Arts & Theater

‘I just picked things I’ve loved.’ How Wayne Thiebaud curated Artist’s Choice show at SFMOMA

Wayne Thiebaud works with associates and museum staff – including curator Janet Bishop, sitting at center – to select art for a show opening Saturday at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Wayne Thiebaud works with associates and museum staff – including curator Janet Bishop, sitting at center – to select art for a show opening Saturday at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

“Museums are like icebergs,” Wayne Thiebaud said, looking at a mockup in his Sacramento studio of a show of works by artists he picked out from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s collection.

“Most of a museum’s work is below the water and rarely seen by the public. There are five or six times the amount of works (in storage) than are up in the museum’s building,” he observed.

Opening Saturday at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the exhibition is composed of more than 30 art works Thiebaud selected from the museum’s vast storage vault near the San Francisco airport. Among the works he chose were ones by Max Beckmann, Elmer Bischoff, Willem de Kooning, Joan Miro, Pablo Picasso and Georgia O’Keeffe.

Asked if he had a favorite, he answered with typical Thiebaud wit: “I remember the story of the wise mother who had three daughters, and they asked their mother, who was her favorite.

“She replied, ‘I dislike all of you equally.’”

Thiebaud, who will be 98 in November, has had a busy year with major shows at the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis, a retrospective of his drawings at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City (arguably the most prestigious place in the United States to show one’s drawings), his first ever European retrospective at the Voorlinden Museum in the Netherlands, and now a double scoop at SFMOMA: “Wayne Thiebaud: Artist’s Choice” and “Wayne Thiebaud: Paintings and Drawings.”

Thiebaud has been familiar with SFMOMA’s collections and exhibitions since 1942, when he was stationed at Sacramento’s Mather Field in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. In spite of that intimate knowledge, selecting paintings and works on paper by other artists arranged on huge pull-out racks, many still wrapped in plastic after returning from loans to other museums, was a formidable task.

“I had four or five people helping me,” he recalled. “I worked all day and picked 30 to 35 things with no curatorial idea in mind. I just picked things I’ve loved to look at.”

Going through the racks, he came across works he remembered or in one case misremembered.

“I remembered a painting of a gun on a windowsill that I thought was by (Jose Clemente) Orozco but it turned out to be by another Mexican artist, (Rufino) Tamayo ... I could never get it out of my mind. I like it better than his later works.”

“Even with things I remembered better, there were surprises,” he said, citing the delicate light and strong composition of George Ault’s “The Hudson River from Riverside Drive,” 1920-1921, and Henri Matisse’s “Corsican Landscape,” 1898, a precursor of the French modern master’s later Fauvist works, done, said Thiebaud, when Matisse was on his honeymoon.

Among other old friends he came upon was “Torso,” 1914, a luminous, sensual nude by Arthur B. Carles, an artist who, Thiebaud said, was a major influence on him at one time. He also found strong works by younger artists, among them a handsome abstract painting by Katherine Porter, done in 1979, and an intriguing small, oil done in 2003, by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Both are artists he was unfamiliar with, but wanted to know more about.

Other surprising discoveries include Elmer Bischoff’s “Orange Sweater,” a large oil of a figure in an academic setting notable for its strong color, light and composition; James Weeks’ small painterly portrait of a jockey, 1962; and Joan Brown’s thickly-applied impasto-styled oil painting, “Green Bowl,” 1964.

He was also taken by a large Richard Diebenkorn, “Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad,” 1965, which was influenced by the California master’s love of Matisse; Wiillem de Kooning’s “The Springs,” 1955, a work done a little before Thiebaud’s 1956-1957 sojourn in New York, when he got to know de Kooning and his wife Elaine, also a painter; and Morris Graves’ dark, mysterious watercolor on rice paper, “Bird Maddened by the Sound of Machinery in the Air,” 1944.

He also included “Le Journal,” an oil, sand and collage canvas that one would think was a Picasso, but was actually a copy or a forgery done by an unknown artist. Thiebaud, who has been known to do convincing copies of works by Edouard Manet and Walt Kuhn, the latter a Christmas present for his late wife, Betty Jean, was delighted by it, but not fooled.

“It’s a little too stiff,” he observed.

A concurrent show, ‘Wayne Thiebaud: Paintings and Drawings,” a selection of 42 of his own works from the museum’s collections, will allow viewers to trace the development of his works from sketches to finished paintings.

Thiebaud draws constantly and is never without a sketchbook and a drawing implement - ballpoint pen, felt-tip pen, fountain pen, graphite, colored pencil - and there are several examples of small studies, among them scenes from fashion shows, figure drawings, cats, dogs, surfers, freeways and other urban subjects.

Among the most interesting are several sketches done for his iconic California figure painting, “Girl with Pink Hat,” 1973, a radiant example of his analysis and depiction of light and color that lights up the show.

Other highlights of the exhibition are a small watercolor and graphite image of two ice cream scoops on a plate, ca. 1985; “Desert Tray,” 1992-1994, a mouthwatering oil painting on board; “Sunset Streets,” 1985, one of his dizzying, vertiginous San Francisco street scenes; “Flatland River,” 1997, a colorful birds-eye view of Sacramento River delta farmlands; and “Canyon Mountains,” 2011-2012, one of his recent powerful series of oil paintings of mountains, cliffs and ridges.

Like so many of his shows, it’s a lesson in the endurance, tenacity, and rigorous self examination that make Thiebaud a truly great artist.

If you go

“Wayne Thiebaud: Artist’s Choice,” Sept. 29-March 10

“Wayne Thiebaud: Paintings and Drawings,” Sept. 29-April 28

Where: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., San Francisco, 94103

When: Friday-Tuesday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Wednesday, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.

Cost: $25-$19; free for 18 and under.

Information: 415-357-4000,