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Surf’s up for Wayne Thiebaud

Times Staff Writer

Life’s a beach.

At least, so says the Laguna Art Museum, with a quirky exhibition of 53 paintings by Wayne Thiebaud.

Thiebaud is best known for 1960s canvases showing cakes, pies, ice cream cones and other sweet treats, all lined up in repetitive, almost machine-like rows. The paintings’ licked surfaces, painted with chromatic creaminess, can look as edible as the subject matter.

So it’s something of a surprise that three out of five paintings in “Wayne Thiebaud: 70 Years of Painting” instead show a different subject -- life in and around the California seashore. Who knew?

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Kids play in sand, dogs romp in surf. Wavy lines of thickly scumbled color record tide-line residue of the water’s organic ebb and flow.

In a fictionalized view of San Francisco, the Pacific Ocean rises up like a theatrical backdrop, as a flat blue wall behind vertiginous streets. A perfectly circular beach ball, resting against a flat background, doubles as a color wheel.

And life-size men and women in bathing suits stand firmly erect or kneel in place, like blocks of stone. They recall Egyptian statues from the ancient roots of Western civilization.

In these pictures the nearly squint-inducing light is almost always sharp and bright. Daylight whiteness near the ocean harbors neon-rainbow highlights, while shadows tend toward sky-reflective blue, rather than colorless black.

Even the show’s very earliest work -- a deftly handled 1936 oil-sketch on board, precociously executed when Thiebaud was 16 -- shows a mustachioed fisherman in a rain hat. This old man of the sea is one of 31 drawings that further flesh out the painter’s realist affinities. Usually mischaracterized as a Pop artist, Thiebaud instead paints in traditional categories of still life, landscape and figure.

He’s also a formalist, plain and simple, most deeply concerned with the structural considerations of visual form in paint. Postwar American artists typically harnessed formal rigor to abstract painting, but he has applied it exclusively to realist subject matter.

A few of those luscious dessert and deli pictures are here -- watermelon slices from 1961, candy apples from 1983 and bakery and delicatessen cases from 1996 and 2005. Throughout his long career Thiebaud, 87, returns to established themes.

And he’s acutely aware of other art. One of the most beautiful works is a small 1987 painting of two paint cans, one opened and dribbling rainbow hues down the side, the other tightly sealed and reflecting rainbow hues in its silvery surface. The reference to Jasper Johns’ painted pair of bronze ale cans, one empty and the other full, is unmistakable.

But the prominence the show affords to the beach makes a small and unexpected point. The bather theme, which is hardly modern, turns up in abundance at crucial periods in the history of Modern art, starting with Cezanne and Seurat. When Picasso stepped back from the brink of total abstraction after World War I, he did it in such works as 1921’s “Large Bather.” American Abstract Expressionism arose from Mark Rothko’s “Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea.” And a critical subset of California painting in the 1950s and early 1960s is focused like a laser on the theme.

It begins in the north with such Bay Area figurative painters as Elmer Bischoff, Joan Brown, Paul Wonner, Theophilus Brown and especially David Park, and it culminates in the south with David Hockney’s great pictures of men taking showers. Richard Diebenkorn, who shuttled between both ends of the state, invokes it in terms figurative and abstract.

Thiebaud now takes his rightful place among them, as a painter for whom the bather-subject plays a primary role. This is fertile territory in the history of California painting, which deserves deeper consideration for exhibition by some enterprising art museum.

Thiebaud was raised in Long Beach and spent most of his adult life in Northern California. Five years ago his family bought a vacation residence in Laguna Beach, which led to the current exhibition. Beach subjects are now right outside the window. (Guest curator Gene Cooper, a retired Cal State Long Beach art historian, organized the show, which travels to the Palm Springs Art Museum in February.) Except for the drawings, two-thirds of the seven-decade survey was painted after the artist turned 80.

What’s interesting, though, is how resonant the seaside subject is as a pivot for the emergence of Thiebaud’s mature work. The hinge comes in 1959, just before the pseudo-Pop paintings that are lodged in the public consciousness, with a modest easel picture titled “Beach Boys.”

A restless tangle of stippled marks and hatching shows two young boys on the sand, with waves rolling in behind them as thick horizontal slabs. The composition recalls a group of Impressionist works by the once-fashionable Spaniard Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, painted at the Valencia beach. (See the Getty Museum’s 1909 “The Wounded Foot.”)

But it’s the boy standing at the left who startles. Hands on hips, arms akimbo, head lowered, clad in blue trunks and sharing an identical palette with the surrounding seascape, this lad plainly derives from Cezanne’s similarly arrayed “The Bather” (1885). Thiebaud lived in New York in 1956 and 1957, immersing himself in Manhattan’s small but vibrant art scene, and the landmark Cezanne has long been a treasure in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection.

Notably, the tone of Thiebaud’s depiction couldn’t be more different from Cezanne’s. The Frenchman shows a maladroit young man, body disjointed and tentatively stepping forward in an unstable landscape. By stark contrast, the grinning, solidly built California boy is firmly planted at the shore, happy to be wrapped in sunshine and welded to the pounding surf.

The bather theme always conjures Eden, portraying humanity stripped bare in an environment devoid of history or civilization’s trappings. Cezanne’s acutely refined New Adam searches for his footing in the shifting sands of a rapidly accelerating modern world. Thiebaud’s rough-hewn version exudes a joyful confidence.

But neither one is an idealized male nude. Both “The Bather” and “Beach Boys” cast aside heroic pretensions, which are associated with classical purity.

Thiebaud’s bathers might in part be indicative of his personal circumstance, since it roughly coincides with his second marriage and the adoption of his new wife’s son.

Yet, like the paintings of his California contemporaries, it also teeters on the brink of a new cultural reality -- one that is about to engulf the traditional European idea of just what “being modern” means.

Thiebaud’s beach themes envision this strange new Eden. California had been awash in transplants, especially from the Midwest, since the 1920s. (In 1921 Thiebaud’s family relocated from Arizona to Long Beach, “Iowa by the Sea.”) The postwar era accelerated the optimistic rush. Crossed wires of the outlandish and the commonplace have been sending off distinctive sparks ever since.

christopher.knight @latimes.com

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‘Wayne Thiebaud: 70 Years of Painting’

Where: Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily

Ends: Jan. 27, 2008

Price: $10

Contact: (949) 494-8971, www.lagunaartmuseum.org


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