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January 11 - March 23, 2003 at Pepperdine University, West Side

by Orville O. Clarke, Jr.

"Y River," 1998, o/c, 72 1/8 x 72".

All images
© Wayne Thiebaud/
Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

“Rosebud Cakes," 1991-95, o/c, 15 7/8 x 20"

“Three Treats," c. 1969, oil on board, 10 x 12"

"Bakery Case," 1996, o/c, 60 x 72"

This forty-five work survey of Wayne Thiebaud’s artistic career spanning the breadth of his career from 1955 to the present affirms the depth and range of the dynamic artistic style of one of Northern California’s seminal painters.

Thiebaud’s style is easily identifiable to anyone even remotely familiar to the contemporary art scene, yet he is often overlooked when thinking of the “important artists” of the 1960s and 1970s. This is unfortunate and wrong. People are also generally surprised to find that Professor Thiebaud is alive and still painting important works well into his 80s.

Thiebaud’s problem is the same that one that Italian still life master Giorgio Morandi had--they are so good at what they do that they make it look too simple. We are a society that celebrates the complex and admires the difficult accomplishment. Unlike the Japanese, who appreciate and relish the artist who can create sublime simplicity, we tend to think if it looks easy, it must be. That is the curse of the true “Zen Master.”

But Thiebaud’s art, like Morandi’s, is anything but simple. Whether it is the still-life arrangements of bottles and ceramics of Morandi, or the food and landscapes of Thiebaud, the tableaus they present are so familiar to us that we tend to tune them out in our search for the “I must be amazed.”

One of the real advantages of the Pop style is that by utilizing subject matter from everyday life such as an ice cream cone, lipstick, gumball machine, or soda the artist is free to concentrate on the physical act of painting. There is no burden of trying to “create” or “invent” a tableau worthy of being the subject of a painting. It was the realist painter Gustave Courbet who stated that an artist’s responsibility was ultimately to their medium. The beauty is that Thiebaud can focus on the union of brush and medium. The perfection of the craft becomes the artist’s central focus. The unrivaled skill of Thiebaud is bound up in his ability to reduce the visible world to a sublime clarity that is steeped in rich sensuality.

This collection of work allows us to engage the themes and subjects that have captivated the artist over the decades. Thiebaud loves to return to subject matter repeatedly. Yet the works are as fresh and vital today as they were when he first confronted them--they appear neither dated nor exhausted. Orange Soda (1961), one of a series of Pop icons that illuminates the everyday, is revisited in 1988 in Single and Doubledecker. Where Warhol’s brand of Pop art--consider, for example, the Brillo Boxes or the various Marilyn Monroe paintings--were charged with irony and a detached coldness, Thiebaud’s representations are filled with a life force that confronts the viewer. His food screams to be consumed; his landscapes invite us to explore their spaces. We cannot remain passive observers, but are forced to interact and acknowledge their presence.

Bread, Butter and Knife (1962) and the recent Two Éclairs (2001), separated by four decades, are examples of how Thiebaud has sustained his ability to capture and convey the joy of the world we inhabit. His presentation of subject matter with an almost barren canvas is sharply contrasted with his elegant style. The seductive quality of his color and texture is a stunning constant.

If painting is a celebration of the art of seeing, Thiebaud’s gift is that he has made us see things in a way that we previously had not but which has become definitive. And a great pleasure.