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The Brooklyn Rail

Wayne Thiebaud: Summer Days surveys exemplary works from the late artist’s career, most of which are, as the title suggests, preoccupied with summer scenes. The range of subjects includes various sun-soaked accoutrements: beachcombers, sunglasses, California license plates, and cherry-topped desserts set on brightly-lit delicatessen counters. Collectively, they resound with nostalgia for post-war West Coast American visual culture. The impressive exhibition’s half-century breadth is bookended by the 1959 Eats—an expressionistic watercolor study of a Long Beach food stand that still retains the flurried brushwork of the Bay Area Figurative Movement—and the 2021 Untitled (Syrup Dispensers), executed with resplendent facture in a bright, fatty manner that makes use of combed impasto and a multi-hued adumbration.

The show is weighted towards Thiebaud’s mature career and is better off for it. As Thiebaud explains in a 2008 CBS Sunday Morning interview, it was only after de Kooning’s suggestion that he eschew “the signs of painting”—e.g. “the drip, silver paint or the grandiose signature”—for that which is “personal” that Thiebaud came into his own, foregoing abstract strokes for syncopated rows of lemon meringue pies and triangle tea sandwiches, indices of his Southern California upbringing. Having worked in the service industry, Thiebaud knew food preparation first-hand, and so he painted what he was familiar with. The current exhibition complements the artist’s well-known leitmotifs (effulgent pies, cakes, confections, soda bottles, and beach balls) with vaporous architectural studies like Moonlight (2008–15) and Sea Resort(2007–15). These, alongside a near-abstract horizontal parceling of a refracted ocean wave, Untitled (Beach Wave) (n.d.), attest to less-appreciated aspects of Thiebaud’s mature oeuvre.

Thiebaud’s best paintings isolate standard objects and commodities like club sandwiches, cheese wheels, candy apples, and hot dogs in a mauve-crimson luminescence. Thiebaud’s glow is one with his shadows, wrapping objects in a glass-like casing and uprooting them from an intensely-lit white ground. The creamy texture of his oils unevenly translates to wooden structures like the beach-side shack of Hot Dog Stand (2004–12), although his purple gleam is perfectly suited for the penumbra cast on the corners where the stand’s roof meets its beams. Still less is it suited for skin, leaving Thiebaud’s portrait of his wife, Betty Jean (c. 1965), looking shallow and waxen. Were Thiebaud not a Romantic but an artist of the uncanny, like Charles Ray, this would be more apt. But Thiebaud’s figures are better left as suggestions, either dotted from afar like the frazzled swirls peopling Moonlight (2008–15) or the sweeping impressionistic strokes-cum-cavorting-beachgoers of Beach Gathering (2000–2015).

Strawberry Cone (1969), Untitled (Two Cakes) (1988), Three Flavors (1995), Untitled (Hot Dog) (2019), and Untitled (Hors d’Oeuvres) (2020/2021) brilliantly stage their respective confections over a buttery, blanched-white background. At first glance, the foreshortened victuals appear to float in an open expanse, but, by casting long blue shadows, Thiebaud implies that his objects sit upon over-lit tabletops. In Double Scoop (2013–15), the ice cream-crowned waffle cone is set on a milk-chocolate wooden slab that foregrounds a bruised azure sky. The table’s lower edge is bisected by thin horizontal bands, chartreuse-green quickening into aquamarine and rouge fillets. Thiebaud’s steeply pitched spatial compression, a tensing of figure and ground, is never claustrophobic thanks to adeptness in managing the physicality of paint. The work’s horizontal continuity is abetted by the smooth, stripe-like strokes that characterize both foreground and background. Although many have underscored the “vertical format” of Thiebaud’s work—for instance, Judith Richards in an oral history interview with Robert Bechtle remarks that “Thiebaud's are mostly vertical”—his textural manipulation of paint is so often decidedly horizontal in its orientation. 

Thiebaud is certainly a painter of shadows, but is he also a painter of light? In his April 29, 1991 article, “The Art World: Window Gazing,” Adam Gopnik writes that Thiebaud’s layer cakes are displayed in the envelope of late-afternoon “chalky” light, a “recognizably American light … that is at first as familiar … as the cakes it surrounds.” For Gopnik, Thiebaud’s is the light of the West Coast, one intensified by “being bounced off the windshields and chrome-work of an infinity of parked cars, and reflected up from the bare white pavements of countless empty midday streets.” Such billowing light, like that washing over an Edward Hopper scene, has its roots in Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins, amongst others; where these artists paint light itself, however, Thiebaud never isolates light as a discrete element. Light is implied by Thiebuad’s long shadows and inferred through refractions in his Maraschino cherries. But it is never a layer in its own right. Gopnik is, however, correct that Thiebaud is less interested in presenting cakes as cakes (or beach balls as beach balls, etc.)—his concern is, instead, with registering confections as “thing[s] enjoyed.” The artist makes “objects into symbols without betraying them as objects,” such that they carry a thing-ly frosting, varnished like furniture.

But Thiebaud’s sensuous presentation has often been mischaracterized, goading commentators to either erroneously designate him a Pop artist or, as Donald Judd wrote in a 1962 review, a satirist who uses “conservative technique[s] to attempt subversion.” The “aboutness” of Thiebaud’s work is more nuanced (and clandestine) than the twin acts of lionizing or lampooning will admit. Reviewing the archives of Allan Stone Projects, one finds Thiebaud repeatedly referring to his technique: the formal orchestration of cylinders, spheres, and cones, the artist building objects from rudiments, mostly working from memory. Elsewhere, Thiebaud underscores what he calls “object transference” and “actualism,” the rendering of paint as cream through thick impasto. But Thiebaud’s impasto is as pronounced in his coastal foothills as it is in the edges between vistas and crags in his beach scenes—and it even populates his kaleidoscopically encircled shadows. His impasto is not, as some critics have remarked, simply equivalent to frosting, nor is it a measure of verisimilitude. In his 1962 San Francisco Sunday Chroniclearticle, “Is a Lollipop Tree Worth Painting,” Thiebaud notes that his raised impasto ridges “lock in” his planes, making them “flatter,” and expose a kind of illusionism underwritten by “the propensities of [painterly] materials.” Using punctuated blue, green, and orange tracings in both his shadow-rings and encased objects, Thiebaud endows his subjects with a limned effect that both increases their spatial depth and draws our attention to the distinct qualities of pigment. 

Thiebaud’s sophisticated formal devices license his elegiac treatment of an American visual culture that is destined to slip into the domain of the imaginary. Such a phenomenon can only be seized in and through visual media themselves, as Thiebaud realized. In the same 1962 article, he writes that he is concerned with “the object which essentializes our time”—the object that has been overlooked because it is common, but not common enough. Thiebaud sought to “allow us to see ourselves looking at ourselves.” He thus performs an existential, Romantic act, sanctioning a kind of self-conscious act of preservation that is leavened by the empyreal glow of soft pastel tones, swirling impasto, shimmering thin planes, dramatized shadows, and gossamer ringlets. This becomes impossible to deny when one takes their time with the best of Thiebaud’s paintings, worked and reworked throughout his career, many of which are on view in this show.