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Wayne Thiebaud

Since the early 1960s, one of Wayne Thiebaud's signature motifs has been still lifes of mass-produced foodstuffs and objects. Thiebaud has espoused a “belief in the tradition of modernism: that one should be able to make art out of anything. If Duchamp could claim a urinal as modern sculpture, why question Thiebaud's paintings of gumball machines and cream pies” (Tsujimoto, 36)? Thiebaud’s initial choice of subject is purely formal, a means for organizing a visual composition. It is through the unselfconscious application of various techniques that his subjects become something more. In Thiebaud’s words “common objects become strangely uncommon when removed from their context and ordinary ways of being seen”(Cooper). Thiebaud often places his still life subjects on a white or near white background in order to eliminate the effects that an environment might have on an object’s true colors. One of the many distinctive Thiebaud motifs is a phenomenon known as halation, limning objects with complimentary colors that make them pulsate and helps soften the edges in order to merge them with their white backgrounds. These “rings” of color “give to his pictures not just a sense of the shiver of light in a particular place but also the sense that the scene has the interior life and unnatural emphases of something recalled from memory” (Gopnik, 79). In addition, he invests great detail and highly specific color in the shadows that his still life subjects cast, intensifying the presence of the objects in space. In order to create a sense of energy and to seemingly freeze an object in the moment, Thiebaud tends to apply paint in viscous strokes that ring the objects with an air of tension. Ultimately, Thiebaud’s still lifes explore ways for objects to transcend their normal associations. “Thiebaud’s method…has the effect not of eliminating the Pop resonance of his subjects but of slowing down and chastening the associations they evoke, so that a host of ambivalent feelings—nostalgic and satiric and elegiac—can come back later, calmed down and contemplative: enlightened” (Gopnik, 80).

Wayne Thiebaud was born in 1920 in Mesa, Arizona. From 1938-1949 he was a cartoonist and designer in California and New York. He also served as an artist in the First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Forces from 1942-1945. Thiebaud attended San Jose State College (now San Jose State University) followed by Sacramento State College (now California State University, Sacramento), where he received his BA in 1951 and his MA in 1952. For over fifty years, Thiebaud has been a fixture of American Art, the recipient of numerous awards, with highlights including the 1994 National Medal of Arts, given by the then President Clinton, a 2001 Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Academy of Design, and a 2007 Bay Area Treasure Award from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Thiebaud has been honored with gallery and museum exhibitions almost every year since 1960, highlighted by a 1985 retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and a 2001 retrospective that traveled from the de Young Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Allan Stone began representing Wayne Thiebaud in 1962, just as he began to develop his most admired themes. Over the years he rose from relative obscurity as a miscategorized California Pop artist to one of the most celebrated painters of the twentieth century. Thiebaud lives and works in Sacramento, California.

Tsujimoto, Karen. Wayne Thiebaud. Seattle: University of Washington Press. 1985.
Cooper, Gene. Wayne Thiebaud: Survey of Painting 1950-1972. Long Beach: California State University. 1972. n.p.
Gopnik, Adam. “The Art World: Window Gazing.” New Yorker, April 29. 1991.

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