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by Bill Lasarow

"Glass of Wine, Desserts, Table,"
brush withblack ink/watercolor
on paper, 13 x 11”, 1971.

“Two Rows of Cakes,” brush with
black ink/watercolor on paper,
16 3/4 x 22 1/4”, 1963.
(Campbell-Thiebaud Gallery, Orange County) Perhaps the most fortuitous association with 1960’s Pop Art was that of Wayne Thiebaud. An outsider to the New York school who had begun his career as a conventional commercial illustrator, he dropped back into art school near the age of thirty to reemerge and a painter and art teacher.

He did spend some time in New York when taking time off from teaching duties (Thiebaud, now 78, is as revered for his teaching as for his painting) to immerse himself in the avant garde atmosphere, but it was with his 1962 exhibition at the Allan Stone Gallery there that his career took a sharp turn towards public acclaim. This was less due to Thiebaud himself than to the coincidental rise of Warhol, Lichtenstein, and the whole Pop circle. Thiebaud was older and came at what was to become his signature confectionary images with very different concerns. Yet the fact that he was from the west coast served to butress the sense that Pop was plugged into a newly emergent aesthetic zeitgeist, and the paintings were obviously good.

That decade ramp-up to 1962 has been followed by nearly forty years of exceptionally consistent and productive output. This exhibition, Simple Delights, Works on Paper 1963-1979, makes no pretense to trace the range or trajectory of Thiebaud’s art during the two decades following his “arrival.” Instead it selects a small slice of his oeuvre, mainly modestly scaled ink and watercolor paintings that lie midway between fully executed paintings and the endless sketches that the artist refers to as “research and development.”

Immediately striking is that despite the limited palette--most work here consists of black ink with blue watercolor--and absence of his familiar frosting of impasto, you get a clear idea how he is able to convey the tempting surface quality that most distinguishes his paintings as Thiebauds. In Two Rows of Cakes the six iced and decorated sweets occupy the picture plane harmoniously but individually. Each of these ‘cakes’ possesses a distinct ‘flavor.’ It is not at all difficult to segue to the look of the painted version in your mind’s eye.

Work done in water media, such as this is, may be variously described as a drawing or as a painting. Thiebaud’s are paintings. The brush describes objects by wandering in and out of them, rarely if ever by delineating and filling in a shape. A group of glasses of wine and desserts from 1971 (Glass of Wine and Desserts, Glass of Wine, Desserts and Table, Glass of Wine and Gougéres) employ a nice variety of eccentric graphic masses to define the limited range of still life objects. Thiebaud’s controlled use of gray and blue washes provide the textural, spatial, and light notations that bring these images to life. Besides this they contribute to the case that Thiebaud is at heart a formalist, eternally interested in how to go about arranging an image on a page for the sake of seeing it.

In spite of a massive body of work produced over a half-century, it is difficult if not pointless to think of there having been a stylistic evolution marked by certain watersheds. Thiebaud continually returns to a certain spectrum of preferred subjects. The wonder is that he imbues a level of grace and, yes, nobility as he revisits each, convincing you along the way of the freshness locked within the ordinary.

“Glass of Wine and Gougéres,”
brush withblack ink/watercolor
on paper, 11 x 8 3/4”, 1971.

“Olive Sandwich,” brush with
black ink/watercolor on
paper, 16 x 16”, 1967.