Gotta Be Me

Through four decades of masterful painting, Wayne Thiebaud remains true to his vision

In an essay titled "The Decline of the City of Mahogany," the art critic, sometime fisherman, and all-around Aussie curmudgeon Robert Hughes frames an interesting hypothetical. What if, he posits, "there were only one copy of each book in the world, fought over by multimillionaires and investment trusts and then hidden in storage?"

The answer, of course, is that we would fetishize the written word as we now do art. Absent the odd wandering minstrel, the vox populi would have none of what Hughes calls a "sense of literature," certainly no more than they now have a sense of painting. This state of affairs would create harrumphing and manifestoes about the death of culture and a sense of snide superiority on the part of the French. It would also create civic embarrassment. Cities eager to advertise their sophistication would buy or accept as gifts the occasional second-rate manuscript, and would build great limestone mausoleums like the one at the corner of Ross and Harwood to house their prizes.

The public would shuffle by in single file, read a page or two, genuflect, and leave the building without being significantly enriched, which is to say educated. How could they be? In theory, the literary museum would house a sort of survey course, a representative cross-section of periods and genres, but thanks to ever-escalating prices and limited museum funds, the viewing public would get something far more accidental. As for the literature of the very recent past, well, if our word museum worked like most art museums, that would be the area in which they served the public most poorly of all. In an effort to be au courant, the curators would bring in examples of the latest market craze: self-help. Celebrity fluff. Memoirs. E-books. And the public, having been fed such tripe and cut off from centers where important books are bought and sold and read and easily inspected, might even believe silly slogans like Literature is Dead.

Thiebaud feared that works such as "Pies, Pies, Pies" (1961) would be "the end of me as a serious artist." Instead, they became his signature.
Thiebaud feared that works such as "Pies, Pies, Pies" (1961) would be "the end of me as a serious artist." Instead, they became his signature.
"River and Farms" (1996) typifies Thiebaud's most recent work.
"River and Farms" (1996) typifies Thiebaud's most recent work.

Details

Through January 14, 2001 (817) 738-9215.
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

And so it is with contemporary art. At your average regional museum, you can't get past the fetishizing and the accidental survey and the we-want-to-be-hip-too bias to get a feel for the state of current American painting. Fortunately, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth has never been your average regional museum. Its current show, titled Wayne Thiebaud: a Paintings Retrospective, is the kind of in-depth, narrowly focused exhibition it has long preferred, and you can glean more about the state of American painting from it than from several years of dropping in on, say, the Dallas Museum of Art. On view through January 14, 2001, the show presents 100 works from the California painter's last 45 years--a veritable banquet of works of varying strength. Better still, the show is accompanied by a catalog with intelligent and readable critical essays penned by the show's curator, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco's Dr. Steven Nash, and by New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, late of "Letter from Paris" fame.

The result is a rare opportunity to view the oeuvre of an important contemporary artist in depth. Forty years after he made his big splash in the art world, Wayne Thiebaud is still turning out California landscapes and teaching the occasional class at UC Davis. At 80, Thiebaud has lived and painted through the American half-century, and he has seen it all. He knew the abstract expressionists. He participated in pop. He witnessed the art world's slide into fashion victimhood, increasingly faddish and short-lived cycles of The Next Great Movement: earthworks, graffiti, neo-expressionism, neo-geo, film stills, pickled sheep, and so forth. He's been hot, and he's been cold, and through it all he's remained true to his own personal vision, singing I-gotta-be-me with more conviction than Tony Bennett ever managed.

The accompanying catalog suggests the source of this remarkable level-headedness. Thiebaud was born into a line of Swedes and Mormons who went West; his father, an inventor and jack of several trades, moved the family to Arizona and California and Utah during the Depression. As a teenager, Thiebaud took up cartooning after breaking his back playing sports, pursuing this passion even in the Army, where he did a comic strip for the base newspaper and drew maps. As a young man, Thiebaud held a variety of commercial art jobs, including illustrating movie posters and working as an apprentice illustrator at Disney, where, Gopnik tells us, it is said Thiebaud could draw Popeye simultaneously with his right and left hands.

In other words, not only was Thiebaud a largely self-taught draftsman of considerable talent, but he had the perfect background for a late-20th-century painter. Thiebaud was 30 when he first got the notion to become a "serious" painter, pursuing credentials at San Jose State College and then California State College at Sacramento. In the '50s he exhibited a few canvases in and around the Bay area, but, feeling the pull of New York, did several stints in the post-war world's art capital. Naturally enough, he fell under the influence of abstract expressionism, meeting and befriending figures such as Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline.

These influences are apparent in the show's early canvases, especially works such as "Cigar Counter" (1955) and "Ribbon Store" (1957). Yet Thiebaud was never quite one of them. A modest man, Thiebaud never seems to have shared the ab-ex taste for bombast or their fondness for grand, tragic-historic themes. Thiebaud composed elegies not to the Spanish Republic but to ribbon shops and pinball machines. True, they were deadly serious, lacking the humorous touch of Thiebaud's later work. And Thiebaud did take some ab-ex lessons to heart. "I had been put off by the churchy feeling of a lot of New York painting, and I saw de Kooning was too," Thiebaud told Gopnik. "He disabused me of it, and, as much as anyone, suggested to me that painting was a lot more important than art." Back in the studio, Thiebaud crossed de Kooning's painterly reductivism with his own preferred subject matter--everyday Americana--and created something utterly his own. In interviews, Thiebaud recalls the process: "I'd worked in food preparation...The way they line up food, sort of ritualistically, and I thought, 'Oh, I'll try that.' So I started painting these ovals for the plate and then put a triangle on it...then I realized I'd painted this row of pies and started laughing and said, 'Well, that's the end of me as a serious artist. Nobody's going to take this seriously.'"

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