Sometimes a vital exhibition is a matter of timing. In October, when San Antonio’s McNay Museum of Art opened a one-hundred-piece retrospective of the career of painter Wayne Thiebaud to celebrate his one-hundredth birthday, the event was treated with due respect if not great excitement in the Texas art world. Thiebaud is revered among artists for his craftsmanship—he’s often described as a “painter’s painter”—but his best-known works, iconic paintings of diner-style desserts from the Pop Art era in the sixties, didn’t seem to speak much to the present moment or necessarily demand the McNay’s exhaustive, career-spanning survey. After all, how much pie can anyone take in one sitting?
That blasé indifference toward the McNay show, which I’ll regretfully admit I shared to some extent, was upended a few weeks ago, when Thiebaud died on Christmas Day. Appreciations from leading art critics and the artist’s fans poured out on social media. The more I read about Thiebaud, the clearer it became that I was missing out on something major. I was evidently not alone in that feeling of having misjudged the artist and underappreciated the opportunity to view his masterworks in person. McNay curators René Paul Barilleaux and Lauren Thompson report a “surge” in attendance to their show, “Wayne Thiebaud 100,” which ends on January 16.
Jerry Saltz’s tribute in New York, for instance, made Thiebaud’s technical mastery sound like a religious or psychedelic experience, calling him a “painter of the luscious sublime” whose “hallucinatory surfaces, uncanny perceptual intelligence, thick buildups of rich color, hard light, luminosity, tonal control, and Hopperesque remove create eye-worms that make you meld with the paintings, participate in how they were made.” Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times, meanwhile, sensitively traced Thiebaud’s unique place among a cohort of artists who reinvented American painting in the sixties, after Abstract Expressionism, by turning to depictions of consumer goods and advertising. “Truth be told, Mr. Thiebaud was not really a Pop painter,” Kimmelman writes. “Detractors sometimes tried to pigeonhole him as one or as an illustrator. In fact, like many of the historical artists he admired, he was a virtuoso of the everyday and its deep, subtle symbolism.”
As an art critic, these sorts of heady intellectual essays are as irresistible to me as a display case full of Thiebaud’s famous desserts are to a kid with a sweet tooth. But the main reason why I could not in the end resist going to “Wayne Thiebaud 100,” despite the omicron variant and post-holiday fatigue, was the specialness of the moment. Art lovers all over the country and world were thinking, talking, and writing about Thiebaud, untangling his legacy, and finally (as Barilleaux tells it) giving him his due after a long period of old age during which he’d slipped off the radar of many in the art world. But, this December and January at least, how many of his admirers had the chance to really immerse themselves in Thiebaud’s work and see for themselves those distinctive brushstrokes, those rainbow halos of swirled paint?
Only, as it turned out, those living in or visiting San Antonio.
By random chance, when Thiebaud died, most of his key works were here, not in New York City, where his gallery is located and where his first career retrospective which was organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, concluded at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2001; not in the Los Angeles area, where he grew up and had his first artist job as a low-wage illustrator for Walt Disney Studios; and not in his adopted home of Sacramento, California, where he had a longstanding relationship with two museums, including the Crocker Art Museum, which organized the traveling show now at the McNay. Thiebaud does not have a personal connection to San Antonio, but this is where his best work happens to be for now, and not for much longer. It seemed a crime to miss it.
McNay curators Barilleaux and Thompson say repeat visitors have told them the exhibition has changed since Thiebaud’s death, taking on a more somber, weighty feel. It’s natural to glance at Thiebaud’s Pop Art–era works—still-life paintings and drawings not just of desserts but also of other deli and diner foods, loafers, hats, eyeglasses, and bowties, all devoid of human presence—and surmise that he is a formalist more interested in catching and stimulating the eye than in investigating profound questions about life and death. But in the cool light of his recent death, the same works suggest different interpretations. Much as a still life of fruit or meat by, say, a Dutch master of the seventeenth century might blend into a black, abyss-like background, reminding a viewer of the fate of all living things, a Thiebaud still life of processed foods or consumer goods is often set against a blindingly white background, suggesting a subtly different sense of origin and destination—the sterile laboratory, industrial kitchen, or hospital. Similar mood, different century.
The morbid subtext of the still life becomes text in the exhibition’s most death-haunted work, Man on Table, which depicts a naked corpse on a gurney. Along similar lines, the painting Three Prone Figures shows three men in colorful bathing suits lying flat on their stomachs, their faces in what we must assume to be sand. The effect is creepy, and the thick painting style Thiebaud uses for the sand seems intended to draw comparison to his dessert paintings. Another minor-key echo of the dessert paintings comes in his Delights print series from 1964, where he revisits ice cream cones, bacon and eggs, pies, a pinball machine, etc., all in starker black-and-white etchings. Here he seems to be working the other side of nostalgia—not so much sentimental idealization as palimpsest or fossilization.
Thiebaud’s lesser-known portrait and landscape works make up much of the rear half of the exhibition and further deepen the experience. The show was organized chronologically in its previous incarnation at the Crocker Art Museum, but the McNay’s curators have chosen to shuffle the best-known works to the front, serving up the pies, so to speak, before viewers know what’s hit them. After that dazzlement, the landscapes, painted in the eighties and nineties, decades after the Pop Art era, seem like the work of a different imagination. The canvases are far busier and more segmented. But there are obvious parallels between these periods, too. In paintings like Y River, Thiebaud is clearly captivated by the manmade aspect of the San Joaquin Delta area of California, where the waterways are heavily engineered and the land is segmented into a colorful geometry of varied industrial-agricultural uses. (He exaggerates this with his usual genius for color selection.) Thiebaud’s lifelong project of seeing his home state in all its manmade beauty and terror and dignity continued in these paintings.
After I spent time with a hundred of his works, Thiebaud still feels remote to me, subdued in his personality on the canvas and unfathomable in his focus. Through his advanced years he was known for playing tennis most days, and it’s easy to see his painting practice as the same sort of thing, a kind of endless volley on an artificial surface where technique always wins in the end. The upshot is that he developed a subtle language, all backspin and painting the corners, to show us anew the kinds of things we see all day without really seeing them.
Saltz writes in his appreciation that, “It never rains in a Thiebaud painting.” I disagree. I think it does rain occasionally, but the water is routed into a precise water-management system of the sort that Joan Didion, another recently departed Sacramentan, wrote about in her classic The White Album essay “Holy Water.” In California in the twentieth century, every drop of precipitation was accounted for, dammed up and channeled for human applications. In the end, of course, it all runs out to the sea.