Wayne Thiebaud and starting over

Wayne Thiebaud, Cakes, 1963, oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches

Contributed by Laurie Fendrich / The California painter Wayne Thiebaud died on Christmas Day. He was renowned, first and foremost, for his paintings of candies, cakes, and pies, which he first started exhibiting in New York in the 1950s. He later become known for his surreally steep California landscapes, paintings of the flatlands of Californias midriff, and his lonely, isolated figures. To be sure, the gods were with this painter. Not only did they let him live to the magnificent age of 101, but, up until the end, they gave him lifelong vigor that allowed him to fulfill his passion to work in his studio just about every day. His death makes painters like me feel a real personal loss.

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If theres one word that describes Thiebaud as an artist, its obsessed. The statement on his passing released by his New York gallery Acquavella rather confirms this, quoting him as saying he had this almost neurotic fixation of trying to learn to paint. The subjects in Thiebauds early paintings were often arranged in a modernist grid, and he was described as a West Coast Pop artist. Thiebaud never saw things this way, thinking of himself as a realist. That said, being designated part of the Pop Art movement established his fame.

I arrived as a young artist in Los Angeles in the late 1970s already enthralled by Thiebauds paintings. Because I was an abstract painter, I was mostly interested in the way he moved paint. But I was also a faux sophisticate and couldnt understand how serious painting could have such cheery and charming subject matter. Where was the anxiety I believed was the heart of modern painting? In any event, I loved the way he used color to create light and could put air around his figures by surrounding them with lushly painted bright colors not to outline them but to nestle them into his backgrounds of goopy white paint. I started ordering oil paint from his San Francisco supplier, Bay City Paint Company, so I could mimic his wet paint moves.

Several years after I left California for New York, I finally got to meet Thiebaud. The first occasion was in the fall of 2015, when my husband and I were visiting artists for the semester at the San Francisco Art Institute. My friend Gina Werfel and her husband Hearne Pardee, both painting professors at UC Davis, invited us and Thiebaud for dinner at their home in Davis. It felt strange to call this man Id admired for so long by his first name, but his unassuming, friendly manner, elegant but relaxed, made it easy. He had been a full-time professor of painting at Davis for 40 years, until university rules forced his retirement, and hed returned to teach part-time for another 16 years. Thiebauds pedagogical approach was famously participatory: he worked right alongside his students.   

Wayne Thiebaud, Dog Clown, in Wayne Thiebaud: Clowns, on view at the Laguna Art Museum from December 6, 2020, through October 24, 2021.

At that dinner, he talked about how working that way allowed his students to see him make and correct mistakes, and then make and correct them again. In typical modesty, he said he couldnt be Titian for them, but he could be a painter they could observe in the throes of solving painting problems. Thiebaud said that, from the brief time he lived in New York and hung out with de Kooning, he learned that the marks we make in paintings are but one mistake after another. We all discussed the reasons painting was so different from the other visual art forms. Its at least in part because it has implied rules that can be violated only so much before a painting is no longer painting. Unlike sculpture, for instance, it begins with the unspoken rule that everything will happen within a rectangle, honored in the breach by the likes of Elizabeth Murray and Frank Stella.

During a series of phone interviews I did with Thiebaud a few months later for an essay I was writing on the crisis in teaching painting in colleges, he told me, To call everything art is an obfuscation for the students and fails to clarify what were trying to get at as painters. Painting is concrete, but art is abstract. I dont think we know what art is. But we know a lot about painting.

In the winter of 2017, more than a year after that dinner but a few months before the essay was published, Thiebaud surprised me by showing up for a lecture I gave at UC Davis. He was 96 by then, but damn if he didnt drive the 15 miles from Sacramento to Davis on literally a dark and stormy night. There were power outages all over the place, wind and rain were splintering umbrellas into toothpicks, and tree limbs were littering the streets. Yet there he was, the most famous nonagenarian painter in the United States, seated in the back of the auditorium, curious to hear what another painter he barely knew would say about painting.

Afterwards, Thiebaud attended the dinner reception, where we briefly talked once again. He brought up a few points from my lecture, as well as the fact that he was going to his studio virtually every day and continuing to play tennis a couple of times a week. He was known for playing tennis long past the time most mortals are ensconced in nursing homes. The California sculptor Peter Gutkin noted that Thiebaud, when asked if he still played tennis, answered, Only when the ball comes to me.

Its not far-fetched to see Thiebauds paintings and his tennis game as connected. In both cases, he saw himself as a perpetual learner, and understood that the real task was to make the most of inevitable errors. And just as one can wrest victory from defeat even in a wretchedly played tennis match, one can conjure a finished painting out of a pile-up of truly awful errors. Thiebauds legacy consists of his gorgeous paintings, yes, but he also reminds us that to paint means to be perpetually starting over.

About the author: Laurie Fendrich is a painter, writer, and professor emerita of fine arts at Hofstra University.

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  1. Lovely remembrance of a truly gifted human being who happened to be a wonderful painter.

  2. We are so lucky to have artists who write so well and share their first hand experiences with our community.

  3. I love this tribute to Wayne Thiebaud. His contribution to painting has a long and positive history . Thank you.

  4. Terrific account of such a humble, talented artist. Thank you for sharing these stories with us. It shows that the man was as delicious as his paintings.

  5. A beautiful and deeply interesting tribute.

  6. An insightful and moving tribute to a painter�s painter, and an inquisitive and humble human.

  7. One of my all time favorite painters, especially the San Francisco towering streets and buildings. I teach art to children using his cake and pie paintings and have done so for years.

  8. Wonderful article and tribute.

  9. A great man: thinker, painter, human being.

    My husband, Doug Hilson, also a painter, was teaching at the University of Illinois and hosted a dinner for him and his wife when Mr. Thiebaud was a visiting artist at the University of Illinois. Mr. Thiebaud told him he loved teaching beginning drawing students and had them draw with a 4H pencil. He was the only visiting artist of many who did a demonstration by painting a tie with the students watching…it took about four hours! The results were magnificent, as to be expected. And the students were in awe.

  10. “anxiety at the heart of modern painting”. Says who? Accepting any kind of Kool aid isn’t helpful.

  11. Lovely piece – thank you!

  12. Your piece is both touching and spot on. As a young artist in the Sacramento area, Thiebaud was a community pillar of art thought and accomplishment for all of his life. I was fortunate to work for him as a TA in beginning drawing. We both would circle the room pointing out things not seen and making corrections. It was a good experience that served me well in my own teaching career.

  13. Thanks for your tribute. Paraphrasing Picasso, There are painters who turn the sun into a yellow spot on a canvas, but there are others who turn a yellow spot on a canvas . . . into the sun. Such was Wayne�s gift. He didn�t turn wonderful confections into brush strokes on a canvas. He turned strokes on a canvas into wonderful confections . . . into a feast for our eyes. I wish everyone could have known Wayne the way my wife and I did the past dozen years. Yours would have been as well. There are no words to describe the size of the universe. No words to adequately describe the skill, brilliance and character of this amazing man. Astounding in every way. One of a kind.
    Larry Crabbe
    Trustee, Wayne Thiebaud Foundation
    (and, more importantly, Wayne�s tennis partner)

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