A life rich in possibilities

Special to The Times

With his deliriously lush paintings of the delectable delights available over the bakery counter, Wayne Thiebaud has produced some of the most instantly recognizable works in contemporary American art. His best-known paintings are elegies to cakes, pies, eclairs and doughnuts -- all neatly displayed and slathered with colorful icing so thick that viewers can almost taste the burst of sugar when looking at them.

Call Thiebaud a painter fascinated by images from the American vernacular, but don't call him a Pop artist, a category he's often slotted into. There's a big difference. "I don't really care much for Pop art on the whole," he says during a visit to Malibu to attend the opening of his retrospective at the Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University (through March 23). "I'm not very much interested in satire or irony or mass production -- its emphasis. I'm very interested in tradition, and not in refuting or reacting against it."

A tall, courtly, white-haired gentleman wearing a blue blazer and a maroon bow tie, he's looking appropriately professorial before his public lecture in a nearby auditorium. (As testament to his popularity, the lecture will be standing room only.) His words are carefully selected and often peppered with quotes from his wide-ranging reading -- nuggets from British poet and essayist G.K. Chesterton to American expat artist John Singer Sargent -- and a dryly wicked sense of humor.

"A Thiebaud exhibition inaugurated the Weisman Museum of Art in 1992," says museum director Michael Zakian, "and we thought it would be great to get him for our 10th anniversary celebration." And so they did, in a show co-organized with the University Library Gallery at Cal State Sacramento.

"Wayne Thiebaud: Works From 1955 to 2003" covers his opus, with 44 paintings grouped by subject matter. In the smaller gallery are the familiar desserts and food paintings; in the adjoining larger gallery, the less familiar portraits and landscapes, including some recent ones inspired by the Sacramento River Valley.

While he eschews the Pop art label, Thiebaud, 82, understands how it happened. His food paintings had their first exposure in New York in a highly successful one-man show at the Allan Stone Gallery in April 1962, followed by inclusion in the first Pop art group show, "New Realists," at the Sidney Janis Gallery in October of the same year. "The subject matter at the time happened to be ordinary objects, so it was very fortunate in terms of getting a lot of attention," he says, "but I've never felt very comfortable being in that category." He laughs softly.

He points to his own humble beginnings as an artist. "I came from commercial art," he says. "I was very much involved in cartooning, art direction and design, and still have a love for good graphic design." During World War II he was stationed at Mather Air Force Base near Sacramento and did a cartoon strip for the base newspaper. After the war he continued in commercial art and design, eventually getting a master's degree and beginning his teaching career, first at Sacramento Junior College and later at UC Davis. Altogether, he's been teaching art history and studio art for almost 50 years, and he's enjoyed that part of his life too.

Does he personally like desserts? "Oh yes," he says quickly. And does he eat these kinds of desserts? "I certainly did when I was younger. I couldn't get enough of them," he says with a laugh. "Now, of course, you have to be careful about that."

But the real reason he got interested in painting desserts was far more, well, abstract. "They represented abstract shapes which might provide possibilities for orchestration of units," he says. In short, they were circles and squares and rectangles he could play with on the canvas.

Time and again, Thiebaud returns to the same subject matter, although he likes to do it differently each time. "Almost everything I've done I'll go back to and do periodically," he says. "I'll see some bakery counter or see some new configuration of a tart -- I think, I'd like to try that." Today many artists work from photographs, but Thiebaud prefers old-fashioned direct observation to create his works.

"Working from direct observation is a way of continuing your visual vocabulary," he explains. "It's as if you're building your own dictionary of forms, and you need to totally refresh that, otherwise you get too habitual and give repetitive answers when you should be trying to freshen or augment or modify what you're doing."

When he comes upon some interesting arrangement or scene, he stops to sketch and paint what he sees. Back at the studio -- he has one at each of his three homes, in Sacramento, San Francisco and Laguna Beach -- he uses those to make what he calls "an amalgam," piecing together the observed with his imagination.

Even the cityscapes, based on the steep verticality of San Francisco, are not replicas of existing streets and buildings. That's because he has injected a part of himself and how he feels into them. "I think the cityscapes have more to do with longing, or the idea of displacement, disequilibrium," he says. "Or they just represent a kind of window on the wall -- since I didn't have that view, I make that view."

Robert Flynn Johnson, curator of graphic arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, who organized a Thiebaud show in 1991, says there's a dark side to the artist that people tend to ignore. "In the landscapes there's an undertone of pollution and stagnation and too many people and too many cars." Indeed, a painting in the show, "Grey City" (2000), shows an urban landscape with factory chimneys spewing smoke into the sky.

Figurative paintings are his bete noire, Thiebaud admits, the hardest to get right. The exhibition includes a handful, from three chest-up portraits to a couple of people-on-the-beach scenes. "Tough, yeah, tough," he says. "We know the figure so well, we can most subtly discriminate the slightest thing wrong with a portrait." Here he pulls out a Sargent quote, wherein he calls a portrait "a pretty good painting in which there's something slightly wrong with the mouth."

Despite Thiebaud's renown, his shows are few and far between, and both he and curators who have worked with him see a certain art world prejudice against him. First, he's representational and sincere in an age ruled by conceptual art and irony. Second, as Zakian points out, "maybe he's just too likable." Thiebaud also sees a sense of humor in his work that might go against the grain of an art world that takes itself too seriously. But he's not too concerned. He's commercially successful -- selling just about everything he paints -- and a self-admitted happy man. "I was a spoiled child. I had a great life," he says, "so about the only thing I can do is to paint happy pictures."


'Wayne Thiebaud: Works From 1955 to 2003'

Where: Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, Pepperdine University, 24255 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu

When: Tuesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Ends: March 23

Price: Free

Contact: (310) 506-4851

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