The first hundred years

I plan to bump up against the century mark with my brushes firmly in my fist.

Boston Creams, 1962, oil on canvas, Wayne Thiebaud, courtesy Crocker MuseumHe painted these cakes and pies from imagination, rather than live models. Maybe that’s how he’s lived so long.
Preparing a lesson on abstraction and simplification, I looked up Wayne Thiebaud’s Boston Creams, above. It’s a painting one can learn a great deal from. The color is in the blue shadows and red cherry filling, set against luscious creams and tans. There’s nothing static about it; the rotation of the slices makes a light pattern that swirls with energy. It’s reminiscent of nothing so much as an American flag.

I was amazed to realize that Thiebaud is still with us—he turns 100 this November. Even more amazing, he’s been painting all along. At age 98, he curated a show for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, viewing thousands of images to select work to hang alongside his own.

Three Donuts, 1994, oil on canvas, Wayne Thiebaud, courtesy Sothebys.

Thiebaud is a son of the Great Depression. He was raised in Southern California, where his father was a mechanic and local Mormon bishop. Thiebaud worked his way through high school at a restaurant in Long Beach. The pies and doughnuts in their glass cases must have etched themselves on his teenaged brain, because they became the cornerstone of his ouevre.

He apprenticed at Walt Disney Studios while still in high school. After graduation, he enrolled at the Frank Wiggins Trade School in Los Angeles, intending to be a sign painter. He worked as an artist for the United States Army Air Forces during WWII.

After the war, Thiebaud returned to commercial art. His friend and co-worker at Rexall Drugs, Robert Mallary, encouraged him to take advantage of the GI Bill. Thiebaud started college at almost thirty years of age. He earned his MA in 1952.

River Bend Farms, 1996, oil on canvas, Wayne Thiebaud, courtesy Christies. Thiebaud’s impeccable draftsmanship translates to great landscape paintings.

That took him to a faculty position at Sacramento City College and University of California, Davis, where he taught until 1991. For most of his career as a painter and teacher, he was out of sync with his time. He was more interested in traditional painting and realism than conceptual art.

Commercial art may be thought lowbrow, but it develops impressive technical chops. Thiebaud drew on them when he started to paint his pies, cakes, candy and ice cream cones. He arranged them just as they would be displayed on restaurant counters or in bakeries. He used the multicolored outlines and extreme shadows of contemporary commercial art. Take away the luscious impasto in Boston Creams, and you could have an advertisement from Better Homes and Gardens.

Two Meringues, 2002, Lithograph on Arches paper, Wayne Thiebaud, private collection. Thiebaud is an accomplished printmaker.

California had no real art scene at the time, so Thiebaud’s paintings were displayed rather haphazardly, in restaurants, studios, or wherever he could find viewers. It was not until he went to New York and met the dealer Allan Stone that he found his national audience. His first show in New York, in 1962, sold out.

Why did his work resonate so well? Although very much a traditional painter, he was mining the same mass culture as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.  However, Thiebaud never embraced the cynicism of Pop Art. He thought of himself as a traditional painter, and he viewed the American scene with affection and respect.

Artists frequently refuse to retire in old age. Sometimes, they meet their greatest success just when they’re expected to find a bed in a senior living facility. Let Wayne Thiebaud be your role model. I’m already planning my show for 2059, Carol Douglas: the first hundred years.