a painter of the sublime sublime

Photo: Robert Alexander / Getty Images

Wayne Thiebaud’s paintings of cakes, bathers, landscapes, paint cans, pastries and cityscapes depict a sublime American succulent.

To call him a “Californian painter”, as many do, would be to call Albert Pinkham Ryder a “New York painter”. Thiebaud’s work is universal. Its hallucinatory surfaces, supernatural perceptual intelligence, thick accumulations of rich colors, harsh light, luminosity, tone control and Hopperesque shrinkage create eye worms that make you merge with paintings, participate in how they have been carried out. After brushstrokes, rocked from surface to surface, you feel a release of internal rapture of form.

Thiebaud was born in Arizona, lived in New York for a time where he tried to buy his illustrations and his commercial art, got to know Kooning, Kline, Guston and Barnett Newman, and was wowed by the new energies of artists like Jasper Johns and Robert. Rauschenberg. That both of them are younger than him tells you that he wasn’t stuck in any ideological aesthetic rut. He spent almost all of his 101 years in California, specifically in Sacramento. There he taught at UC Davis. (Bruce Nauman was his pupil.) At this distance from New York City, sifting through a raft of influences and art history with one of the most distinctive optical styles in all of American painting, Thiebaud synthesized the everyday commercial culture of Pop Art, strong colors, ironies, and commercial realism. He combined this with the pictorial figuration of the west coast of his peers like David Park, the abstraction of Richard Diebenkorn and the materiality of ceramicists like Peter Voulkos and Robert Arneson. To this he adds the formalism and strangeness of Morandi’s still lifes, the intimacies of Chardin and the techniques of the old masters. He told the students who didn’t want to learn this, “It would be great if you could make a brilliant ending around it all, but with painting, that doesn’t exist…”

I met him once when I was lecturing in the 1990s at Davis. He was seated in the front row. Until that moment, however, I had never really thought about his work. I respected him. But it seemed on one side, not as edgy or relevant at the moment as someone his age, who also painted in California, and in his own colorful idiom, David Hockney. No matter. I showed slides of emerging artists like Matthew Barney, Janine Antoni, Chris Ofili, Kara Walker, Robert Gober and Keff Koons, he was thrilled. Afterwards, he told me that he felt this work in his nerves and muscles. He asked me if I wanted to play tennis with him (he has played his whole life). I’m sorry I didn’t.

The way we see was very important to Thiebaud. He said in New York Time, “I don’t agree with Duchamp that the eye is a silent organ… I think the eye has its own mind and there are different ways of seeing. There is peripheral vision, the feeling of close-up myopic, concentrated vision ”, and went on to list gazing, staring, squinting and daydreaming with closed eyes. “The more ways you can put together in a picture … the richer it gets, the more life is like life.” He is best known for his juicy images of voluptuous sweets in store displays and on counters. It is an eternal dinner in these works. See the edges of objects wobble, move in and out of the foyer, flow into each other, all in this strong graphic field that releases bursts of dopamine of pleasure. It was the dorm posters and fridge magnets that made it immensely popular. His work has sold millions.

The works that cut the rug out from under me are its cities and its landscapes. Here, Thibault unleashes his visionary powers. Yawning holes open up in space as the row city streets and houses and hills recede into infinity but rise to the surface of the work. Soon there is no more room here. It’s an American version of a Chinese landscape where you see vast distances and lonely trees at the same time and the artwork turns into a cloud. Nothing stays in place, everything is amorphous, melted, in formation. Geometric shapes transform before your eyes into textured cobblestones, orange trees and shadows that always tell you the time of day. His paintings are sundials. Its worlds are populated, inhabited, but always empty. We are lost in time, suspended in deserted cities and the black California of Raymond Chandler.

And then there are his landscapes, my favorite of all. These wetlands, hilly roads, planted crops, rows of fences, pear-shaped aqueducts are rendered in this confident serenity. He only painted tamed and artificial landscapes, but he released something wild in them. And U.S.
I hated him for these works. No, not really, I was just jealous. It never rains in a painting by Thibaud. The darkest day he had ever painted was only partially sunny. He is a master of scorched sunlight and sapphire watery blues. Even its interior scenes bring the outdoors in, keeping you alive, in awe, surrounded by and a part of nature. As the son of Chicago and the Great Lakes, a New Yorker for 40 years, I view these paintings with nostalgia. I have never lived in the light, the heat and the outdoors all year round. All my fantasies of places I will never live come to me: Los Angeles, Spain, Arizona, Italy, Caribbean, Mexico. I get nostalgic for things I’ll never know. Henry James wrote on California and “the general appearance of this wonderful kingdom [that] kept suggesting to me a sort of prepared but unconscious and unexpected Italy… in perfect condition, but with the impression of history yet to be made. The art of Thibaud is for me a book of hours of unfolding which reveals a calm state of mind, something inexhaustible, interior, attractive and resilient.

Photo: Susan Watts / NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

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Margarita B. Bittner