Art preview: Wayne Thiebaud’s “Memory Mountains” in S.F.

Internationally famous artist Wayne Thiebaud sits in his studio surrounded by paintings of mountains – mesas, ridges, the steep walls of canyons, sand bluffs, green hills and rugged Sierra peaks.

“Mountains are very special things for humans,” he said. “We revere them but we also drill through them, mine them, cut off their tops.”

“I remember one primary form in Utah when I was young – Old Timbertop. It was a magic mountain for me. I wanted to climb it, but it went straight up. My friend Pat Dullanty went to see it one time and came back and said, ‘Wayne, it’s more of a lump than a mountain.’ But I still remember the magic of it for me as a child.

“That’s why I call this series ‘Memory Mountains.’ Though I have worked from life at times, these are works from memory conjured up because of my interest in the duality between realism and abstraction.

“I was interested in what you could do with the space. A mountain painting should not allow you to apprehend it or overcome it. It should overcome you.”

That’s what many of the paintings slated for his upcoming show at the Paul Thiebaud Gallery in San Francisco do. He sits in front of “Cliff Ridge,” a painting of towering cliffs, so tall that clouds float below them. The overwhelming earth form in the foreground is painted in rich tones of steely blue-black, softened with mauve and limned with bright orange.

It’s a stunning painting that captures both the majesty and the ominous strength of the form. Nearby is “Blue Ridge Mountain,” an image of several ridges welling up from slender bases, dark and almost menacing in spite of their beauty. Equally imposing is “Canyon Mountains,” a cluster of cliffs rising up that demonstrate the underlying abstraction that Thiebaud strives for.

It is dated 2011-12. Like many of the works in the show, some of which date back to the 1960s and 1970s, it has been reworked. Like the poet William Butler Yeats, Thiebaud is an inveterate reviser, often going back years to reinvent images and make them stronger.

Included in the show are many ridge paintings, some from his earlier investigations into the mountain form, others new. Often using a diagonal composition, they slash the canvas, cutting between rock formations and sky. Other mountains almost resemble man-made structures. “Big Rock Mountain” might be a skyscraper, its sedimentary layers suggesting the floors of a building. “Fire Mountain,” a radically colored image, suggests the towers of Angkor Wat.

Thiebaud also reaches back to his recent Delta landscapes in works such as “Green Hill Farm,” in which fertile fields in brilliant color are dwarfed by a verdant sugar-loaf-shaped low mountain. Over the mountain, a small pink cloud casts a blue shadow on the hill.

Clouds are a persistent element in many of these paintings, surreal clouds, often like puffs of smoke or smoke signals, ephemeral clouds that nevertheless cast dark shadows on ridges or mountains.

“Outside of Constable, clouds are fantastical and too capricious to fool around with,” he said. “For me, they are a way of giving scale.”

Indeed in these mountain pictures they tend to be tiny puffs setting off the massiveness of the earth forms. Like mountains, clouds have been a motif Thiebaud has struggled with for years. Using them as actors in broader scenarios rather than as central characters works well in these pieces.

Thiebaud has shown his mountain paintings before at the Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe in 2010, but this is the first large showing of them on the West Coast. It offers a rare chance to see what new and challenging things Thiebaud has come up with since inventing his radically imagined Delta landscape series. Best known for his paintings of pies and cakes, done in the 1960s, Thiebaud has explored a number of themes over the years from alienated figures to vertiginous San Francisco cityscapes to beach scenes of Laguna, where until recently he had a second home.

Of his future plans, he said, “I like to keep my options open. I’ll still paint a pie if I want to.”

But for the time being he is immersed in mountains, from the comedic “Palm Hill Farm and Cloud” to the majestic “Yosemite Ridge.” These are important additions to his oeuvre. You won’t want to miss them.


Where: Paul Thiebaud Gallery, 645 Chestnut St., San Francisco

When: Tuesday -Dec. 21. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. Reception: 2-4 p.m. Nov. 2

Information: (415) 434-3055