Sweet Art: Wayne Thiebaud

September 3, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Above all else, the retrospective of Wayne Thiebaud’s paintings currently at San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor offers a feast for the eyes: A cake with luscious, thick frosting that looks good enough to eat, bowls of soup painted with surprising shadows and swirls of color. The show’s curator says installing the works reminded him of Thiebaud’s virtuosity as a painter.

STEVEN NASH, Chief Curator, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: This is a painting, for instance, which you cannot possibly understand in an illustration. There’s no way to get the depth of the paint handling, the way the surface is treated, the incredible richness of paint manipulation in it or the quality of light in it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The exhibit features works like these pinball machines from the 1960s, and a room full of portraits, including this one of his wife, Betty Jean, who has posed for him repeatedly over the years. In the 1990s, Thiebaud began painting a series of vibrant landscapes of the Sacramento River delta just east of San Francisco. Farmlands are tipped up, sometimes seen from above, and are almost abstract in design and effect, as are his cityscapes, paintings of the streets and hills of San Francisco. It is both a real and imaginary place for him.

WAYNE THIEBAUD: Originally, I painted right on the streets, trying to get some of the kind of drama I felt about the city and its vertiginous character, but that didn’t seem to work and… the reality was one thing but the fantasy or the exploration of it was another.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I love them because they’re a combination of both; they really are about San Francisco. I mean it’s the real city, it’s the real street, but you make up addresses even. I mean, 24th and Mariposa doesn’t exist– it can’t– they run parallel.

WAYNE THIEBAUD: But Mariposa is such a beautiful word to put on a sign.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thiebaud has a home near Mariposa Street on one of San Francisco’s hills, but because he has taught since 1960 at the University of California at Davis, he lives most of the time nearby in Sacramento. He was a commercial artist before he was a painter, working as a layout designer and cartoonist for companies like Rexall Drugs. During World War II he designed posters for the army air corps. At age 79, Thiebaud still competes in tennis tournaments and paints every day.

WAYNE THIEBAUD: I love sweets anywhere.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He still loves the window displays that inspired his first big artistic success in the early 1960s.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So what do you see when you look at this?


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He’d been working on more traditional subjects, he said, but decided to try something different.

WAYNE THIEBAUD: I’d worked in food preparation. So I’d always seen these lined… The way they line up food, sort of ritualistically and I thought, “oh, I’ll try that”… So I started painting these ovals for the plate and then put a triangle on it. And I mixed up a pumpkin color, maybe, I’d put it on and it was so far away from pumpkin color that I thought, “oh, I’ve got to put other colors in there.” So I added blues and other colors to see if it could enliven it, but then I realized I’d painted this row of pies and started laughing and said, “well, that’s the end of me as a serious artist. Nobody’s going to take this seriously.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But people did take the paintings seriously enough to spend big money for them when they were first shown at the Alan Stone Gallery in New York in 1962, and their value kept rising. This work sold in 1991 to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., for $1 million. Some critics have considered Thiebaud part of the pop art movement, but his interest in painting ordinary objects pre- dated the emergence of pop art, and Thiebaud’s work has never been as ironic or critical of mass culture as much pop art is. I spoke to Wayne Thiebaud in his studio in Sacramento.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why was it risky for you to start painting pies and cakes?

WAYNE THIEBAUD: Well, it’s silly, you know. It’s fun and humorous and that’s dangerous in the art world, I think. It’s a world that takes itself very seriously, and of course, it is a serious enterprise, but I think also there’s room for wit and humor because humor gives us, I think, a sense of perspective. And I think, like W.C. Fields said, “if we haven’t been able to see ourselves as a cartoon character, we’ve not seen ourselves clearly.” At least at some time, because it’s… That’s part of the human enterprise, isn’t it?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Some people see sadness in the toys and in the pies and even in the cityscapes, a kind of longing. Do you feel that?

WAYNE THIEBAUD: Well, I think… Yes, I think, I think there’s something about what someone calls “bright pathos,” like circuses and clowns, and toys. I think toys… Someone said that toys represent something special. How does it go? A child’s toys are the grandfather’s dreams. And the sort of elegance of that in terms of our history and the way we see our evolutionary procedures.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about the gumball machines? We shot a series of them and you’ve been painting them for a very long time– the penny machines. What do you like about those? How do you see them?

WAYNE THIEBAUD: I just see them as sort of magical objects and interesting and… very, very interesting objects to work on because of the color. I mean, a big round globe is so beautiful and it’s really a kind of orchestration of circles of all kinds. But it’s also very sensuous, I think, and it offers wonderful opportunities for painting something like, almost like a bouquet of flowers.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’ve said before that you don’t consider yourself an “artist,” what do you mean?

WAYNE THIEBAUD: Well, isn’t it something for other people to make a decision about? I think it’s just like, as I say, it’s like a priest referring to himself as a saint. Maybe it’s a little too early or he’s not the one to decide that. It’s decided apart from you and that’s the way it should be. It’s… Being an artist I think is a very rare thing. There aren’t very many people who achieve that and I think we ought to keep it as a golden special word so that it… It doesn’t get all gummed up or dirty or too usual. It has to be special.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So what do you say when people say what do you do? You say “I’m a painter?”

WAYNE THIEBAUD: A painter and then sometimes they ask me to paint, paint their house.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You say that you steal from everybody you can. What do you mean?

WAYNE THIEBAUD: Well, I’m a visual bandit. Just… That’s just the way it is. It’s like anything. You learn by the help of other people, what they’ve done, and how to go about it. There are many people who I’m indebted to, people like Richard Diebenkorn who meant a lot to me in terms of this area.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us about the five seated figures. What were you trying to do and why are they all sitting and looking away from each other?

WAYNE THIEBAUD: People always think I have some message and one woman said that she knew it exactly what was happening to those five figures– they’re all mad at each other.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But that’s not what was happening?

WAYNE THIEBAUD: I said, “no, that’s not true.” So then she chided me. She said, “why won’t you tell me what’s going on with those figures?” I said, “I don’t really… I don’t know, I don’t know. She says, “Come on, you can tell me. I’m a psychiatrist.” So I just don’t know and don’t really want to know– it’s that kind of a probe.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And the cityscapes, you’ve been painting them for a long time. Do you see them changing? And if so, how?

WAYNE THIEBAUD: I think just setting different problems because you don’t want to repeat yourself. You try if you’re working on too many parallel streets and you try to take that away and maybe open up the thing to a greater distance, try to deal with a different kind of space. Sometimes it’s sort of telescopic space. Sometimes you try to expand the space so that you have a kind of infinity. So mostly it’s just really a series of problems– sometimes in color; sometimes you decide that you want to not use bright colors but take the register way down to grays or maybe to a very dark palette. So it’s like music where you transpose something into a lower key or a different key.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The delta paintings are tremendously colorful, the most colorful I think of, at least everything I’ve seen that you’ve done. Is there any explanation for that? Is it just the way the delta is? What you want to do right now with color?

WAYNE THIEBAUD: That happens because of the phenomenon of the time span of the delta where you see it in various seasonal times, in the winter very dark, very gray. So the color aspect of those overall, are in some ways trying to encapsulate or anthologize those various seasonal changes.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us about “Green River Lands,” what you wanted to do, what problems you were solving, what you were seeing.

WAYNE THIEBAUD: I think in some ways it’s the most extreme one. It’s the most curious one in terms of the variety of points- of-view. A lot of them are read quite quickly as aerial views, which they really are not. They’re a combination of sort of ground level, and high middle, and very high. But it has a lot to do with, I think, Chinese painting or oriental painting where you really… it’s almost scroll- like in terms of its verticality. It may be a big failure. But it was a wonderful thing to try out these various kinds of things.

And I like… I like the idea of extremes in some way. I think that’s part of how we get to something like art where you try– are willing to push the extremes — not so much me, but with someone like Rembrandt, where he’ll make the picture all go to almost black and he’ll leave just the forehead, nose, and little finger down here almost, you have to build the rest — or Cézanne with these little touches, little pieces of glass that you could almost shake his paintings and they would fall, you know. So those extremes, I think, are really wonderful to pursue.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think– as you know, some writers and painters and musicians get better the older they get and some don’t– do you think you’ve gotten better?

WAYNE THIEBAUD: You hope so, but you never know. I see paintings I think are better than I’m doing at some cases now. It’s odd. It’s something which I think is not so much to think about as to think about the… the wonderful thing that you can still keep going. I heard Robert Frost once say, if I can– he was like in his eighties I think– and he said, “if I can get up and have the presence of mind to make my bed, the rest of it’s all gravy.” I can go to work and make poems and it’s sort of that way with me at least.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Wayne Thiebaud, thanks for being with us.

WAYNE THIEBAUD: Thank you so much.