When I was studying art as an undergrad, there was an aura of love/hate greatness associated with Wayne Thiebaud. My first painting teacher had studied with him and specifically instructed us not to use colors the way Thiebaud did. As if Thiebaud got away with something but we were not going to get to use bright true colors. While everyone seemed struck by the cakes, pies, and donuts, at 17 years old, I had eyes for only one painting--the rows and rows of shoes. It made my jaw drop the first time I saw it--the sheer joy of seeing one of my favorite sights in the world, a closet full of fabulous shoes elevated to major art. It was not the landscape art of my parent's generation and it spoke to me.
Later, in grad school, I was homesick for California so I went out and bought the same big framed print that's on the book cover above. It was SF and LA all rolled into one for me and I missed the electric blue shadows that I fancied you could only see in California.
As a teenage art student at U.C. Berkeley, when I first saw his paintings in person at the SF Museum of Modern Art, I fell in love with the lushness of the paint Thiebaud used and never saw the connection with Lichtenstein or Warhol that a lot of people made. Objectifying objects put him in the non-abstract expressionism camp and as a result he has often been lumped in with pop artists. I never saw him that way and after viewing his retrospective, I more fully understand why.
Time has passed but the feeling I have for Thiebaud's paintings has never changed, so I was looking forward to the show in Laguna, curious about why of all places he was staging his 70 year retrospective in this small sleepy beach town. In the flurry of the fires, Mr. Thiebaud left Laguna before the show opened and I had not had a moment to see it until this weekend. As luck would have it, when I arrived, Gene Cooper, who curated the show, was leading a tour of the show. Cooper met Thiebaud at his first show and they have been friends ever since. I had the pleasure of talking with him before the tour and I found him to be as delightful and interesting in person as you might imagine a long time friend of Thiebaud's would be. Mr. Cooper taught at Long Beach State, was the director of the Long Beach University Art Museum, and is also a painter.
This is not one of the three super life-size painting of the bathers hanging in the exhibit, but it is one of the same models and gives you an idea...
We started in the room where some of Thiebaud's larger paintings currently hang. Gene addressed the question he assumed was in everyone's mind: why Laguna? Why not chose a major NY venue, the type of museum that has hosted many a sold-out show for Thiebaud in the past? There were a few reasons. Because he has already had those shows. Because the Laguna Art Museum has no pretensions of grandness, and this is where he wanted to do his lifetime retrospective. The show is about the work and not the architecture of the museum. According to Cooper, Thiebaud at 87 years old, having earned world wide fame and great fortune, is still very connected to his roots as the son of a mechanic. He likes the small scale of the town of Laguna, it works for him. This was not intended to be a "cake and pie" feel-good show; Thiebaud has had tons of those. Back in Sacramento, according to Cooper, Thiebaud recreated the Laguna Museum, placing paintings in a way to make it a didactic show. A professor of art theory as well as art history, Thiebaud wanted to create a teaching show, where each gallery within the museum would have a different purpose but together would move to convey a message of beach culture.
The show begins with "Beach Boys", and early painting that narrates Thiebaud's rise to fame as abstract expressionism was ending and pop art was emerging. Thiebaud was in his 40s and went to NY to see if he could find a gallery to show his work. Every gallery in NY rejected him and Thiebaud returned home dejected. Three months later, renowned gallery owner Allan Stone, who had turned down a one-man show with Andy Warhol, was still having dreams about Thiebaud's cakes and pies. He decided (with some ambivalence) to give Wayne Thiebaud a one-man show. While the show was being mounted, the Modern dropped by and bought three of Thiebaud's pie paintings on the spot. Word got out and all of Thiebaud's paintings were sold before his first show opened. It's been like that ever since.
I loved the show, it was exciting because there were so many paintings I had never seen: aerial perspectives of farmland, the newer dogs on the beach, the ballroom dancer series, numerous sketches and life drawings. At the same time it was also very special because I found so much in it that had personal meaning for me. I fell in love with a small painting of a fish on a platter back when I was in college. Odd since (to the disgust of most of my friends) I don't eat fish and seeing dead fish with eyes has always creeped me out. And yet I always found it to be a beautiful painting. There it was, a small little painting smack in the middle of the room of large-scale paintings. It was more painterly than I even remembered it to be. We were soon informed that Thiebaud has been working on that painting for the past 16 years. It had originally been part of a larger painting and he cut it out and made it a painting on it's own. A portrait of our guide/curator Gene Cooper, entitled "The Player", was also hanging in this gallery. According to Cooper, Thiebaud has been working on that portrait for 28 years. The color and pattern of his shirt have changed several times and just so you know, "The Player" refers to tennis, having been named before the words took on other connotations. According to Gene, nothing in the show is finished. He's willing to put money down that when it goes back to Sacramento, many of the paintings will change.
I always love finding out how artists work, whether it's a writer, painter, or designer. According to Gene, Thiebaud is constantly sketching; it's continuous. He draws what he sees on TV. He has a pad in every jacket pocket in his closet and is known to miss meals at restaurants because he found something interesting in the parking lot and needs to sketch it. Most amazingly, he draws from memory. He doesn't believe in using a camera or photography to aid with painting. Many of his landscape paintings are an amalgamy of street architecture he saw in a city overlaid on Sacramento, where his base camp is. Although he has the means, Thiebaud doesn't indulge in many things except art, and he collects the best. But he's not precious with the art; Cooper relates that he's seen a Matisse drawing hanging off a pallet where Thiebaud was painting. A true studio painter who wakes early in the morning, starts painting and continues through the day, Thiebaud plays tennis when he finishes. He sticks to this same routine day in and day out and beyond his art, he's apparently quite a good competitive tennis player. And yes, he and Gene play right here on the courts of Laguna Beach.
I was happy to see that some of his early paintings as well as his gorgeous drawings have been included in the show. As you might expect from a lover of art history, Thiebaud emulated and mastered the great painters at a young age. One of Thiebaud's inspirations was Sorolla, which if you think about it, makes perfect sense.
"My Wife and Daughters in the Garden" and "Walk on the Beach" by Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida.
Gene says that Thiebaud has gone back to early subject matter. His years growing up around the surf and sea in Long Beach are now being addressed again as he lives and paints right over Main Beach in Laguna part of the year. Although he has been known to capture the frozen poses of people, turning them into strange and wonderful objects, these days he is looking for the fresher moment that happens right before the pose. In many ways it's gratifying to know that one of my favorite painters will be recording the place I love and live, in his own inimitable way.
If you have the chance, make the time to see this show. Gene Cooper says it's the last show he plans to curate and the last show Thiebaud plans to have as well. You can find more information about the show at lagunaartmuseum.org.