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New York Sun

Summer is in the air and hanging on the wall at Acquavella Galleries, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “Wayne Thiebaud: Summer Days” is an evocation of sun and sand. It captures the carefree indulgences that tempt when the temperatures soar and the days lengthen. The artist lived more than a century before passing away in 2021. This show captures him as a perpetual boy of summer, alert to America’s fling with the season’s sweet irresponsibility.

Thiebaud was a contemporary of the likes of Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, and Roy Lichtenstein, though he outlived them all. He apprenticed at Walt Disney Studios, cutting his teeth drawing Goofy and Pinnochio, and served in the First Motion Picture Unit of the Air Force  during World War II. A teacher for generations, his work — Pop Art inflected, but less commercial than Warhol’s concoctions — fetches millions of dollars.

Thiebaud’s work on display here is rooted in the stretch between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The impasto thickness of his paintwork is reminiscent of lathered sunscreen. His subjects are summer’s totems — ice cream, hot dogs, sweets, bathing suits, and soda pop. “Strawberry Cone” gives the humble dessert the portrait treatment. The spare white background puts the pink pigment in high relief, and the cone is afforded dignity of architecture.

The cone casts a shadow, as if it also wants its turn in the sun. Thiebaud knows that sun and shade are summer’s binaries, its ever-shifting realms. While “Strawberry Cone” is downstream from fraught decisions — the eschewal of chocolate, the spurning of a cup in favor of the riskier cone — elsewhere Thiebaud depicts abundance. “Three Flavors” is a cornucopia of choice. “Untitled (Two Cakes)” summons vanilla and chocolate in purest form.

Variety is also encoded in “Untitled (Banana Split),” which is lusciously layered, held by the curved ballast of the banana. Its cup is thin-stemmed and wide-basined, giving it a thrillingprecarity. Its horizontality is offset by the vertical reach of “Double Scoop,” another cone creation that demands it be licked before it tumbles down. “Untitled (Candy Apples)” looks like a battalion of sugar. If one doesn’t share them, a stomach ache surely awaits.

“Untitled (Hot Dog)” could be the definitive treatment of that staple of the beach and ballpark. The dog is delightfully too long for its bun and parabolic in its shape. A sheen of yellow conveys that mustard has already been applied — it’s ready to eat. By setting the hot dog against a blank background, Thiebaud gives it a certain richness. For the moment of the painting, it does not have to compete against the girthier hamburger.

Thiebaud zooms out in “Hot Dog Stand,” which presents a shack on the beach, a temporary canteen that serves those who want to grab a bite so they can return to their swimming and sunning. The show contains four renderings of these shacks, telegraphing the artist’s persistent interest in these institutions. Maybe he was taken by their lean-to jauntiness. None of them have any customers — the viewer is meant to imagine the lines and grease-stained dollar bills.

“Untitled (Syrup Dispensers)” features two glass globes full of the sticky stuff, the bright colors available via spigots that appear ready to dispense streams out of the painting. The viewer’s shoes appear to be in danger of getting splashed. A different note is struck in “Beach Girl,” a watercolor that eschews the tan for the melancholy. Its subject is pensive and lonely. This is the kind of melancholy native to summer, when everyone is having fun. That can be hard.