I just came from the Wayne Thiebaud show at the San Jose Museum of Art. The SJMA is really cooking these days, with quality shows coming one after another. I’ve seen Thiebaud’s paintings in various places over the years, including a show of his “aerial” paintings of what appear to be Mississippi delta landscapes.
But this show seems to draw heavily, in fact almost exclusively, from the artist’s and his family’s collections. It covers Thiebaud’s work from approximately the early 1960s (with a few paintings from earlier than that) to present. One can’t help but be struck by the technical and stylistic consistency over this period of time. The color palettes change somewhat, but everything else stays the same.
From my painter’s perspective, I’ve always been impressed by the artist’s sheer joy in handling paint. You can just imagine Mr. Thiebaud, surrounded by mounds of goopy paint, standing with his large, thick bristle brush and grinning at a canvas. On almost every canvas the paint is thick - impasto is almost a misnomer - it’s more like cake icing, which he actually paints more than a few times. In fact, Thiebaud’s signature consists of his name scratched into the paint. I connect this to the way the abstract impressionists handled their paint, and Thiebaud had considerable connection to that style in his earlier years (he’s 89 now I think). He is masterful in how he makes his paint- the sheer bulk and physicality of it- support the design. The simpler the design, the more the paint technique comes to the fore. Some of his pictures seem to consist of a mere dozen enormous, major paint strokes, others thousands.
Thiebaud’s colors are joyous, rarely edgy. Even a very dark picture like “Dark City” (1999) never seems the least bit down. A closer examination shows a myriad of colors whipped into the darkest passages. When the artist lets go into the almost-pastel realm, he manages to blend odd combinations of creamy pale tones of similar values into a ménage of sparkling, swirling color unlike anyone I know of working today. He relishes color, one can see, and is fearless in its use. He’s a world-class colorist, in my view.
In the video interview with the artist (1999), he explains: “I try to coordinate two dielectics - abstraction and realism - and at the same time get some laughs.” Having heard him say this unlocked a perceptual door, and I worked back through the galleries with this idea in mind. Yes indeed, the general design and figures are in most ways perfectly representational, but the way he expresses them has many kinds of abstraction build in. For example, in the painting “Big Rock Mountain” the representation exists only in the outline - all of the paint inside the mountain-shaped blob is entirely abstract. The masterful handling, however, gives the eye enough suggestion of mountain-like features to take the viewer on a ride. Virtually all of his landscapes, most of which shown here are the well-known cityscapes dominated by strange vertical perspectives, are highly abstract, at least in how the paint is applied. It’s almost like Thiebaud is handing the abstract expressionist clan a new vision that twists representation on its head.
The show’s promo materials put Thiebaud in the Pop Art crowd. Superficially, he used culture references extensively in his earlier work, but most of his painting has little to do with pop culture. He enjoys depicting objects, but does that make it Pop Art? Not in my book. Anyway, this is great stuff at the SJMA. Go see this show before it leaves July 4.