Local Yokels

Photographer Ann Stautberg walks the razor's edge of a good regional artist


Across town, a great regional artist is finally getting his due. 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. Now 80, Thiebaud has lived and painted through the American half-century; he's seen it all, from abstract expressionism to the art world's slide into increasingly faddish and short-lived cycles of The Next Great Movement: earthworks, graffiti, neo-expressionism, neo-geo, film stills, pickled sheep, and so forth. Now he's getting the recognition he deserves. This year he was the subject of a major retrospective, a well-reviewed exhibition containing more than 75 major paintings that traveled to San Francisco, to Fort Worth's Modern Art Museum (see "Gotta Be Me," October 5), and, as of next month, to the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.; finally, it will travel to the Whitney Museum of Art. The show has garnered universal praise, earning lengthy and respectful notices in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and the International Herald-Tribune. As if this weren't enough, next month a show of 60 prints by the artist will go on view at Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. All this critical re-evaluation of a painter, and a painter of recognizable figures, at that. Regionalists, painters, and iconoclasts everywhere should take note, and hope.

Thiebaud made his commitment to representation early on. As Thiebaud has explained it, he recognized that ab ex had taken abstraction just about as far as it could go, and that the future of painting was the past. In the early '60s, he began painting pies and cakes, simple forms grounded in his own fascination with food rituals and his delight in the absurd. He thought it would be the death of his career as a serious artist; instead, he became the art world's "it" boy. His fast-food, pop-culture paintings became icons, snapped up by collectors and hung in the most prestigious museums alongside Jasper Johns' flags and targets, Claes Oldenburg's household-object sculpture, and Andy Warhol's soup cans.

But Thiebaud has always been fiercely independent, and he disliked much of what he saw of the art world, particularly the pop art movement, which he said had "some of the aspects of a 'racket.'" Perhaps as a reaction, by the mid-'60s, Thiebaud turned to painting in critically disfavored genres--turning first to the human figure, and then, in the late '60s, to landscape. By the early '70s, Thiebaud had bought a small house in San Francisco and begun a 20-year cycle of cityscapes, abandoning the peculiarities and rituals of food prep for streets that buckled and plunged and cars that looked as if they must have suspended gravity.

"6.10.94, Texas Coast," a gelatin silver photograph with translucent oils, is one of 16 works in Ann Stautberg's show at the MAC.
Ann Stautberg
"6.10.94, Texas Coast," a gelatin silver photograph with translucent oils, is one of 16 works in Ann Stautberg's show at the MAC.
Wayne Thiebaud's "Big Suckers," a 1971 etching on paper, is one of the painter's minor works on display at Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art.
Wayne Thiebaud's "Big Suckers," a 1971 etching on paper, is one of the painter's minor works on display at Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art.

Details

Texas Coast: A Decade of Images, by Ann Stautberg, runs through February 25 at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary. Call (214) 953-1212.

The Private Wayne Thiebaud runs through March 3 at Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art. Call (214) 969-9410.

The work was masterful--and largely ignored by the East Coast establishment. Curators have suggested Thiebaud was the victim of "modernist biases" against realism, landscape, and regionalism. To his credit, Thiebaud never cared. He taught. He painted. He had shows. And over 30 years, he has created a body of work that is a paean not only to California but to neo-Emersonian individualism.

Some 32 of Thiebaud's minor works are now on view at Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art. In light of all the critical recognition, it's a big coup for Pillsbury and Peters, which used the show to launch its newly expanded galleries. That said, many will find the show disappointing, a hodgepodge of slight works from a great painter--the kind of show that is becoming something of a Pillsbury and Peters leitmotif.

The show is heavy on graphic examples of Thiebaud's still-lifes from the '60s and '70s. Some of the most interesting work is underrepresented or not represented at all; for example, Thiebaud's late-'60s figurative work is represented by a lone nude. A smattering of land- and cityscapes show how Thiebaud plays with perspective and with topographic oddities, standing streets vertically alongside buildings and hills or depicting cows walking along the ridge of a typical California hill. The graphic work and drawings emphasize how Thiebaud reduces forms to their essence, to rectangles of building and stripes of highway, to the very edge of abstraction. Whether working in gouache or in acid on copper plates, Thiebaud draws and paints like the master he is. Alas, those who missed the MAMFW show will get little sense of his virtuoso paint-handling, one of his signature traits.

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