Wayne Thiebaud Obituary | Painting

Few artists can claim Willem de Kooning and Walt Disney as equal influences in their work. Californian painter Wayne Thiebaud was one of them.

Thiebaud, who died at the age of 101, enlisted as an “intermediary” at Disney Studios in Los Angeles as a teenager, filling the backgrounds of the cartoons of Mickey Mouse whose characters were drawn by animators. experienced. For the rest of his long life he will be open in his admiration for designers and for commercial art in general.

Two decades later, in 1956, Thiebaud “went to meet my heroes”, including De Kooning. New York at this time was rife with Abstract Expressionism. “De Kooning and I could talk endlessly about brushstrokes, etc. make them sit on the plane, that sort of thing.

The unlikely meeting place of these two disparate currents in his work was to be pastry. “If you really look at a lemon meringue pie or a beautiful cake, it’s kind of a work of art,” Thiebaud remembers on his 100th birthday in 2020. the lemon pie.) C ‘ was a different garnish that was to reveal the potential of pastries as subjects for his art, however.

Wayne Thiebaud at the Whitney Museum of American Art during an exhibition of his work in 2001. Photograph: New York Daily News Archive // ​​Getty Images

In the early 1960s, Thiebaud set to work on a pumpkin pie still life – Pumpkin Pieces (1962), perhaps, or a similar work. “I mixed a lot of what I thought was the color and put it on the triangle,” Thiebaud later said. “I was horrified.” Hoping to save the painting, he made a second version with a blue and yellow sub-design that appeared around the edges of the fill. The result was to make orange sparkle, an effect Thiebaud was to nickname “halation” and take as his own.

“I looked at the picture and said, ‘Boy, if I paint this stuff, it will be my end as a serious artist,'” he mused, half a century later. late. That Pieces of Pumpkin sold at Christie’s for £ 1.6million in 2008 suggests how wrong he was. (In 2019, his 2010-11 Encased Cakes sold for £ 6.2million, a record for his work to date.) Thiebaud’s shortbread and buttercream icing whetted an appetite for his art that even a Stakhanovist production could not satisfy.

Part of it was a mistaken identity. In 1962, the year of Pieces of Pumpkin, pop art burst onto the American scene. Thiebaud’s pies and cakes were seen as part of the irony of consumerism that underpinned Andy Warhol’s soup cans or Roy Lichtenstein’s oversized cartoons. It was not quite the case.

Subject matter notwithstanding, Pieces of Pumpkin is shaped by modernist concerns such as the marking and arrangement of shapes on a grid. Whether the grill is a dining room display and Thiebaud’s paint marks are those of a gooey pie filling is only part of the story. Josef albers, a strictly abstract artist, compared his own painting of squares to the spread of butter on pumpernickel. Thiebaud’s pastries are as close to Albers as they are to Warhol, and maybe more.

Mickey Mouse by Wayne Thiebaud on a wall
Wayne Thiebaud’s Mickey Mouse exhibited at Christie’s in New York in 2019. As a teenager, he worked in Disney studios and admired designers. Photograph: UPI / Alamy

If its ingredients have remained the same, the meaning of its confectionery has changed over time. Frozen cakes, in 1962, were as much a symbol of American wealth as cars with tail fins. When Thiebaud painted Encased Cakes 50 years later, angel food had been supplanted in the California diet by sourdough bread. The custard and frozen cherries were now talking about that more innocent time when, as a teenager, Thiebaud had worked behind the counter of a Long Beach delicatessen called Mile High and Red Hot. His work has come to seem touched with melancholy, whether it is or not.

Thiebaud’s father Morton, a former inventor and automotive director, had moved the family to California from Arizona when his son was six months old. Wayne’s mother, Alice (née Le Baron), then a telephone operator, came from an old Mormon family: his grandmother had crossed the plains to Salt Lake City with Brigham Young, the so-called American Moses, pushing a handcart. Morton brought the family back to Utah in 1931, to a small ranch he had managed to buy but lost three years later. If life on a solid farm was tough, Wayne remembered it as happy. “The Mormon community is very, very supportive,” he laughed as he grew older. “I was what you would call today, I think, a spoiled child. In 1934, the family returned to California, where Thiebaud would spend the rest of his life.

Sent to Frank Wiggins Trade School in Los Angeles (later called LA Trade Technical College), he took a sign painting course which led him, briefly, to a job at the Sears department store chain, Roebuck. . A year without distinction at Long Beach Junior College – “I got a credit, and it was in public speaking and athletics,” Thiebaud admitted regretfully – was cut short by the outbreak of war. He spent it in the United States Air Force, drawing a comic strip called Aleck for a service journal and later sets for bomber training films under the command of Captain Ronald Reagan. (“It was not a very pleasant experience,” recalls Thiebaud, a longtime Democrat.) It was around this time that he met and married Patricia Patterson, in 1943. They had two daughters, Twinka. and Mallary, before divorcing in 1958.

In 1947, Thiebaud took advantage of the GI bill to train as an art teacher, first in San José and then in Sacramento. Realizing that teaching would not support his growing family, he accepted a job in the advertising department of the Rexall Drug Company, where he met a commercial artist called Robert Mallary. (Thiebaud’s second daughter will be named in his honor.) Son of a Berkeley professor, the cultured Mallary also worked as a fine artist, exhibiting with the Allan Stone Gallery in New York. Stone put on a show at Thiebaud in 1962: Pumpkin Pieces Was In It. Against the advice of Barnett Newman, who warned him to “lose the pie guy”, Stone will represent Thiebaud until his death in 2006.

There was something deeply American in Thiebaud’s life as well as in his art. The formal seriousness of his work wasn’t the only thing that separated him from the casualness of pop. His paintings, like the man who made them, were good-natured and sincere. These qualities have earned Thiebaud the affection of generations of students at the University of California at Davis, where he taught, most recently as Professor Emeritus, for 60 years. His students at Davis included polymath artist Bruce Nauman.

Above all, Thiebaud considered himself “one of those lucky, lucky”. If he resented being labeled as a pastry painter, it just couldn’t be seen. A retrospective of his work at London’s White Cube Gallery in 2017 surprised visitors who simply knew him as a pie vendor.

Among the works on display were portraits – the 1966 green dress was one of them – and so-called delta landscapes, including the Elegiac Fall Fields (2017). The only animosity against confectionery that Thiebaud admitted was of a dietary nature. When asked, at age 100, to name a cake that could boost the morale of a population stricken by Covid, he replied: “I think I prefer to tell them, be careful not to eat too much. sweets and watch your veg. Then he added, “Sugar is kind of the enemy of good health.”

In 1959, Thiebaud married Betty Jean Carr, who died in 2015. Their son, Paul, died in 2010. Wayne Thiebaud is survived by Twinka and Mallary, his stepson, artist Matt Bult, and six grandchildren .

(Morton) Wayne Thiebaud, artist, born November 15, 1920; passed away on December 25, 2021

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