Monday, March 4, 2013

Wayne Thiebaud (written by Finn Leslie)

Wayne Thiebaud is an American artist who was born in Arizona in 1920.  At the age of nine, he moved to Long Beach, California, where he grew up during the Great Depression.  At a young age, he started making posters for a movie theater and soon after discovered the art of animation.  He worked for the animation department at the Walt Disney Studios for one summer and drew the “in-between frames” for cartoons such as Goofy and Pinocchio.[1]  This entailed drawing thousands of individual frames that created the illusion that the animated characters were in motion.  This is where Thiebaud’s art career really began.

Thiebaud at Walt Disney Studios

Thiebaud went to junior college in the 1940s, but his art studies were interrupted by World War II.  He served in the Army as an artist and cartoonist, fortunately keeping him out of combat.  Afterwards, he married and moved to Los Angeles where he worked as a commercial artist and illustrator.  At the age of 29, he went back to college, at California State University, to receive degrees in art, art history, and education.  In order to support his family, Thiebaud decided to teach art to college students while simultaneously pursing a career as a serious painter. 

The subject matter of Thiebaud’s paintings was quite unique and inevitably led him to a successful career.  Simply put, he painted food.  His small canvasses showed brightly and pastel colored food products, including pies, cakes, gumballs, and ice cream cones.  These still lives, usually in shop window settings, used exaggerated colors and shadows to evoked feelings nostalgia.  Despite the novelty of his paintings, they didn’t gain popularity until the 1960s, when he met a famous New York art dealer, Allan Stone.

"Pies, Pies, Pies" (1961), by Wayne Thiebaud

"Cakes and Pies" (1995) by Wayne Thiebaud

His focus on consumer goods placed him under the Pop Art label that was also emerging around this time.  In New York, his paintings were shown alongside the work of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and James Rosenquist.  However, Thiebaud didn’t associate with these artists and preferred to describe himself as a traditional painter.  He once said, "Painting is more important than art.  Art--art we don't know what the hell it is--though we think we do, or try to do.  Whenever one of my students says he's off to do his art, I say, Not so fast," (Gopnik, 40).  

I recently noticed Thiebaud’s work in an English seminar at UNC that focuses on food and culture; his paintings have been featured on nearly every New Yorker Food issue, and I was immediately drawn to their unique colors and texture.  I went on to read more about his inspiration and understanding of art as a profession.  A fantastic article on Thiebaud by Adam Gopnik, entitled “An American Painter,” writes, “he seems to have been stirred by a lower, more commonplace lingua franca of American display…the soda fountain, the cosmetic counter, the hardware store—that entire world in which things seem to have been over-ordered, given more display value than the demands of buying and selling strictly demanded, “fetishized” beyond the intrinsic need to allure people in to buy glasses or bow ties or hammers and nails,” (Gopnik, 46).  He depicts these displays with thick paint that adds decadence to every canvas he touches.  As a result, the audience feels as though they are looking through glass at an abundance of cookie cutter consumer goods.  The intense shadows elicit the sentiment of nostalgic afternoon sunlight.  To this day, I feel that Thiebaud’s work is both unique and sensational.       


National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. 2013.

American Academy of Achievement, 2011.

Gopnik, Adam.  "An American Painter" in Steven A. Nash with Adam Gopnik, Wayne Thiebaud, A Paintings Retrospective (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2000), pp.39-67

No comments:

Post a Comment