Wayne Thiebaud is 96 years old and his most recent work in the White Cube Gallery's life enriching retrospective of his career was painted this year. After so much 'dark' and 'heavy' art it's a joy to walk into a space with so much light. But just because Thiebaud's art is light does not mean to say it is in anyway lightweight.
He's been dubbed 'the Emperor of Ice Cream' for his subject matter of bubblegum machines, colourfully decorated cakes, and, of course, ice cream cones themselves. It's a very American art and although, on the surface, it appears to have many of the hallmarks of pop art (he has, after all, exhibited alongside the likes of Lichtenstein, Warhol, and Ruscha) Thiebaud (born 1920 in Mesa, Arizona - though moving, as a baby, to California), and his early works, predated this movement leaving some to see him as a bridge between pop art and the earlier abstract expressionism, despite the commonly held belief that the latter was a reaction against the pomposity of the former.
Thiebaud's not an artist you could accuse of pomposity. Unlike Pollock or De Kooning (a friend of Thiebaud's) you could hardly say he's macho either. He painted cakes and flowers!
Two Wedding Cakes (2015)
Two Paint Cans (1987)
Perhaps because of this unusual subject matter Thiebaud has always seemed like an artist apart. I remember flicking through my Phaidon art books and being quite alarmed by just how dissimilar his work was to other artists of his era. Yet, spending more time amongst his paintings, I start to see that he has peers and influences everywhere.
From Chardin's lovingly rendered 18c eggs and cutlery, via Edward Hopper's sense of solitude and contemplation, to Richard Diebenkorn's fields, often quite literally, of yellow and green. Morandi, too, rubs shoulders with Bonnard and even Cezanne. It's quite a neat trick if you want to show off your mastery of colour to paint a picture of two paint cans with different coloured paint leaking over the side. It's a neat one and it's also highly pleasing to the eye.
Sandy Cliff (2013)
Cheese Deli (2016-2017)
Cherry Pie (2016)
Something as simple as a cherry pie on a plate can be loaded with such infinite beauty that it reminds me of William Blake's Auguries of Innocence (as quoted earlier) so when, in a rare portrait, Thiebaud's subject is a beautiful woman in a beautiful dress it can, of course, only result in a beautiful painting. There's something about the sitter's inscrutable, almost blank, expression. A suggestion of secrets unrevealed. The fact that Thiebaud returned to this painting after a fifty-one year break also hints at longing, nostalgia, and a sense of innocence lost and time running out.
Green Dress (1966/2017)
Towards 280 (2000)
When he tackles landscapes he tends to use a very high horizon and incredibly flat perspectives that almost, but not quite, push them towards abstraction. His paintings don't really go in for narrative although they occasionally nudge you towards forming your own. Is that San Francisco in Intersection Buildings? Is the watery area in Fall Fields a lake, a reservoir? It looks like a giant bath-tub.
The critic John Yau wrote that "Thiebaud conflated the forms and colours of the observable world with those of the imagined world so that they were virtually indistinguishable from each other" and he's on to something. Although most of these paintings are of easily identifiable scenes in reality if you were served a cherry pie like that or saw a river like that you'd be pretty discombobulated, well into the realms of the uncanny valley.
Y River (1998)
Fall Fields (2017)
Intersection Buildings (2000-2014)
The colour schemes Thiebaud employs, at times, are as clashing as his Fauvist forebears yet because he tends to render his work in easy-on-the-eye pastel hues, and perhaps also because we've become more accepting of such colour schemes, they don't jar in the way say a Vlaminck or a Derain may on initial introduction.
Thiebaud says a lot of his work is inspired by the simple experience of driving across, and around, America. Just looking and learning. After 96 years of it he's clearly not lost his eye for a picture. Let's hope that doesn't change any time soon.
River Cloud (2002)
Untitled (Flowers in Glass) (2000/2006/2015)