Retrospective filled with sweetness and light

Painter Wayne Thiebaud could find the choreography in cakes, the subtlety in salami, the mood of a mountain.

Art

March 11, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

As a child growing up in New York City, I often had occasion to pass our neighborhood bakery, whose large plate glass windows seemed eternally lined with row upon row of tempting confections.

No matter how urgent my mission, I always found time to linger in front of this display, and to admire the stacked cylinders of white wedding cakes with their tiny plastic brides and grooms on top, looking down on regimented files of cookies, eclairs and other pastry treats arrayed with what seemed like military precision.

Perhaps it was nostalgia for those days that accounted for the odd sense of deja vu I experienced before the paintings of Wayne Thiebaud, whose pictures of pies, cakes and other typical American desserts are part of a major retrospective of the artist's work currently at the Phillips Collection in Washington.

Thiebaud began painting his food pictures in the early 1960s, and because his first New York show opened just around the time Pop Art was coming into fashion, his work was often compared to that of artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and others associated with the movement.

But Thiebaud was never really a Pop artist in the sense that Warhol and the others were.

Pop Art was always in some sense critical of the society it represented. It appropriated the subject matter and forms of popular culture mostly in order to depict them with a certain sophisticated irony.

Thiebaud's paintings of cakes and pies aren't ironic. They borrow the conventions of commercial advertising without mocking the consumer culture at which it is aimed. Having grown up during the Depression, Thiebaud appreciated America's amazing post-war abundance of good things, and he celebrated it in his paintings.

Real and familiar

In "Cakes" (1963), for example, Thiebaud choreographs his sugary confections like dancers in a chorus line. The cakes, each one different from the others, and yet all reassuringly standardized in appearance and flavor, perch on their impossible pedestals with the poise of ballerinas en pointe.

The painting is a little stage set. The back of the table seems to tip toward the viewer, like a still-life by Cezanne. And a preternaturally even light casts soft, circular shadows below the cakes according to a geometry unsuspected by Euclid or the inventors of Renaissance perspective.

After a while, we recognize that this seemingly ordinary arrangement of commonplace objects is, in fact, a physical impossibility, the confectionary equivalent of the infinite staircases and maze-like corridors in a drawing by Escher.

That we accept it as real, as familiar even, suggests the nature of the radical simplification Thiebaud has performed on his subject. He has, in effect, reinvented our notion of what constitutes realism in a picture.

Thiebaud worked as a commercial artist and cartoonist before deciding to become a painter (he briefly worked as an animator for Walt Disney studios). As a young artist, he tried out various modernist styles before finding his own.

He said he chose to paint food because the subject hadn't been treated much and because it allowed him to explore problems of composition, color and form in a relatively neutral context.

Of course, artists going back to the Renaissance had depicted food in still-life and genre painting. What Thiebaud did was new because of the kind of food he chose to paint -- not raw fruits or fowl waiting to be plucked atop the huntsman's table but the mass-produced, standardized product of the delicatessen, the diner and the commercial bakery.

Living and working in California during the 1950s, Thiebaud came of age among a group of artists that included Richard Diebenkorn and others who, while not unaware of the significance of the Abstract Expressionist school that had emerged in New York, remained deeply attached to the figurative tradition.

The icing on the angst

Thiebaud's early still-lifes, such as "Cigar Counter" (1955) and "Ribbon Store" (1957), were clearly based on the appearance of real store windows. But their agitated brushwork and harsh colors still dutifully paid homage to the psychic angst that was de rigueur for every "serious" American painter of the era.

By the early 1960s, however, Thiebaud no longer felt tied to such mannerisms.

The light in his cake and pie pictures suddenly cleared and brightened, revealing an elegant balance between realism and abstraction in which paint itself became the subject, the thick, sticky stuff that came out of the tube magically transformed into the thick, creamy substance that frosted cakes and filled pastry sweets.

In "Delicatessen Counter," also from 1963, the severe design of the counters, with their precisely labeled trays of cheeses and meats, is counterpoised by bunches of salami and frankfurters hanging from an overhead rack, which seem to magically impart a third spatial dimension to the otherwise flat scene.

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