By Margot Clark-Junkins
Wayne Thiebaud, the California artist who is most famous for his paintings of cakes and candy, deli counters and pie, hot dogs and gumball machines, started out as a commercial draftsman. A line is drawn, quite literally, connecting these salient points, in an excellent new exhibition, “Wayne Thiebaud, Draftsman,” at The Morgan Library & Museum.
It is the very first retrospective of the artist’s drawings in a museum; and some of the works have never before been exhibited. The exhibit ably demonstrates that Thiebaud’s training as a draftsman — someone who makes detailed technical plans or drawings — not only influenced his artistic style, it is arguably the key to the popularity of his work.
Spanning several decades, the drawings — in graphite, charcoal, ink wash, watercolor, and pastel on board — are arranged chronologically, filling a single room with one partition down its center. As you move from one work to the next, it quickly becomes apparent that the artist’s training as an illustrator, cartoonist, designer, and draftsman has seeped into the artist’s stylistic and compositional decisions.
Thiebaud (pronounced TEE-boh), who is 97 years old and professor emeritus at University of California/Davis, was born in Arizona in 1920. His parents moved to Long Beach, California, when he was six months old. At 16, he worked briefly in the animation department at Walt Disney Studios. According to the exhibit catalog, he was fired for participating in union activities but “retained the ability to draw Mickey Mouse or Jiminy Cricket using either hand.”
From 1937 to 1938, he attended Frank Wiggins Trade School in Los Angeles. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II and was tasked with creating posters and cartoons for the army weeklies.
After the war, Thiebaud moved to New York City, in hopes of finding work as a freelance cartoonist, a popular and highly competitive vocation during the golden age of comic books. He did not succeed (though he would return in 1956-57, tapping into Abstract Expressionism for a time, and befriending Franz Kline and Willem De Kooning) and returned to Los Angeles, finding work designing signs, illustrations, ads, and posters for Universal Studios and other companies. From 1946 until 1949, he created layouts as an art director at Rexall Drug Company, a period he considered to be “a critical time” in his development as an artist.
The Morgan’s Curator of Modern and Contemporary Drawings, Isabelle Dervaux, points out in the catalog that “Thiebaud learned advertising design when the field was heavily influenced by International Style. ‘Less is more’ was the dogma. This minimal aesthetic, with its predilection for the grid system, can be detected behind Thiebaud’s rows of pies.”
If we view his work through this lens, there are additional hallmarks of advertising design in evidence. Thiebaud has a preference for a “bird’s-eye view” and directional lines to direct the viewer’s eye. He is comfortable leaving broad swaths of white paper absolutely blank. He revels in creating sharp-edged shadows, the kind you might see under the lettering on a movie poster. His colors are bright, acidic even, like magic markers or silkscreen prints, like food dyes, cotton candy, and Kool-Aid.
Because of his training, Thiebaud can take a subject and pare it down to the most basic visual facts, using an illustrator’s shorthand, if you will. Dervaux explains that “his pictures look real, not because they are realistic but because they match everyone’s conception of the perfect hamburger or ice cream cone — a conception largely formed through visual advertising.”
In 1949, Thiebaud made the momentous decision to become a painter; he received his BA from Sacramento State College in 1951, and his MA in 1952, in studio art and education. He joined the faculty at University of California/Davis in 1960, where he remained until his retirement in 1991. A major exhibition of his paintings from the particularly fertile period of his career, 1958-1968, was held earlier this year on the University’s campus, at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art.
It is fascinating to examine the numerous quick sketches on view; these allow you to watch the artist work through an idea. “Most of these are private drawings — to find out something, to make notations, or just to experiment,” he says.
And it is humbling to see how easily he can render one subject — take the candy sticks, for example — from the same angle using three different techniques: graphite, ink, watercolor. It is as if the artist is laboring to unlock the secret of how to make each work as appealing as the last, when robbed of the tools he had just mastered. Evidence of a curious mind, no doubt.
Also on view, and no less important, are Thiebaud’s San Francisco cityscapes and Sacramento River Valley landscapes. These, too, feature playful perspectives, active line drawing, and exquisite colors. “A lot of the landscapes come out of ‘Krazy Kat,’” he says, referencing a comic strip by George Herriman from the 1920s and 30’s with “clouds that look sort of like potato chips.”
Thiebaud is a believer of learning from artistic traditions and he admires realism in art. His influences include Chardin, Vermeer, Morandi, Eakins, and Daumier. He is not interested in the flat aspect of Pop Art and does not identify himself with that movement, as is sometimes thought. His depictions of everyday objects — what we might consider pop culture—are born of nostalgia, not disdain.
“Wayne Thiebaud, Draftsman” is on view at The Morgan Library & Museum through September 23. The Museum is closed on Monday, and admission is free on Friday night from 7 to 9.
“Thiebaud working on Aleck cartoons, Mather Air Field,” 1944, photograph. Courtesy of Wayne Thiebaud. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
<Lunch Table>, 1964, watercolor. Alan Meckler Collection, NY. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
<Peppermint Sticks>, 1964, brush and ink. Allan Stone Collection, Courtesy Allan Stone Projects, NY. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
<Candy Ball Machine>, 1977, gouache and pastel. Collection of Gretchen and John Berggruen, San Francisco. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
<Three Roads>, 1983, charcoal. Private collection. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY<