For Wayne Thiebaud, happiness was a solid morning of painting in his Sacramento studio
By Jeremy Stone
Special for examiner
Wayne Thiebaud wasn’t Gary Cooper or Cary Grant – but in 1961 he walked through Manhattan and walked into my parents’ lives as if he was. His arrival from Sacramento at the gallery of my father, Allan Stone, was a dramatic caution. Wayne had the quiet elegance of a movie star who had delivered the goods and would soon be leaving, after a visit to the Frick and Whitney museums.
His interest was in looking at art, thinking about drawing and working on painting. He wasn’t very talkative. He was sure no one would be interested in his work. His lack of hubris and emphasis has always been remarkable for an artist of his caliber.
Wayne’s focus and discipline, combined with a love of tennis, stood in stark contrast to the performers portrayed in film, television, and theater: tormented, unhappy souls with alcohol and drug problems. His painting had the seductive sensuality of vanilla frosting, juicy cadmium yellow dresses, fresh cut daffodils. His pastel drawings, profusely worked, had the superficial texture of velvet. Nothing was accidental, it came from intentional thought and concentrated effort.
Wayne participated in the dinner circuit and gallery and museum openings, always with scholarly charm, but he preferred to be in a studio classroom talking about art history, how to start a painting or develop a drawing. His passion was settling in for a solid morning of painting in his studio in Sacramento. Unlike Andy Warhol, he excelled in the process of making his work, not handing it over to a studio assistant to finish it.
As a teacher, he was encouraging, patient and clear about the importance of prioritizing, observing and drawing on a daily basis. He made his students realize the value of learning the classics: go to the Metropolitan Museum, study the work of Delacroix and Velázquez, see those dukes in their shiny black leather shoes, bring your sketchbook, copy, steal the best artists.
“How could I do this? they might ask. Understand it, says Wayne. He examined his students’ sketchbooks, to see what was going on, and discussed their drawings. “How many hours a day do you draw? he asked a student. Do you draw from life, do you work to see?
As a freshman at Cooper Union in New York, I ended up spending my spring break in California. It was my first visit to the Golden State and until that terrifying airplane ride in an open biplane piloted by my Uncle Paul, between Linden and Sacramento, I had never seen the landscape of Diebenkorn and Thiebaud on my own. eyes. This city girl thought my two favorite artists created these designs, patterns and colors. It didn’t occur to me that nature inspired them.
Uncle Paul delivered me to Wayne and Betty Jean Thiebaud in Sacramento for a few days. After a warm hug and greetings, Wayne announced that we were leaving for his studio. He was going to paint me. Wayne pulled up to a modest two-story house on a tree-lined street, a far cry from the cold, gritty lofts of the Bowery and old Soho where I spent my childhood visiting artists with my dad.
After turning on the lights, he made me sit by a window in a room with hardwood floors and started drawing. He turned on the radio. Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 filled the room with “ABC! It’s as easy as 1-2-3!…” Wayne started snapping his fingers, smiling and dancing. “You look too serious. Too sad,” he said. “Let’s lighten it up!”
He took out a horizontal canvas, stretched and primed, put it on a wooden easel and started painting. I watched as he bent his knees, leaned to the right, crossed his arms in front of his chest, then one hand on his chin. When I took a break from stretching, he kept working. I haven’t seen this painting for 23 years.
I saw Wayne, however, when I eventually moved to California in the summer of 1980 and opened a small gallery in San Francisco in October 1982. He and Betty Jean came to the first reception of the exhibition and the dinner that followed at the Mission at La Traviata, his favorite Italian restaurant. Wayne quietly handed me a brown paper envelope, which contained a hand-colored 1964 Gumball Machine print from the “Delights” series. “Jeremy Stone Gallery Love and Success” was scripted in his inimitable little handwriting on the paper below the image. Over the next nine years of exhibits, Wayne would unexpectedly walk in to view the exhibit, nod his head, and continue on his way visiting galleries and museums.
After my son was born in 2000, my doorbell rang in Dolores Heights. It was my father holding a canvas in his hand. He had just visited Wayne in Sacramento. The painting, titled “Girl in White”, was smaller, constricted vertically. The image was cropped to my shoulders. I wore a white T-shirt. The young face with the shag hairstyle looked pensive, pensive.
After decades of admiring Wayne Thiebaud’s drawing skills and singular use of color, though confused by his detached and distracted characters, I had an epiphany. In a March 2018 lecture titled “The Delirious Sorrow of Cheerful Things: The Art of Wayne Thiebaud” at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, Alexander Nemerov argued that – unlike the still lifes of the 1960s, in which Thiebaud celebrated and found beauty in ordinary, everyday objects unnoticed in automatons, dining rooms, and cafeterias—his figure paintings were meant to present a physical moment: preoccupied distracted thinkers, not cheerful, bright seated people.
In the tradition of American realist painter Thomas Eakins, the figures have faces that are, as Nemerov said, “really sad.” He confirmed that my sad little portrait, “Girl in White” (1975-76), was reminiscent of the Eakins portrait of Maud Cook that Nemerov showed at the conference. “You’re in good company,” he assured me.
Suddenly this little painting, which I thought was of an unhappy teenage girl, turned into an iconic moody Eakins-inspired painting.
Wayne was not a fashionable 20th or 21st century careerist. In a world where NFTs are presented as believable works of art for purchase, Wayne had nothing obviously “new” to offer. His bold and distinctive paintings are formal constructions disguised as landscapes, still lifes and figures. His advocacy of art history and art education was rooted in his own childhood; when he was confined to bed due to a sports injury that broke his back, drawing was his escape.
Until almost the day he died on December 25, at the age of 101, Wayne took risks in his job. He was not content to rest on his laurels. He was a philosopher, a joke teller and a diplomat. He was not a minimalist, not a conceptualist, but a man who, with a pencil, a pastel stick or a brush, did what he loved: making art.
Jeremy Stone has worked as an artistic advisor, curator and appraiser for 30 years. She founded Business Matters in the Visual Arts LLC in 1998.