No Time Like the Present

John Haber
in New York City

Wayne Thiebaud

What does it mean to call an artist conservative? One imagines a man behind his time. (And I do mean a man.) It may make more sense to think of an artist able to lose himself within it.

Take Wayne Thiebaud, whose retrospective at the Whitney has more than a few surprises in store. Many come expecting another Pop artist, sardonically reveling in America's pleasures. They look for cake, pies, and pinball machines in place of Jackie and Marilyn. And many leave recalling an artist from a still deeper past. Thiebaud's dedication to plain old representational art comes with a surprising, indeed invigorating sincerity. Wayne Thiebaud's Salads, Sandwiches, and Deserts (Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 1962)

Either way, they may miss something. A reasonably skilled craftsman translates the art of his time into something touchingly but all too familiar. So what lies at stake? It may even define what it means to be a minor artist.

Putting the Pop in popular

Those first reactions have a point. Sure, Pop Art came with wit and formal experiment. Abstract Expressionism had announced the triumph of American high culture. Now artists saw America's descent into a dominant, commercial culture. And they saw it through a cutting irony.

Forget all that. Thiebaud is way too nice a guy. His first paintings on display date from around 1950, already in his forties. By then he seems to have the struggle for change well out of his system. Like more than one Pop artist, he cut his teeth on commercial art. Like them, too, he admired prewar attempts at urban and suburban realism. If a generation put the Pop in popular, he almost puts the popular back in Pop Art.

One early painting takes the Large Bather by Paul Cézanne, only without the formal and emotional conflict. Instead of the perplexity of overlapping spatial planes, one gets loose splashes of color. Instead of a faceless man, one gets an attractive young boy out at the beach. A prewar artist such as Walt Kuhn would have felt right at home. Despite the show's title, the Whitney clutters it with plenty of sketches and works on paper. They, too, largely belong in a living room—or yard sale.

Thankfully, Thiebaud's big canvases settle down fast. Slapdash paint and a sentimental, documentary image soon give way to those spotless bakeries and pinball parlors. They sit in neat rows, separated by broad, oily fields of off-white, only a hairsbreadth from Philip Guston's smooth pinks. In their placidity, they make the raw violence of the Robert Rauschenberg Bed or Jasper Johns with his body parts seem far away. They seem designed to make someone happy, only with no one there to appreciate it.

Claes Oldenburg laughs as his sculpture sags under its own weight. With Andy Warhol, repetition holds the insistent dullness of mechanical reproduction. Warhol's flat images and reference to commercial technique drive out every reference to the handmade, and so often does Warhol's influence. Thiebaud, however, builds surfaces up, swirls of paint following the object like real icing. He slathers on the oil, more like the legendary generation before him, and repetition comes naturally. Real bakeries and pinball halls offered the very same surfeit of pleasure.

Late in his career, as Thiebaud turns to landscape, he lets paint follow the eye across the funny vistas of northern California. Streets turn sharply downhill, and roads veer by developed land. One gets in close to savor it all, and when one steps back, the aerial views never quite add up. Thiebaud lives close to this the world, and his eye moves across it, rather than apart from it. This man looks through the past as if it remained ever present, and he is happy with what he sees.

Present tenses

It sounds like the ultimate act of nostalgia—or is it? Thiebaud's art looks placid and dated, but it talks in present tenses. Time flies when he is having fun.

Start with the subject matter. Pies and pinball machines, I said, really did come like that. Moreover, they came like that exactly when he painted them, before Times Square turned to smut and then to Disney. If I can look back on them now, Thiebaud moved on as well—to portraiture, then to the landscapes.

Thiebaud stood no further apart in space than in time. One likes to remember him as out of the mainstream, physically. Rauschenberg mingled with dance and performance artists, while Warhol created his own New York scene. One thinks of Thiebaud, if at all, as that West Coast guy. In fact, his coming of artistic age came in New York City. It was a stay here that unleashed his creative discoveries.

The echoes of East Coast art extends well beyond the 1950s. Long, repeated brushstrokes and a sense of fun both point ahead. Frank Stella, too, used parallel, mechanical constraints to revel in optical perfection. Both artists insist on a two-dimensional painted surface, while more and more playing carnival games with painting.

I thought, too, of the literalism in Stella's art, Minimalism, or John Chamberlain in Chamberlain's sculpted car parts. I thought of Robert Indiana begging one to eat (and die). Thiebaud's strokes emulate as much as represent icing or, later, agricultural fields—metonymy in place of metaphor. The combination of literalism and lack of irony may in fact serve as a definition of Minimalism. They could stand, too, for what Postmodernism soon turned against.

On a brief foray into portraiture, he again stays on top of things. The chilly light bathes figures facing coldly ahead. One wishes for late Edward Hopper, a favorite of Thiebaud's, as well as Francis Bacon or Lucien Freud. He fits in just as well on his turn to the western landscape. San Francisco artists, such as David Park and Elmer Bischoff, contribute to the deep blue shadows in place of black. Richard Diebenkorn has the vertical grid, interrupted by diagonals, of his late panoramas, and Paul Kos the blank turn against social criticism.

Behind the glass

Thiebaud stands close in feeling, too, to the art around him—and far indeed from the angry Pop Art or Surrealism of Llyn Foulkes in LA. If storybook versions overstate Pop Art's rebellion, they miss entirely the artist's emotional blockage.

Warhol's images enact a constant return to the things he loves best. And that is precisely what makes their detachment so eerie. Oldenburg, too, does more than deride mass production. When his Clothespin mimes sculptures of a standing hero, it brings fine art back down to earth—or at least the laundry room in the basement. Right up through Barnett Newman, art boasts of "Man the Sublime Hero." Oldenburg returns to a woman's household role, blending sardonic observation with the ordinary pleasures of living.

Conversely, just how much joy does Thiebaud allow himself? The portraits, with their echoes of Hopper and the Brits, certainly offer one clue. As his weakest work, they make more obvious the undercurrent that never fully inhabits the rest of his art. People sit rigidly, alone or in groups, as if George Segal had covered them in plaster. They stare past each other without a word, unable to live together or to move apart.

Thiebaud's sense of loss may explain why he makes people nostalgic right from the start. Slices of pie remain out of touch, behind glass. He calls one work, not on display, Caged Pie. Even the slathering can become a kind of White-out, what Jacques Derrida calls a mark of erasure. Dense, parallel strokes of oil divide paintings so sharply that I mistook one canvas for two panels. Later on, those San Francisco streets dive more treacherously than during an earthquake. In the greatest of walking towns, they offer nowhere to stand.

At age 60, the artist was still moving into a nether world of neither sight nor touch, from city streets to his obsessive panoramas. A sense of place or sky has all but vanished. At the same time, business development was eating up the American dream of an open west.

If Thiebaud belongs fully in his time, no wonder art history seems to pass him by. Better artists know when to stand their ground and create a future. The portraits look especially forced, but his paint always has a dull sheen to it, even when it suggests vanilla icing. Paradoxically, the lightest patch of sky in a watercolor often comes from bare paper. Thiebaud's piled paint never looks all that bright. It comes as a treat from an artist never quite savvy enough to acknowledge or to deny pleasure.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective" ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art through September 23, 2001.

 

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