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DAVID COHEN every Friday at

March 9, 2001

Painting that's good enough to eat

WASHINGTON DC: Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective


Wayne Thiebaud Cream Soups 1963
oil on canvas 29 3/4 x 36 inches
Courtesy: Allan Stone Gallery, New York


According to legend, when the English painter and critic Roger Fry, on his youthful Italian journeys, really fell in love with a painting he would - first making sure the guardian or sacristan wasn't looking - surreptitiously LICK the surface. Apparently, saliva is actually quite good for paint, but this strange act of intimacy was hardly conservation-prompted. This anecdote about Fry (already a culinary name!) is prompted by my utterly gluttonous delight in the art of Wayne Thiebaud, whose retrospective exhibition continues its tour. Even if one doesn't have a sweet tooth, even if the cakes seem too gooey with ersatz coloring and preservatives, the very creaminess of these surfaces is mouth watering.

I have loved Thiebaud for ages but with an affection that made me nervous about this retrospective. Firstly, how much cake can the eye swallow before getting queasy? Secondly, numerous artists, fine but not necessarily of the first rank, are undone by the overdone overview. And thirdly, I've always labored under the prejudice that Thiebaud is the cake man who went off the rails - forgive this horribly geographically mixed metaphor - when he started painting roads. On all counts this beautifully paced and installed exhibition dispelled these fears.

Without sufficient knowledge of the oeuvre to back the claim, I nonetheless suspect that the selection has cannily addressed the landscape problem. Thiebaud's development has been made to seem more seamless than it actually is. New still-lifes connect to earlier explorations of this genre, while the landscapes veer towards the confectionary in palette, especially the gorgeously gaudy riverscapes of the last few years. Together with his audacious figure paintings of the 1960s, the range and quality of work in this show insist upon Thiebaud as an artist of consistency and diversity.

But let me return to this business of licking, because it seems to me that the essence of Thiebaud's achievement is that he has found a way to privilege the haptic over the optic without subjecting realism to wanton expressionism. Without, in other words, doing violence to sight. For he is a realist; his art is superbly well observed, at once sensually accurate and a pleasure to the gaze. But his most successful images are those that put us in touch with the feel of things rather than the sight of them. Of course, any attempt to talk about the non-visual in relation to visual art plunges argument into semantic freefall, and I can feel this happening already. Who is to say that specificity is optical where generality is haptic? I guess what I am really fumbling around with here is the pleasingly problematic interchange in Thiebaud between artifice and reality. Stated simply: when the paint accumulates as creamy texture, globs on the surface, it arrests the eye, and the image engenders empathy; our relationship is visceral. Whereas when the paint is transparent, in the sense that the eye passes right through it to the image depicted, the image "looks" more "real", but is actually more artificial, more an image than an art object.

Enough semiotics. Look, when you get a chance (the catalogue, published by Thames and Hudson, is available at $29.95) at Two Majorettes, 1962, and Girl with Ice Cream Cone, 1963. The pictures are about the same size, but of markedly different surface treatment, hot and cold. The ice cream eater, a single figure filling the canvas, casts credible shadow on the flattened (Katzian) ground. The face (of the artist's wife Betty Jean) is strikingly specific, and dress and flesh are treated with meticulous attention, but precisely because of all this observational acumen the work is studied. It adopts strategies from the language of painting to solve specific problems. It's at once photographic and "arty". The majorettes are more spontaneously painted. The faces are an unfocused mush. The shadows are highly stylized. To this viewer as no doubt to the artist the women aren't as pretty as Mrs ice cream eater, but the painting itself is undeniably more erotic. Whether catching light on leggings or teasing the shadow around bodices, the brush literally strokes these figures. Thiebaud tosses artifice-reality around with the dazzlingly gay abandon of the majorettes and their batons.

Another thing this comparison underlines is that with Thiebaud objects work better serially than singularly. In his case, Warhol's ironic title is true: sixty is better than one. The row upon row of desserts in Pies, Pies, Pies 1961 is more satisfying, to my greedy eye, than the forlorn remnant slice in Caged Pie 1962. A picture of a single item focuses upon an observed fact, where that of multiple, similar items at once decenters and abstracts. The lonely pie actually induces less melancholy than the alienating mass, those calories in echelon. Historically, Thiebaud has sometimes been reckoned an associate of Pop Art not just because of his synthetic palette but also because of the factory line implications of the stuff he paints. In fact, however, he is the spiritual heir of an older lineage, those great painters of modern ennui, Giorgio Morandi and Edward Hopper.

This surfeit of pie, salami, cheese, and candy didn't, in the end, spoil my appetite for the landscapes which dominate the second half of Thiebaud's career, nor did my encounter with the showgirls exhaust me for the climbing demanded of the eye by his vertiginous, gravity-defying San Francisco-inspired fantasy city. I came away with an enhanced appreciation of these problematic works. In fact, the split in Thiebaud is not between early and late, or one genre and another, but rather has to do, as I have argued, with the relative supremacy of sight or touch, observation or generalization, experience or fantasy. Like Canaletto and Guardi, he is mesmerized by the artifice in reality and the reality in artifice. In his case, life imitates cream cake.

Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective is at the Phillips Collection, Washington DC February 10- April 29 and at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York June 28- September 23, 2001. The catalogue, with essays by Steven A. Nash and Adam Gopnik is published by Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Thames and Hudson.




Upcoming books, lectures and publications by David Cohen