-inspired Woman in Tub, white porcelain expanses are defined by edges that sport tropical tones.

The woman inside is similarly set off from her surroundings, and within her outline she remains as impassive and inanimate as any of Thiebaud’s things. There’s no better articulation of the difference between the objectifying gaze and the stealthy vantage of the voyeur. All of Thiebaud’s people know they are being seen and, with the notable exception of the artist’s wife in Betty Jean Thiebaud and Book (an actual portrait instead of merely a representation of a human form), they give nothing up to Thiebaud’s scrutiny but their physical shells. They escape the customary subject’s fate of becoming voyeuristic prey by turning into objects.

Thiebaud’s people are a cold, weird bunch. Their thwarting hardness, their absolute refusal to be animated by mere gazing, even gazing as cultivated as Thiebaud’s, serves to highlight his—and our—romance with actual objects, all of which are utterly dead but for the projections of our desire. It is important also to note that though Thiebaud’s people are painted from life, his objects are concoctions of memory and imagination.

As are his vertiginous streetscapes. After a dalliance with plein-air rendering in the early ’70s, which produced pictures too indebted to the real world, Thiebaud returned to the studio. There he wove his freeway nets and erected his rubbery towers of asphalt, which cascaded from the empyrean into the twisting, pitching, zooming byways of the city. The streetscapes are more intellectual than the still lifes, less invested with raw desire. Their POV is aerial, if not utterly fictive. Their spaces slice and jut rather than envelop. The subtle perspectival elasticity of the cake paintings goes haywire as roads press toward the vertical, spilling out of the picture plane and turning every Sunday drive or morning commute into a potential trip to the moon or journey to the center of the earth.

The landscapes of the ’90s do further violence to physical space while representing the vastest spans of it yet. Patchwork plains of meadows, fields, orchards, and rivers, stitched together with Thiebaud’s charged halos, assert their individual geometries. Isolated panels of penetrating one-point perspective are laminated into scenes that bulge and lean according to systems of their own. Multiple unseen suns beam at cross-purposes into different parts of the canvas.

Thiebaud’s paintings are about muchness, but as much about the apprehension of muchness. They’re about possession, and the desire for possession, and its limits, too. The great American pain is that we can never possess all that we crave. But we love to nurse that ache, to lust for the next piece of pie even though we can barely finish the first. Almost all of Thiebaud’s treats, toys, and machines are big enough or numerous enough or full enough to share.

But although Thiebaud’s works imply wave after wave of enthusiastic consumers, we usually think of our neighbors only after indulging our own personal fantasies of total absorption. His cities represent all the alternative lives we dream of inhabiting, all the spaces we long to traverse; his landscapes, bursting with the fruit-basket fertility that enabled his comestible spectacles, unite our abstract spatial and social longings with the concrete ones burning in our guts. Their motto is not “You can’t take it with you,” but “You can’t have it all.” In his oils (he’s also done acrylics, gouaches, watercolors, pastels, etc., etc., but it’s so, so hard to concentrate on anything but the oils), our national temperament joins with the innate implications of his medium, created as it was for the depiction of flesh, in evocations of the never fully consummated pleasures of the senses. Thiebaud’s art is made of the sparks shot out by desire when you pitch the stuff of the physical world into its white-hot flame. We were never promised happiness, just the pursuit of it. CP