“Wayne Thiebaud was an overnight sensation a decade in the making,” writes Rachael Teagle, Founding Director of the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis, in the beautifully illustrated catalog for “Wayne Thiebaud: 1958-1968,” which is up at the Manetti Shrem through May 13.
A groundbreaking exhibition of seminal works from the 10-year period when he developed his singular approach to depicting everyday objects of American life, it’s a strong and cohesive survey that offers viewers a chance to reconsider Thiebaud’s early work and its influence on 20th century American painting.
Curated by Teagle, the thoughtfully installed show features more than 60 works, including several that are rarely exhibited, and a stunning series of etchings from “Delights,” the first prints Thiebaud made at San Francisco’s Crown Point Press.
The exhibition focuses on Thiebaud’s signature images of pies and cakes, ice cream cones and gumball machines, football players and women in bathing suits developed when he was a popular Sacramento artist and teacher, whose earliest works he described in an interview as “too imitative.”
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His transition from works influenced by European modernism, abstract expressionism, and Italian and Spanish impressionism to the creamy, thickly brushed, intensely colored oil paintings that, in his words, “tattle” on us and our material culture, coincided with his appointment in 1960 to the first art department faculty at UC Davis.
He was recruited by founding department chair Richard L. Nelson, who stole him away from his teaching job at Sacramento Junior College (now Sacramento City College) by promising him a roll of canvas as thick as the trunk of a large tree on the campus’ grounds.
With the support of Nelson – who encouraged his artists to do their “research” (which meant developing their art in an independent atmosphere free from the demands of committee work and heavy teaching loads) – Thiebaud produced more than 100 paintings between 1960 and 1961, putting in long hours at the easel.
In 1962, the university provided Thiebaud with a grant to travel to New York City, where a successful show at the Allan Stone Gallery launched his national reputation. Sales to museums (Alfred Barr, director of collections at the Museum of Modern Art bought “Cut Meringues” before the show opened) and important collectors, such as art book publisher Harry Abrams and architect Philip Johnson, led to his inclusion in important shows, among them “The New Realists” at the Sidney Janis Gallery, which critic Harold Rosenberg said “hit the New York art scene like an earthquake.”
Thiebaud had previously spent a year in New York in 1956-57 on sabbatical from his teaching job at SJC. While there, he was introduced to the concept of artist-run cooperative galleries and upon returning to Sacramento, he co-founded the Artist’s Cooperative Gallery (later the Artists Contemporary Gallery), which, according to Tower Records founder Russ Solomon, who helped support the gallery, led to “the flowering of Sacramento art.”
“The year in New York made a difference,” Thiebaud said. “I hung around the Cedar Tavern and met many of my heroes, including Willem de Kooning.”
“At the time I was trying to make (abstract expressionist) signs of art – drips, spatters, gestures ... trying to find my way.”
Encouraging him to find his own path, de Kooning said, “You should find something you feel is genuine for you ... All the influences of the art world can trip you up.”
What Thiebaud found was a piece of pie, whose formal elements – ovals, triangles, rectangles – called to the painter and teacher of art and art history in him.
“I tried to put them (the images of pies) down as clearly as I could, addressing them head-on.”
Looking at the results, he said, “My God, that’ll be the end of me ... but I couldn’t leave them alone.”
When he first exhibited the pies in Sacramento and San Francisco, many critics and viewers were baffled. The Bee’s art critic John Oglesby panned them and the San Francisco Chronicle’s Alfred Frankenstein passed them off as the work of “the hungriest artist” in town. As for sales, only one prescient couple bought a painting of pies from his first show of them at the Artist’s Cooperative Gallery in 1961.
Thiebaud’s still-life paintings of gooey desserts in which paint mimics meringues, cake frosting or ice cream are so familiar now that we have forgotten how rude and radical they were when they were first done. As Teagle points out in her fine essay on the formal inventiveness of these works, which were initially seen as pop art, they maintain a tension between tradition and innovation.
“Working in what was perceived to be the conservative medium of oil painting,” she writes, “he was nevertheless engaged in the most radical work of the day ... unlike his colleagues ... he found a path forward by looking back ...”
He mined, she notes, the history of art as well as his own subjects and singular approach to color, light, space and paint application to assert a viable future for painting, a medium that had fallen out of fashion in the pop era.
Works that led up to Thiebaud’s paintings of pies and other foodstuffs are gathered in a side room of the Manetti Shrem show. In abstract works, like the flashy, metallic “Trophy Table, 1955-57” and the harrowing red and black “Electric Chair, 1957,” you can see the influence of Pablo Picasso and other European modernists. In “Beach Boys, 1959,” the strong influence of Spanish impressionist Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, a favorite of Thiebaud, is apparent.
The show proper is devoted to still life paintings of food (bowls of creamed soups, plastic wrapped sandwiches), objects (yoyos, pinball machines), and figure paintings of friends (fellow painter Gregory Kondos) and family (his late wife and muse Betty Jean).
The edibles move from the neon bright “Drink Syrups, 1961” and the blunt, slightly menacing “Truckers’s Supper, 1961” to rows of luscious, regimented pie slices marching across the canvas (“Pies, 1961”) and radiant slices of white cake with white frosting, arranged like chorus girls in a Busby Berkeley movie around a magnificent layer cake with creamy frosting and a strawberry on top (“Around the Cake, 1962”).
The exhibit culminates in powerful figure paintings that range from the existential alienation of “Five Seated Figures, 1965” to “Woman in Tub, 1965,” an unsettling painting of Betty Jean reclining in a bathtub that calls up associations with Jacques Louis David’s “The Death of Marat.”
Teagle describes Thiebaud’s figures as “at once historical, allegorical, imaginary and mythological,” particularly “Girl with Ice Cream Cone, 1963.” Shocking in its day, the figure (Betty Jean again) sits on the ground in a bathing suit with her legs spread, holding a melting ice cream cone up to her open mouth, her large glowing feet literally in the viewer’s face.
It’s raw and for its time racy; radical in its impudence yet classical in its reference to the dramatic foreshortening of Andrea Mantegna’s “Dead Christ”; masterful, Teagle says, in the way he scooped and smashed his paint to mimic the ice cream and carved it into raised diagonal lines to suggest the waffle cone.
Serving as a bridge between his still-life paintings and his figures, it’s an iconic work that defines Thiebaud’s invaluable contribution to art history.
Wayne Thiebaud: 1958-1968
Where: Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, UC Davis, 254 Old Davis Road, Davis.
When: Through May 13. Noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday; Noon to 9 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Closed Monday.