Wayne Thiebaud is an artist that has been associated with the Pop Art culture and also was part of the realism that came out of the United States west coast. Thiebaud’s real life representation of his subject has been seen as one of many beginnings photorealism. Before becoming a painter, Thiebaud worked in New York City as a sign painter and also as a cartoonist. He only began to paint in 1949, incorporating skills from his former occupations. Thiebaud is best known for the paintings that are associated with the production line of objects that can be found in diners and cafeterias, such as pies and pastries and others objects of common everyday life.
The Neapolitan Pie that I found in the Norton Museum embodies the techniques that he often used in his paintings. This painting with its thick paint adding to the depth and character led me to want to learn about the artist behind it. Thiebaud chose to celebrate and embrace the delights of the common place and rendered his realistic paintings with a “brilliant eye for abstraction.” Thiebaud’s painting technique can be described as a “cookbook chronicling those that have added sizzle, seasoning or even sprinkle to its prolific palette” What he wanted to set out to do was to create a different visual species, which he described as being the ultimate accomplishment for all painters. Thiebaud says that art needs constant movement of different aspects of itself in order to stay alive. He also states that art draws inspiration from everything around it. He is not afraid of showing in his paintings aspects from other artists who inspired him, “My world is one crime… I steal from every artist around the world.” This may be why Thiebaud completely followed artists that were before him and also artists who were painting in his time period. Wayne Thiebaud had many artists in Abstract Expressionism and artists from Pop Art that he gathered techniques from. There were artistic time periods that he borrowed aspects from and combined with others to produce his own characteristic style. In this paper I will describe all these aspects and how their combination gave rise to the famous work we know Wayne Thiebaud for today.
Thiebaud was a realist painter and painted at a time between Abstract Expressionism movement and the Pop Art era. His growth as an artist started from when he was a young child and as a teenager made poster designs and on stage sets for theatre. Thiebaud worked at Universal Studios and also as an illustrator for the advertising department in New York. He later earned a degree from California State College in Sacramento and this was where he learned and became fond of the fine arts. After this he began to study art history books intensively and the paintings in them, including the transitions in the works from period to period. Thiebaud, while working, became friends with and interested in the works of art from Willem De Kooning and Franz Kline who were abstract expressionist painters. This was a “American post World War II art movement.” the predecessor of this art movement is surrealism, which features elements of surprise and unexpected juxtapositions. Willem De Kooning also was involved with action painting, whose characteristics are spontaneous, splashed, or smeared onto a canvas. Kooning states, “People are always trying to break the backs of paintings by expecting things which paintings cannot do…it’s just a painting. A God damned painting. Just a little thing you smear stuff on. You just hope in the smearing that you haven’t insulted people that you’re asking to look at it.” This statement was a great influence in shaping the thoughts of Thiebaud. He saw this as a quintessential idea for producing works of art
By the early 1960’s the paintings he had produced now began to gain tension, balance, and grace. He placed the forms first and objects were pushed forward and put in a relevant order. He had been making statements like this with his Neapolitan Pie for years before others but was packed together with other artists in the Pop Art period when the movement surfaced. Pop Art was a tradition that challenged the artwork at that time and wanted to show that anything the artist used, which was of mass-production of popular culture could can be connected with fine art. It was widely seen as a reaction and expansion of the dominant ideas of abstract realism, which was a spontaneous or subconscious creation. Pop Art does not refer directly to the art that they made, but the ideas that moved the whole movement itself. During this time, Thiebaud also saw works of art from the earliest pop artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns whose paintings were based on Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art. What Thiebaud did was abandoned most of the ideas that Pop Art committed itself to and react against it, which is surprising since he was seen as a vital part to this period. The work that Thiebaud produced is described as “nostalgic views of popular culture and the American scene with which viewers of all kinds can easily identify.” Most paintings in the Pop Art period were more intimidating for those viewing the work in museums and sometimes were too harsh to appreciate. What Thiebaud said was “I am not a card carrying Pop artist… I don’t like much of it.” Pop to him was more of a business than an operation of honorable painting and he had too much respect for the original products that they played off of to be a part of Pop Art. So while this art period was taking off Thiebaud decided that he was going to move on and became a professor at U-C Davis.
Another influence of Wayne Theibaud was of Abstract Expressionism, which was going on in the time he produced work, and can be seen “in the thick brushstrokes and bold use of colour” which was a constant theme in his works. Thiebaud began to paint images based on food that he would see displayed in windows, focusing not on what he was painting but more on the shape of the objects. What impacted his painting this way was his inclination for simple objects, borrowing aspects of layouts for ads that he did while working as a cartoonist and sign painter. His simplicity to his designs could be understood and recognized as a method that he took into his paintings. This would also be around the 1960’s and Thiebaud wanted to show depictions of the everyday American life while showing a new approach to art, representational art. Artists such as Stuart Davis and his Odol Bottle and Gerald Murphy and his Safety Razor were visions of the coming pop culture era even before Thiebaud began to paint work that would fit into it. As Thiebaud continued to work influences from other artists could be seen in his work like the paintings of Giorgio Morandi like his Still Life. Thiebaud long admired Giorgio’s work “for their contemplative quiet, the palpable sense of protracted looking that they convey, and their delicate, varied effects achieved with seemingly minimal means.” The influence of this was not just in how Thiebaud structured his work, but also by how he manipulated the light and the slow moving strokes to enhance the form of the object. This aspect of manipulating light also was something he used in his signs and works, making a shadow where there is none to draw the eye to areas that there would be none and giving the work depth. This aspect was also borrowed from the tromp l’oeil (fool the eye) painter John Peto, who painted the Letter Rack, who also was said to have an influence on Thiebaud. Due to this influence, Thiebaud would never have any space of where the object would leave the page it would be represented in its entirety showing the readers that it would not be real. He would arrange the object in his painting into a shallow space and used shadows, as previously stated, to suggest some form of depth without there actually being any depth; tromp l’oeil.
The Neapolitan Pie and all the works Thiebaud has produced had notable influences from his background and artists whom he studied and who had an influence on what he produced. Thiebaud had a way of dragging his paint across his canvas in a smooth way that would enhance the luscious textures of oil and transform itself into the very object that he was trying to portray. This, by the artists, refers to object transference and roots can also be traced to Morandi, but also in artists such as Joaquin Sorolla. He painted objects that are common placed around any individual as those of Stuart Davis and Gerald Murphy. Thiebaud had a strong inclination in painting common objects much earlier than those of the Pop culture movement. When Thiebaud first began to paint these common objects though he found it humorous and channeled his cartoonist abilities with his row of pies:
“When I painted the first row of pies, I can remember sitting and laughing – sort of a silly relief – ‘Now I have flipped out!’ The one thing that allowed me to do that was having been a cartoonist. I did one and thought, “That’s really crazy, but no one is going to look at these things anyway, so what the heck.”
However with all of his pastry paintings he handled the paint in a way that makes his work very distinctive. His paintings bring forth a realism of complete visual delight. He made anew the representational subject matter with a bold palette and used his skillful display of brushwork acquired from the Abstract Expressionists he admired.
Wayne Thiebaud copied from the masters because he respected art so much that he wanted to learn from those greats that came before him. What he did was add his own style to it so as to expand on what he learned into a different category, so as to be seen in a new light. He delighted in the works of other art periods like Abstract Expressionism and Realism and saw it as an honour to study an be apart of the art movement. He rejected the ideas of the Pop Art movement that he was classified in because he respected the art work they ridiculed too much to make a mockery of it. He was said as feeling honoured that he was able to apply himself and that he became a force in the artistic movement that is still evolving today. His work will forever be a staple and used as a tool for artist that come behind him to study learn from and elaborate on.