The Phillips Collection

Washington D.C.



Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective


The most comprehensive and first retrospective in over 15 years of the work of California artist Wayne Thiebaud, one of the leading figures in the field of modern American art, will be on view at The Phillips Collection from February 10 to April 29, 2001. Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in celebration of the artist's 80th birthday. Approximately 100 oil paintings, watercolors, and pastels, will trace the artist's development from the 1950's, when he first began to emerge as a significant national artist, to the present day, as he continues to work with great vigor and inventiveness.

Drawn from public and private collections across the country, including the collections of the Thiebaud family, the exhibition includes thematic groups that have rarely, if ever, been publicly exhibited, providing the opportunity for the most comprehensive overview of Thiebaud's career ever presented. The selection of paintings and works on paper will highlight the pure visual and painterly power of Thiebaud's work while also providing many new insights into his artistic development. (left: Confections, 1962, Oil on linen, Byron Meyer, San Francisco)

Thiebaud is probably best known for his still life paintings of everyday objects, especially those of thickly painted cakes and pies. Although closely associated with the Pop Art movement of the 1960's, Thiebaud's subjects reflect a sense of nostalgia and reverence unlike the more satirical images of modern American consumerism depicted in Pop Art. "Often, subject matter associated with Pop Art and other later 20th-century art movements can be intimidating for museum visitors," said Phillips director Jay Gates. "Thiebaud's paintings, on the other hand, offer nostalgic views of popular culture and the American scene with which viewers of all kinds can easily identify," he continued.

Eliza Rathbone, chief curator of the Phillips, explained the significance of the exhibition within the context of The Phillips Collection: "With such close links to the work of many artists held in The Phillips Collection, like that of Chardin, Hopper, Mondrian, Morandi and Diebenkorn, Thiebaud's work reflects the continuity and visual connections between past and present that guided Duncan Phillips' vision for his collection. Moreover, Thiebaud's love of color and of painting itself makes his work perfectly suited for presentation here," she explained.


About Wayne Thiebaud

Wayne Thiebaud was born in Mesa, Arizona in 1920 and has spent most of his life in California. His artistic leanings were originally inspired by cartoons and comic strips such as George Herriman's "Krazy Kat." The teenage Thiebaud established himself as a cartoonist, working for a brief time as an animator for the Walt Disney studios and drawing a regular comic strip during his World War II stint in the Army Air Force. He also spent time as a poster designer and commercial artist in both California and New York before eventually deciding to become a painter. (left: Man Sitting-Back View, 1964, Oil on canvas, Collection of the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art, St. Joseph, Missouri, Purchased with funds from the Wllliam Toben Memorial Fund and donations from museum friends)

Thiebaud's formal art training was provided under the GI Bill at San Jose State College and the California State College in Sacramento. He received a teaching appointment at Sacramento Junior College in 1951, while still in graduate school, and has since enjoyed a long and distinguished teaching career. In 1990, Thiebaud retired from full-time teaching at the University of California at Davis, but continues to teach on an emeritus part-time basis.

His paintings can be found in public collections across the country, including the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, and have been featured in numerous nationally touring exhibitions. Throughout his career, he has been honored with a number of awards for his artistic and teaching achievement.


Artistic Development

Thiebaud gained recognition in the 1950's when he began to exhibit in one-artist and group shows throughout California, including shows at the E. B. Crocker Art Gallery in Sacramento, the San Francisco Museum of Art (now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), and the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. He also received commissions for several public works during this time. The influence of Abstract Expressionism on his work can be seen in the thick brushstrokes and bold use of color that characterize many of his paintings from this period. Nearly abstract works such as Cigar Counter (1955) and Ribbon Store(1957) reflect the artist's strong interest in the painting's underlying structure and the medium itself as the ultimate subject.

By the early 1960's, Thiebaud's famous deadpan paintings of food and consumer goods emerged in their mature form. Depictions of everyday Americana, such as sandwiches, gumball machines, toys, cafeteria-type foods, and his famous cake and pie paintings, reflect his turn toward a more representational approach to painting. Works like Pies, Pies, Pies (1961) and Around the Cake (1962), composed of simple geometric shapes and his signature style of intense light and color, aligned Thiebaud, in the public's mind, with the Pop Art movement. But unlike Pop Art, the food subjects that he returned to again and again resonate with nostalgia for the middle-class America of Thiebaud's boyhood memories while also evoking his emulation of Mondrian and Morandi.

Thiebaud spent a number of years translating his still life style to the representation of isolated, large-scale human figures, before directing his focus toward rural landscapes and the cliffs and bluffs of the Sierra Nevada foothills. The landscape theme, which would in one way or another remain central to his artistic development from that time onward, later took the form of unlikely cityscapes, depicting the plunging streets and hills of San Francisco. Paintings such as Hill Street (1981) portray a San Francisco of exaggerated hills where buildings cling precariously to steeply sloping cliffs and steep plunges geometrically restructure space and perspective. (left: Girl with Ice Cream Cone, 1963, Oil on canvas, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, The Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest Fund, Smithsonian Collection Acquisition Program and Museum Purchase, 1996)

Finally, his approach to the landscape theme took a surprising departure in his most recent works -- the brilliantly colored vistas of the Sacramento Valley. Focusing on the waterways and agricultural fields that define the landscape around the artist's home, these large, semi-abstract paintings are marked by a new intensity in Thiebaud's distinctive combination of light, patterns, and perspectives.


The Exhibition

Although Thiebaud's work may be familiar to many, it is not as fully recognized as it deserves for its diversity and complexity of development, nor has it been as widely exhibited in Midwestern and Eastern states as in the West. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue will bring Thiebaud's achievement to broader audiences and wider critical attention. It will shed light on the distinctions between his work and the east coast Pop Art movement, the position of his art in the tradition of American realism, the surprisingly wide variety of historical sources referenced in his paintings, and the persistent dialogue between realism and abstraction that has characterized his work throughout his 50-year career.

Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and curated by FAMSF Associate Director and Chief Curator Dr. Steven A. Nash. Funding has been provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, a Federal Agency.

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