SacramentoCrocker Art Museum
October 16, 2020 – January 3, 2021
Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings at Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum brings together 100 works in celebration of the painter’s 100th birthday. Thiebaud, who settled in Sacramento after the Second World War and resides and works there today, had his first museum exhibition at the Crocker in 1951. Organized by Chief Curator Scott Shields, the current show draws on the Crocker’s holdings, the Thiebaud Foundation, and the artist’s own collections for a survey that covers more than 70 years, including exceptional works of modest size kept aside for study and reflection. It’s a personal show, beginning with an early, romantic Self-Portrait (1947); there’s a sense of familiarity, even intimacy, to images of friends, family, and local sites. Notably absent are the craggy mountains shown last year in New York, with their bas-relief impasto that strains the physical and perceptual limits of painting. In place of their tragic sublimity, recent clown paintings offer a humbler avowal of humanity. Dark in their own way, these don’t struggle to transcend their materials so much as to affirm an appetite for painting, an ongoing quest for the “iconic power of the cartoon image.”
Visitors seeking comfort in paintings of desserts will find old favorites like Pies, Pies, Pies (1961), but the larger body of Thiebaud’s works challenges us with levels of visual invention and expressive depth that link the visionary potential of comics to his disciplined investigation of the image and its material field. In Untitled (Row of Glasses) (1992), for example, an array of eyeglasses floats above his signature tabula rasa of white impasto, their crystal clear lenses a multi-faceted stand-in for the painter’s critical gaze; another version from 2000, more densely painted, endows each lens with a colored reflection, generating a multitude of abstract landscapes. A similar fusion of observation and fantasy, Palm Tree and Cloud (2012), one of the smallest paintings in the show, develops its vertical composition from a flat, ground-level view of a Sacramento farm by rendering the reflection of the palm tree and low-flying crop-duster in a pink Delta river. Thiebaud reveals himself a master on this smaller scale, epitomized by the compression of his thumbnail sketches. On one undated sketchbook page, four neatly framed thumbnails of candied apples establish contrasting viewpoints and lighting, as their angled sticks interact visually with a knife and fork, stuck into sliced watermelons. One could envision this surreal appeal to oral and sadistic impulses on a larger scale, but Thiebaud seems to treasure it just as it is.
The show’s subtitle doesn’t convey the importance of materials in Thiebaud’s cartoon-informed craft and its graphic economy. He’s passionate about translation and experimentation: the wall text for Park Place (1995), for example, describes it as a color etching hand-worked with watercolor, gouache, colored pencil, graphite, and pastel. Adding a further conceptual layer, Pastel Scatter (1972) merges medium and message in its improvisatory rendering, in pastel, of pastels strewn across an unstable surface. In a catalogue essay, art historian Margaretta Lovell comments on the contrast between our distant impression of Thiebaud’s landscapes, where framing and subdivisions predominate, and the up-close impression, where we’re engrossed in details. These details aren’t realistic in a conventional sense; the innumerable small elements of Sunset Streets Study (2019) come into focus as carefully crafted clumps of luminous pigment, an immersive tapestry that conveys Thiebaud’s love of paint more than any specific information.
Thirteen prints from “Delights” (1964), a suite of food-inspired etchings, distill such rich impasto into austere, delicate meshes of cross-hatching, and unite Thiebaud’s experience in layout and illustration with the abstract geometry of modernism. Thiebaud generates a sequence of images like a comic, with dramatic shifts in lighting and compositional dynamics, punctuated in conclusion by a circular white plate of olives on a black background. Such efforts at clarity within a popular context resonate with the reductive impulse of abstraction in the 1960s, when art historian Meyer Schapiro proposed a semiotic reading of the “non-mimetic elements of the image-sign,” its prepared “image-field” and “sign-bearing matter”; and Gestalt psychologist Rudolf Arnheim analyzed a rectangle’s “hidden architecture.” Thiebaud addresses—and playfully undercuts—Clement Greenberg’s picture-plane in works like Toys (1971), where, by depicting an empty visual field as a table top, he forces us to orient ourselves with the help of limited visual cues offered by toys at its corners.
Dramatic San Francisco cityscapes and sweeping overviews of the local Sacramento River delta also elevate the horizon. Lovell discusses the influence of Richard Diebenkorn on the “X composition” of Street and Shadow (1982–1983/1996). Thiebaud exaggerates this flattening in his search for more “abstract, dynamic geometry” to create extreme vertical views anchored by the spine of a central street. In a breakthrough, Untitled (City View) (1993) combines one such vertical street with an iconic table-top lunch. Vertical window bars and striped curtains add graphic emphasis to the Byzantine formality of this hieratic image. Such geometrical exaggeration offers further links to cartoon images, especially the inventive panels of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, as in the diagonal composition of Cow Ridge (n.d.) or the centralized mound of Farm Hill (1992).
Thiebaud shares this influence with Philip Guston, who asserted his freedom to make “bad paintings” in his 1970 exhibition of cartoonish “hoods.” Thiebaud’s images remain more whimsical, but there are overtones of fiery destruction along the diagonal of Dark Ridge (2010/2012/2019). There’s a transgressive impulse in Thiebaud’s clowns, which suggest the caricatured self-portraits of Guston’s hoods or Picasso’s late musketeers. Far from the innocent sexuality and refined craftsmanship of Swimsuit Figures (1966), the rough energy of Clown with Red Hair (2015), framed by an ominous spotlight of shadow, draws on memories of clowns Thiebaud worked with in the circus as a teenager. It conveys a sympathy for the human condition, including its visions, like the mysterious apparition of Clown Angel and Dog (2017). Recalling Dog (1967), an animal surrogate that reflects the artist’s own empathy and poise, it seems a Franciscan epiphany, fitting recognition for Thiebaud’s long cultivation of visual culture.