Wayne Thiebaud is an American icon who paints icons of America. He is famous for his lush and colorful ice creams, pies, cupcakes, a famous and charming Mickey Mouse and many other timeless American imagery. Thiebaud has always managed to capture the American establishment and its spirit, through minimal representations and touchstones of who we are, relevant to the past, present and future. Wayne Thiebaud: 70 Years of Painting, the extensive retrospective currently at the Springville Museum of Art both surveys the artist’s long and productive career and presents new works. The show allows the viewer to see firsthand the quality of work that has made this one-time Utah resident an artist of national stature. Thiebaud’s works decipher the fleeting mystery of just what America is showing the essence of America by reducing the salad bowl to its basic essentials.
The exhibit opened with a lecture and Q&A with the artist on March 29, a rare occasion for a Utah audience to listen to Wayne Thiebaud, ask questions and participate in a dialogue, that revealed a universe in this artist that no history book alludes to. His work is fun, exciting, vibrant, catchy, but Thiebaud is much more than frosting on a cake. Through his professed love for America and the subjects he chooses to epitomize in his work, he is a profound philosopher in the truest sense of the word and his icons are portals into these realms. The layers of impasto of his painting might be metaphorically likened to his many-layered love of paint, painting and art. When asked who some of his favorite American painters are, he made a reference to the phrase, “I never met a painting I didn’t like.”
Although Thiebaud is in his later years, his mind is sharp, especially as he speaks about what he loves most. Although his body is aged, his sensibility is youthful, unjaded and filled with refreshing and original personal insights into the art of painting. His memory easily recalls names that younger men would forget, anecdotes, and complex yet firmly rooted ideas which have accumulated through his many years in the mainstream of the art world.
Originally, Thiebaud was an illustrator until a conscious decision was made to adapt his skills into fine art. His work was shown at the Allen Stone Fine Art Gallery in New York and soon after, in 1962, had his first one-man show there. Subsequent to this show, he was quickly propelled into the heights of the New York art world. Thiebaud mentions DeKooning and Newman amongst many others as friends and acquaintances. His memories are filled with encounters of the greats, relationships with the giants of the late New York High Modernist movements. He is a legend, one of the last of the greats who has made possible what is generally taken for granted in today’s art world.
Thiebaud’s passion and sincere love for the medium of paint and the essence of painting was and is what makes him the legend that he will always be. He identifies with “The idea of painting and art as separate entities.” “A painting above all else,” says Thiebaud, “is a concrete entity, an abstract search for something still coming into our consciousness. Our ignorance is still bottomless. Great painting becomes art, but not much of it. I feel privileged to be a part of that search for something more, something special.”
Like most truly great artists, Thiebaud is an avid historian. He speaks of Rembrandt or Hals in a lucid, almost reverent manner, describing profound aspects of their work. Said Thiebaud “All I am is a collection of all of the input that I had. Being influenced is the way to become an individual.” Also, “Painting is a great invention. Over a period of three thousand years we have made worlds of what our sensibility is about. Painting is a summation of human consciousness, what we are in all of our differences. Almost any kind of emotion you can name painters have made a whole world where you can express much of that.”
Though he never went to art school, Thiebaud is a master in his field. He paints and draws with the utmost facility, far greater than most trained artists, and has developed a philosophy which surpasses artists who use art as a tool but spend less time contemplating it. “Looking at a painting; this is a one to one thing,” Thiebaud said. “I get out of it a wonder, a little world- what is this person trying to do.” Thiebaud indicated a reality and a joy of looking at a painting. When the average viewer will spend five seconds looking at a piece in a museum, Wayne Thiebaud will spend an hour and a half. Painting is a “great invention of the human spirit. It has been a great privilege to be a part of that,” said Thiebaud.
It is an interesting and humorous anecdote that as a young painter and illustrator, choosing fine art as an objective, Thiebaud began with basic shapes: circles, squares, triangles etc. He had worked in the restaurant industry and began applying subject matter to these shapes: pies, cakes, gumball machines. But metaphorically speaking, the essence of his art goes one step further in his consciousness. They represent far more than optical vision but are metaphysical visions. Said the artist, “This or that icon is an entity, a body,” it is the substance of that which he is compelled to; the essence of paint.
Though he is frequently boxed into the camp, Thiebaud is reluctant to call himself a Pop artist. He is annoyed by specific labels. “Generally,” he said, “a lot more work needs to be done on what Pop Art is and as a part of the commercial venture.” But he recognizes his placement in the art historical context and is appreciative of his roots. “I am fortunate that I grew up in America, that thing that I am, responsible for what I have done. When you are painting, you do not ignoble this tradition, but make paintings as good and as critical.”
Thiebaud’s philosophy and metaphysical approach to painting is obscured by his simplified iconography of America. Yet these uncanny representations may be seen as doors into the mind of the artist to unlock hidden mysteries of his metaphysical and philosophic approach to paint. Being reluctant to pigeon-hole himself in the canon, he stays true to his own personal perspectives and approaches to art. He is not propelled by his status in history but by his lifelong investigation of painting. The images, his beautifully and poignant icons which lend an identity to who we are as Americans go much deeper into Thiebaud’s philosophy. It is apparent that more work needs to be addressed on Wayne Thiebaud himself beyond the images that have made him so famous and that are so familiar to so many. The new retrospective at the Springville Museum of Art will not only help to not unravel the meanings behind his iconography but to unravel the enigma that is Wayne Thiebaud.
Wayne Thiebaud: 70 Years of Painting will be on display at the Springville Museum of Art through July 27.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.