No one paints cakes like Wayne Thiebaud. What Monet did for haystacks, Cezanne for Mont Sainte-Victoire and Pollock for drips, the California Realist does for pies, tarts and doughnuts.
Transforming decked-out desserts into sumptuous displays of painterly facility and irresistible desirability, the 82-year-old artist who divides his time between Sacramento and San Francisco uses diet-busting treats to make a profound statement about painting's relationship to pleasure and the place of both in the lives of ordinary Americans.
At Pepperdine University's Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, Thiebaud's signature images of tightly cropped bakery counters festooned with sweet confections are the stars of a tasty sampling of 44 oils on canvas, panel and paper that he made between 1955 and 2002. Organized in conjunction with the University Library Gallery at Cal State Sacramento, the modest survey includes four portraits, two figure studies, eight views of the Sacramento countryside and six San Francisco street scenes. Coming just two years after a major retrospective that traveled to San Francisco, Fort Worth, New York and Washington, D.C., it offers Southern California viewers a quick glimpse of Thiebaud at his best: depicting specific, often frivolous things with so much compassion and clarity that they momentarily become the center of the universe.
In the first gallery, three paintings lay out the basics of Thiebaud's development from a run-of-the-mill Modernist to an American original. Combining the precise lines of architectural drawings with the swift brushstrokes of Expressionism, "Feast," from 1955-56, presents a table laden with all the accouterments of a holiday meal.
The blurry picture's brown palette, accented by the dirty whites and impure blacks of Analytic Cubism, conveys autumnal solemnity. The composition, which positions a viewer as if he or she were seated at the head of the table, augments the formal atmosphere.
As a whole, the 2-by-3-foot painting tries too hard to be artsy, creating a brittle, almost funereal feeling. Paradoxically, this is the same thing many American families do on holidays, loading these official breaks from the rat race of everyday life with so many expectations that they become dispiriting obligations we endure rather than joyous occasions we celebrate.
"Orange Soda," from 1961, comes from somewhere else altogether. Leaving the portentous ambitions of Thiebaud's early work in the dust, this significantly smaller image dispenses with overblown traditions in favor of everyday pleasures most folks grab on the go. One of Thiebaud's first mature works, it consists of a plain white backdrop against which he has painted a bottle of the soft drink in the title along with a bottle of bright red ketchup, three jars (of bright yellow mustard, deep green dill pickles and creamy mayonnaise) as well as enough other condiments to transform the plain burger in the foreground into a multi-course meal guaranteed to drip down your arm.
Like a Pop Minimalist updating a still life by Morandi, Thiebaud strips his art of everything unnecessary. This lets him charge the painting's empty spaces with electrifying energy. More opulently painted than its bottles and jars, the still life's background also contains sensuous shadows that form right angles with the objects that cast them. This locks the composition into place and gives its mundane imagery a sense of timeless tranquillity.
"Three Treats," from 1969, compresses the delicious, unpretentious appeal of "Orange Soda" into an image that's sexy and satisfying and less than a square foot. In this compact masterpiece, a trio of cherry-topped desserts merges with their supersaturated shadows to form a silhouette that's both masculine and feminine. Recalling the biblical story of the serpent and the forbidden fruit, Thiebaud's secular icon demonstrates that almost anything is possible in a painting, certainly eating your cake and having it too.
The remaining works in the first gallery show Thiebaud refining the developments traced by these three paintings. In pictures of eclairs, ice cream cones and a loaf of freshly baked bread, he keys up colors, applies paint as if it were frosting and zeroes in on lovely details. He doesn't always succeed. Two images of barbecued chickens look vulgar, almost pornographic, when seen alongside his luxuriant desserts.
In contrast, the desktop in "Office Still Life" (1975), the high-heeled pump in "White Shoe" (1995) and every square inch of "Bakery Case" (1996) are exquisite. They look heavenly and transcendent because Thiebaud has outlined them with thin bands of contrasting colors. These candy-colored lines vibrate against one another, creating the impression that his best paintings are abuzz with supernatural energy. No more magical than rainbows, Thiebaud's works serve up optical effects whose roots can be traced back through Bridget Riley to Seurat.
In the second gallery, Thiebaud's images of San Francisco's plunging streets and thrusting buildings capture much of the drama of his still lifes. So do his fanciful landscapes, which pay homage to Grant Wood's comic sensuality while anticipating the vertiginous weightlessness of computer graphics. Never one to wedge everything he does into a single system, Thiebaud paints portraits, figure studies and country landscapes in a much more conventional manner.
Back in the 1960s, Andy Warhol said that Pop Art was about liking things. Although Thiebaud is quoted far less frequently than the father of Pop, if he were asked the same question he'd probably say that his art goes even further: that it's about loving things.
When he signs his paintings, he almost always inscribes a little heart at the end of his name. Like magical valentines whose pleasures are available to anyone who is interested, Thiebaud's paintings celebrate the fact that passion and democracy go hand in hand and that little moments of happiness don't have to add up to big events to be meaningful.