It is a commonplace that theoretical physicists do their groundbreaking work, their let’s-prove-Thomas Kuhn-right work, when they are young. They often continue to do important work later, but it isn’t the kind of thing that shakes things up. It’s more like extending the vision, tying up loose ends. Among artists, things are often different. Breakthroughs in vision and strength can come late in a career. Think Matisse, Serra, Diebenkorn, Lichtenstein, Thiebaud. The Aquavella Gallery on 79th Street in New York recently had a select retrospective of Wayne Thiebaud’s work that vividly demonstrated this.
Ten or twelve years ago I saw a retrospective of Thiebaud’s work at the Whitney. The early galleries had pictures of cakes and pies and gumball machines that were familiar, but nothing grabbed me until I got to some later pictures of San Francisco. It turns out that you won’t find Thiebaud out on the street with his palette and easel painting landscapes. He grasps the essence of a place and then goes home and constructs that essence, in the case of San Francisco, tall buildings and streets that seem vertical, a result of foreshortening but not just that. The point is that you could not find any place in San Francisco that would correspond, even roughly, to any of his paintings. And yet they are clearly paintings of San Francisco.
And then in the last gallery I was gobsmacked (a term I may never have another chance to use). Thiebaud had moved from San Francisco to the Sacramento River Delta. These paintings were aerial views, as if from a helicopter, but again the perspective was often a little off. What might be level land in one part of the painting seemed tilted in another. Even the Sacramento River that figured in most of the paintings seemed not confined to a flat plane. But most notable were the colors and the shapes. In some paintings Thiebaud had drawn a sensuous but lazy line through the canvas, a river bank, and then filled in fields of orchards or row crops that usually had straight edges but weren’t squares or rhomboids or more regular geometric figures. And each field had a distinctive and unusual color(s): yellow or blue or purple or orange or pink. Again, if you go to the Delta you won’t find these places, but if you look at the paintings you know where you are.
Several years later I visited a gallery in New York that was showing only six or eight of the Delta paintings. That concentration confirmed the power of these works. The colors were so alive, the organization and geometry so intricate yet bold, the painterly technique so assured, that I could only wander from one to another and then back again in a kind of mobius loop.
So when the current retrospective arrived Rosamond and I had to see it. And what the Delta paintings had taught me was to look more closely and with a different eye at the earlier work, the cakes and pies and ice cream cones and candy and human figures. It now seemed to me that Thiebaud is largely about paint. It isn’t so much that the frosting on a cake looks good enough to eat; it’s that paint can be made to look as inviting and sensual as frosting. In the Delta paintings the paint has no texture at all. Look! Paint can be made to look as serene as water. And then he is also about color. His freedom with color reminds me of Matisse although he uses quite a different palette. A number of the earlier paintings, candy counters for instance, have a skein of colored lines marking the horizontal, lines that have no meaning in a real world. They could be the edge of a shelf, but they aren’t. They are just there for the joy of color. If you look closely you will also see a careful outlining of figures or things in unusual but apt colors. There are no doubt painterly reasons for all this, but I suspect that these effects are also for the fun of it.
As noted, I especially went to the recent show to see again the Delta paintings, and found that Thiebaud has moved on again. Now he is working on dark, monumental visions of mountains and crags and ridges. He made a few forays in this direction in earlier years, but now he is exploring the theme with a vengeance. These paintings are so solid and massive seeming that one thinks they should be sculptures. The colors are darker (except for the sometimes pink sky) and the shapes less clearly defined. My initial reaction to these paintings wasn’t as strong as with the Delta paintings, but I suspect they will grow on me.
Thiebaud is now ninety-two and going strong. The December 3, 2012 issue of “The New Yorker” features a cover by Thiebaud called Hot Dog Stand. The original is actually wider than tall so had to be cropped to fit the cover format. In the original the stand looks more lonely, more bereft of customers. They are all down by the water having fun.