Thursday, April 7th, 2005

Wayne Thiebaud: High Cholesterol Nonedibles

“Wayne Thiebaud: Since 1962: A Survey” through May 27, 2005
Allan Stone Gallery
113 East 90th Street, New York, 212 987 4997.

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, April 7, 2005

Wayne Thiebaud Delicatessen Counter 1963  oil on canvas; 60 x 72 inches Courtesy Allan Stone Gallery
Wayne Thiebaud, Delicatessen Counter 1963 oil on canvas; 60 x 72 inches Courtesy Allan Stone Gallery

There is a legend concerning the art critic Roger Fry that as a young man traveling in Italy he would become so enamored of paintings in the churches and galleries he was visiting that, taking care not to be caught by a custodian, curiosity and veneration led him literally to lick the paint surfaces. Apparently saliva is actually good for paint, but conservation was not his motivation. Intimacy with great art became as visceral as its tactile qualities demanded.

This anecdote naturally comes to mind in relation to Wayne Thiebaud, the painter who early in his career made the depiction of food his most compelling motif. The old phrase “good enough to eat” takes on new meaning in relation to a classic Thiebaud line-up of bowls of soup, icecreams, hotdogs, pies. Ersatz catering specimens in serial arrangements were to Mr. Thiebaud what apples were to Cézanne: a seemingly merely convenient still life motif that actually turned out to have been axiomatic to his identity as a painter. His attraction to the subject singled him out as an important forerunner to Pop Art, and a bridge to the earlier evoker of alienation American-style, Edward Hopper. At the same time, his sheer painterliness and the expressive poignancy of his style lent him a more traditional realist pedigree.

In 2001 the Whitney presented a paintings retrospective (originating at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco ) that sought to check the apprehension that Mr. Thiebaud was the master of the cream cake who went off the rails when he turned from still-life to landscape as his principal idiom. The show was wonderful as a corrective, bringing out the unity of concern and approach in the West Coast artist’s between his more recent aerial views of the agrarian landscape or of the San Francisco-inspired mountaneous city at once alien and lovable, real and wacky, on the one hand, and the kitschy foodstuffs for which he remains best known and admired works, on the other. By treating desire so coolly yet keeping it alive, Mr. Thiebaud found a way to reconcile nature (whether manifest as landscape, the erotic, or hunger) with its opposite, the synthetic. In the words of Alex Katz, with whom he has a lot in common, his painting was “something hot done in a cool way.”

Now, Allan Stone has an overview of works since the early 1960s which can be classed as Thiebaud for weight-watchers: there are wonderful still-lifes on show, but the emphasis on non-edible motifs and on landscape is decidedly lo-cal. There is nothing quite like “Around the Cake,” (1962) in the earlier museum retrospective where the application of paint to iced cake in the center of the composition directly recalls the way a pastry chef would actually decorate his cake. His painterly surfaces evoke tactile responses that are tightly controlled and linked to their subject: there is always a knowing, finely crafted bond between motif and delivery in Mr. Thiebaud that keeps his painting within the realm of cool irony.

There is still plenty of cholesterol, however, in the paint itself, whatever the fat content of the motifs in question. A wonderful “Delicatessen Counter,” (1963 which depicts both rounds and rectangles of processed cheese, trays of meat and hanging salamis, in the retrospective, dominates the first wall at Stone: there is as much succulence, however, in the plain creamy white of the counter surface and neutral space behind as on the actual produce. This abstraction of the voluptuous brings to mind the sumptuous surfaces of Amadee Ozenfant. It is as if he is saying that the true fat and goo is in the paint, not what’s painted. To confirm this reading, this show places an untitled 1985 still-life of a pot of paint, its contents dribbling down the lovingly rendered metallic surface with the voluptousness of a French cheese running away with itself, right next to “Delicatessen Counter.”

What I miss from this show is any example of Mr. Thiebaud’s response to the female form: although a minority among his motifs, and often among his most problematic images, his capture of flesh against fabric, or better still, the sense of a happy wrestle between nature and artifice in the lycra-clad limbs of his cheerleaders and showgirls, seems to go right to the heart of his painterly aesthetic. You could say that Mr. Thiebaud is a transubstantiationist: He paints the point of communion between touch and sight, the social and the instinctual, appetite and availability.

Wayne Thiebaud River Cloud 2002  oil on canvas; 60 x 72 inches  Courtesy Allan Stone Gallery
Wayne Thiebaud, River Cloud 2002 oil on canvas; 60 x 72 inches Courtesy Allan Stone Gallery

Once this dualism takes center stage, his landscapes, placed in intimacy with his still-lifes, don’t seem such a departure, after all. When he paints or draws San Francisco it is as if he wants to stress the absurdity of imposing a grid on steep hills: the Jeffersonian ideal goes against nature; the organic solution would have been winding roads that negotiate ascent and descent with the gentlest ease. His cityscapes almost ham up the surreal sense of the vertigenous.

Similarly, his landscapes—with fields in tacky, wacky synthetic colors that pick out the hues of his lurid sunsets—are much more about human cultivation than nature in a raw state. It would be far fetched to read any ecological message into so epicurean a painter as Mr. Thiebaud, but without resorting to commentary his paintings understand at a profound level that there isn’t much true nature left in the humanly mediated world.