Arts & Culture » Art

Double the pleasure, double the fun

by Sura Wood

Artist Wayne Thiebaud at SFMOMA's Collections Center, 2018. Photo: Katherine Du Tiel
Artist Wayne Thiebaud at SFMOMA's Collections Center, 2018. Photo: Katherine Du Tiel  

A pair of small-scale shows at SFMOMA provides a double dip of Wayne Thiebaud, a painter affectionately known as the king of cakes and pies for his depictions of delectable confectionary treats. For untold years, especially in the 1960s, he has tempted us with high calorie indulgences, from platters of bakery cakes to yummy parfaits and sundaes lined up on a counter. Bless you, Mr. Thiebaud: there are always seconds, thirds and more in your wonderful world of desserts. Though they are not his only subject — his canon includes vertigo-inducing cityscapes, rural vistas and nudes — they align temperamentally with his sweet, avuncular demeanor (bow-tie and all) and a voice that Disney would have loved to cast for an animated character. At 98, Thiebaud is still painting and playing tennis, using the lids of discarded tennis-ball cans to mix his paints.

Both exhibitions, impeccably installed by curator Janet Bishop in adjacent suites of galleries on the second floor, draw from the museum's collections and SFMOMA's long relationship with the Sacramento-area artist, which dates back to 1942. Covering a half-century of productivity, and consisting of some 35 works, "Paintings and Drawings" is just that: paintings shown alongside dozens of preparatory studies, watercolors and deft pen and pencil sketches (Thiebaud started off as a cartoonist) that shed light on the thinking and visual problem-solving that resulted in full-blown canvases. In "Canyon Mountains" (2011-12), a large oil evoking the real and imagined Southwestern mountain ranges of his childhood, flat-topped, loamy shafts of earth, slathered with the thick impasto he favors, crane toward the sky, nudging each other and competing for space and light. Nearby, studies for the painting, experimenting with shapes and perspective, also contain handwritten notes to self like, "Add colors to all lines," a prompt to flesh out volumes.

"Sunset Streets" (1985) is an alternate-reality, cinematic vision of San Francisco's vertiginous hills, with a candy-orange-and-white-striped building resembling a creamsicle wedged into a densely packed network of city structures lining a steep black thoroughfare that ascends to a 90-degree angle like the incline of a death-defying roller coaster. A lovely summer idyll, "Girl with a Pink Hat" (1973) features a slender young blond woman facing sideways in a broad-brimmed sun hat, the white heat of the afternoon bleaching the background. Next to it are multiple ink-and-graphite drawings of the same subject with and without a bikini, in a variety of poses. Dreamy pastels of (you guessed it) an intact lemon meringue pie and half-eaten Neapolitan are a warning not to go to the show on an empty stomach.


Henri Matisse, La conversation (The Conversation) (1938), part of Thiebauds Artists Choice at SFMOMA. Photo: Ben Blackwell  

For "Artist's Choice," a companion exhibition that's the more intellectually interesting of the two, Bishop invited Thiebaud into the museum's galleries and storage vaults to sort through hundreds of works. He appears to have had a grand old time selecting pieces for which he feels an affinity and that reflect his eclectic tastes. Among those that made the cut: Picasso, Max Beckmann, Andre Derain, whom he considers the best of the fauve painters; European and American modernists like Arthur B. Carles, whose image of a voluptuous, alabaster-skinned woman in a saucy yellow hat ("Torso," 1914) rises like a phoenix or a genie out of a bottle from an ebony divan; and fellow Californians such as David Park and Elmer Bischoff, as well as Richard Diebenkorn and French master Matisse, who've figured prominently in his artistic psyche. Even better, most of the works are accompanied by pithy quotes from Thiebaud, who expounds in his impish way on the virtues of each painting and why he chose it.

One of his heroes, Willem de Kooning, whom he describes as "the best trained artist in all of New York," and who, he says, taught him about rigor, is represented by "The Springs" (1955), flooded by a golden pink light he compares to that used by Rembrandt. The glowing brilliant light of a glistening icy river in winter is what won George C. Ault's "The Hudson from Riverside Drive" (1920-21) a spot in the Thiebaud pantheon. "This painting just really stunned me," he recalls. He laments that the "smashingly good" Derain has been denied his rightful place in the art world, choosing two of his works, "Paysage du Midi" (1906) and "Nature morte aux Fruits" (ca. 1937-39), as a corrective. Given the generous application of impasto, Joan Brown's "Green Bowl" (1964) seems like an obvious choice. The chartreuse-rimmed vessel of the title rests on a mottled, cement-hued surface, its textures so visceral you feel compelled to touch them. "You got this enormous amount of felt pressure," explains Thiebaud. "There's a lot of flattening or planometric pushing, and that's really satisfying to me." He talks up the transparency and delicacy of David Park's "Bathers" (1954), in which the lean, tawny bodies of teenage boys, freshly emerged from an ocean swim, meld with the sandy beach.

"Diebenkorn's pictures are dirty sometimes, and that's a positive thing," he opines in response to the artist's "Still Life with Orange Peel" (1955). "He was very interested in anomalies, things which were not quite clean, to give contrast between a kind of French elegance and filth." "Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad" (1965), a Diebenkorn masterpiece last seen in Bishop's excellent "Matisse/Diebenkorn" show in 2017, takes another bow here, and what a spectacular beauty it is. In an overt homage to Matisse, the SoCal dreamscape has a skewed perspective that's somehow exactly right, and an "aura of color like a musical chord" that Thiebaud so aptly describes. A kaleidoscopic merging of indoors and outdoors, with sea and sky in azure and cerulean, a patch of kelly green lawn on the right leading to a wave cresting on a teal blue sea in the distance, and a prominent panel of brightly-colored flowered patterning that's a shout-out to the French master's love of wallpaper and fabrics, it seduces the eye and electrifies the soul. Its presence alone is reason enough to visit the show. Take advantage of the long cushy bench in front of it and gaze to your heart's content.

"Paintings and Drawings" runs through April 28. "Artist's Choice" is up until March 10. www.sfmoma.org


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