Expect the unexpected when you see “The Paul LeBaron Thiebaud Collection” at the University Library Gallery at California State University, Sacramento. In addition to predictable works by major Northern California artists, including his father, Wayne Thiebaud, there are African, pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial works, as well as some real oddities.
You might not expect to see a wall of worn and faded Ethiopian hats, softened by time but still as radiant as any abstract work by Sol Lewitt. Nor would you likely anticipate a trio of handsome and elegant 18th to 19th century Swedish augers installed on a wall near a massive Spanish Colonial painting of the Virgin and Child, which makes one realize the augers look a lot like crosses. And then there are the antique European and American hat molds, carefully carved heads in various sizes lined up and looking like an installation by a surrealist.
These unusual pieces illustrate what a voracious, eclectic and canny collector Paul Thiebaud was. During his short life (he died of cancer at age 49 in 2010) he dealt in art at an international level, owned galleries in San Francisco and New York, and maintained ties he made while working at Christie’s auction house as a young man after earning a bachelor’s degree in international relations at UC Davis.
A lively entry in the catalog of the show by his half-brother Matt Bult tells us that his interest in finding, collecting and enjoying artworks of many styles was established at an early age. Visiting Shield’s Antiques on Franklin Boulevard in Sacramento with his parents in the mid-1960s, Bult recalls, Thiebaud collected Acoma Indian pottery, baskets, paintings and objects of all kinds. As a small boy he helped his Grandma Cassity in rural Missouri dig up old bottles, and found beads and arrowheads in a plowed field along the Sacramento River. As a young adult he was influenced by dealer-collectors Allan Stone, Charles Campbell (with whom he ran the Campbell-Thiebaud Gallery in San Francisco before striking out on his own in in 2001) and Merton Simpson, who all had fascinating back rooms.
As Colleen Casey, co-curator of the exhibition and director of LeBaron’s Fine Art, writes: “When visiting art galleries and private dealers around the world, I remember Paul would get a mirthful gleam in his eyes while rubbing his palms together as though a trumpet fanfare was blaring the call to the post to signal the horses and riders to approach the gate at a horserace. Sometimes, the pursuit of finding a treasured piece was almost as exciting as the acquisition. However, value was always measured by the beauty and composition of a work of art and not by the monetary price.”
Kelly Purcell, director of the Paul Thiebaud Gallery in San Francisco, which continues under the ownership of his heirs, comments on the “unerring, razor-sharp” choices of things to acquire.
“At times, he opted against choosing the most quintessential, obvious example of an artist’s output, opting instead for a gem of diminutive size, one with a certain quirkiness in the handling, or a bit offbeat in structure. The gift of having an eye, of seeing the strength in what others would dismiss upon initial review or fail to notice, greatly benefited his clients, family friends and … colleagues as well.”
The exhibition exemplifies his vision, ranging from a quiet, almost casual figure drawing by David Park and a tiny, vintage painting of a slice of pie by his father, to stunning examples of African, pre-Columbian and Latin American folk art: a ceramic standing Jalisco warrior, an African Dogon wooden ladder, a series of wonderfully strange retablos (votive works from Latin America made to venerate saints or ask for their help in healing).
As befits the various nature of his collecting, one moves in the exhibit from a trio of Chancay figures from Peru, with their squat bodies and tiny outstretched arms, to a magnificent female figure by Manuel Neri, molded and hacked out of plaster. The eye moves from Ed Musante’s intimate paintings of raptors on cigar boxes to Michael Tompkins’ long, horizontal “Still Life with Milk Cartons,” in which objects from rice bowls to Vick’s Vapo-Rub jars become actors on a stage, to the joyful Ethiopian hats.
The show is full of contrasts: a frightening Ekoi wooden, skin-covered head with a horn from Nigeria, Robert Kulicke’s delicate, Morandi-like paintings of flowers in jars, Bult’s Cezanne-esque landscape, Fred Dalkey’s singular figure drawing “The Old Floating Hat Trick” (full disclosure: yes, he is my husband), and Elmer Bischoff’s bold ink-and-wash drawing of a nude with a generous figure.
The exhibition is a fine tribute to Thiebaud’s eye and his ebullient approach to life and art.