DAVID COHEN every Friday at artcritical.com
March 9, 2001
good enough to eat
WASHINGTON DC: Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings
Wayne Thiebaud Cream Soups
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
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.
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