Thiebaud gets just desserts

Serving up thickly painted cakes, pies and slices of past Americana culture, Californian artist Wayne Thiebaud tempts art and dessert lovers alike in a new exhibit, “Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective,” showing at The Phillips Collection through April 29.

Famous for his still-life paintings of toys, candies and confections, Thiebaud offers visitors a wide variety of oil paintings, watercolors and pastels that not only leave his viewers with a craving for the sweet treats that make up his work, but also for the past America glorified in the images.

The bold colors and broad brush strokes, along with his seemingly everyday subject matter, associate Thiebaud with the Pop Art movement of the 1960s and artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. But unlike these famous Pop artists, Thiebaud never intended his art to be a social criticism of the growing commercialization of America.

Instead, Thiebaud explained in the exhibit’s press release that his paintings rejoiced in the development of American culture.

“When the pies and other foods began to show up, they seemed first of all to be quite humorous,” said Thiebaud, according to the release. “But they also had something to do with celebrating the standardization of food and the rituals that we subject them to . I never felt any sense of irony, or criticism, or other social content that many of the Pop artists seemed to be interested in.”

Thiebaud embraces the emerging American culture in his painting Salads, sandwiches and desserts (1962) in which he uses the rows of sliced avocados, cantaloupes and pies to show America’s desire for overabundance as being “full of both pathos and humor.”

While Thiebaud plays with the geometric shapes and patterns created by the dishes of food, he creates a mood of nostalgia by using a typical color scheme associated with the 1960s. Similarly, the artist’s use of paint itself completes the precarious balance between abstract and reality.

In his most famous piece, Cakes (1963), Thiebaud applies thicker paint to create the ornate swooping and decorative frosting on the edges of his pastries. This three-dimensional effect moves the viewer backward in time to a point when, as a child, one might have looked in at the pastries in a baker’s window and longed for a slice of that perfect dessert.

“It is a full sensory experience,” said Amanda Boysen, a museum patron. “It just affects you so greatly . it almost makes you hungry.”

But like too many real sweets, the light pastels and candy colors that characterize many of Thiebaud’s still life works can leave the eyes aching for darker, more substantive colors.

The exhibit recognizes this desire for change, moving patrons up the staircase into selected portraits and darker-hued landscape scenes.

Despite the difference in colors, Thiebaud’s portraits are a direct extension of his still-life pieces. He tends to focus on static and neutral poses that cause the viewer to take a second look at his subjects’ deadpan expressions.

“I didn’t want them to be clearly in the act of doing something that you know what they were doing,” Thiebaud said in the press release. Instead he wanted to focus on the “joy of observation” and to make it “somehow a kind of opportunity for staring at people, like you might do at the airport.”

There is a distinct alteration in Thiebaud’s painting style as he employs a smoother, more “realistic” approach to the portraits. The artist leaves behind the rough impressionistic technique typical of some of his earlier works.

The smoother style carries into his landscapes and mixes with a new dimension of abstract reality. The sharp, unrealistic twists of the city streets and the angular lines that typify these later works place the viewer in the heart of San Francisco and the city life.

Thiebaud captures the living pulse of his hometown in his imaginative landscapes. Each piece of the diverse collection embodies his love for Americana. His works set him apart from the critical Pop Art milieu, and place him in a realm of sincere appreciation for American culture as well as his own boyhood memories.

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