A look back at the 2018 retrospective exhibit at UC Davis's Manetti-Shrem Museum.
"It's all happening in the lines, isn't it?" said the woman standing next to me in front of Wayne Thiebaud's portrait of his late wife Betty Jean. We were both bent at the waist, peering closely at the figure of Betty Jean's foot (detail image above). Only looking at it up close did we realize how many different colored lines went into its shaping. After the first of several thorough sweeps through the 2018 exhibit of Thiebaud's work between 1958 and 1968 at UC Davis's Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Museum, I came to the conclusion that the lines were only part of what makes this under-appreciated painter's work interesting.
Perhaps 'under-appreciated' isn't the right word. Diversely appreciated? People enjoy Thiebaud's paintings for different reasons. I, for one, first entered the exhibit thinking that his work was not especially complicated or technical. Most everyone I know who is acquainted with his work thinks there's little more to his cakes, ice cream cones, jawbreaker machines, human figures, and landscapes than what we see at a first and even second glance. I've seen reproductions of his work on calendars, notecards, and a jigsaw puzzle. His subject matter only mildly interest me. The landscapes of San Francisco and the upper Central Valley -- none of which is represented here in this exhibit -- intrigued me more than his older, better known work.
Then I had a conversion experience at the Manetti-Shrem. It took only one visit to realize that not only do Thiebaud's concerns as a painter operate on more levels than I gave him credit for. I realized, too, that his technical ability and what I suspect is the main import of his work are poorly served by reproduction or one viewing in a museum. Perhaps that's a truism applicable to all art. In the case of WT's work, it is especially true. Even museum visitors who pass one of his paintings are not likely to look closely. And I mean closely. You have to get up close to notice Thiebaud's lines in this assembly of paintings from his early career. The outlines of his figures -- whether cakes, drinks dispensers, his wife, or a football player -- consist of layers of different-colored lines that emit numinous glows.
Recently, I attended a talk given by the Stanford art historian Alexander Nemerov at the Manetti-Shrem. Rather than focus on the formal properties of Thiebaud's paintings, Nemerov led us through a series of projected slides by means of which he made a case for WT's innocence and sadness. The innocence is reflected in his choice of subject matter, mainly food. He touched upon some American art history to elicit the sadness in WT's canvases. First, he showed Thomas Eakins's portrait of Maude Cook (1895) as a example of the meditative mood or interiority of subjects typically seen in American works from the late nineteenth and early nineteenth century. Drawing a line from Eakins to the early twentieth-century American artist, Walt Kuhn, Nemerov showed us "The White Clown" (1929), a monumental Gertrude Stein-like circus performer sitting in a pensive pose. From there, he leapt to WT's "Football Player" (1963), which evinced the same solidity and pensive mood as Kuhn's clown. Indeed, nearly all of WT's human figures stare off into space, avoiding the gaze of other figures in the same painting, if there are any, and the gaze of the viewer. Moving to WT's painting of bananas, Nemerov drew attention to its lack of irony -- it's a painting of bananas, enough said -- by comparing it to one of De Chirico's paintings containing bananas, "The Uncertainty of the Poet" (1913), replete with phallic symbolism. Others of WT's paintings depict food connected to childhood memories -- cakes, ice cream cones -- or the display of food, such as in delicatessens and at meat counters. Under Nemerov's tutelage, we now sensed their forlornness. "Drink syrups" is a good example of superficially cheerful subject matter whose superficiality is undermined by its stark composition and shadowing reminiscent of Edward Hopper. Nemerov backed up his reading by linking WT's concerns to a mood he detected in 1960s and 1970s. Among other cultural landmarks, he projected the lyrics to Neil Young's "Sugar Mountain," a song I've known since I was a teenager but never noticed that it's about the sadness of growing up, leaving the fair and your parents behind. By the end of his talk, we, the audience, had digested the three characteristics Nemerov attributes to WT's work: interiority, a lack of irony bordering on innocence, and a nostalgia for that innnocence tinged with sadness. He convinced me.
However, despite Nemerov's refusal to comment on WT's formal qualities, it occurred to me while listening to him that the qualities he identified in WT's work were, in fact, connected to his technique. In addition to being surprised by the vibrancy and depth of the lines around his figures, I was struck by how sensuous and sculptural the paintings are. The ice cream cones invite you to lick them. His impasto tends towards long and linear. And, again, then there are the lines. Yellows, reds, and oranges peek out from under superimposed darker colors. The further back from the canvas you stand, the less you notice them. The closer you are to the canvas, the more the figures glimmer like jewel-like abstractions. Both the richness of color and the sculptural brushstrokes are rarely picked up in reproduction. Now I understood how easy it is to underestimate the artist. And it's my impression that that's just fine with him. Thiebaud is happy to inhabit his lines unnoticed.
This reading of his work does not depend on being acquainted with the man, I hope. But it might. Regular visitors at event at the Manetti-Shrem have the great fortune occasionally to run into and chat with Thiebaud at public talks. He is a kind but quiet man, self-effacing and unpretentious. It is well known that he calls himself 'a painter' not an artist. A genuinely nice man who listens to those who comes up to talk, he doesn't like the glare of public attention. He likes hiding in plain sight, like his lines. And that's about the best way I can describe his art, which I now hold in high esteem: it's hiding in plain sight. Do yourself a favor and go find it.