wayne thiebaud cakes (1963)
Technique: oil on canvas 152×183 cm
Thiebaud has outlived many of the painters who were his friends or colleagues—the price of a long life. But the most grievous loss for him and his wife was the death last year of their son, Paul, from cancer, at the age of 49. Paul Thiebaud owned the private gallery in Sacramento and two others that represent his father and other contemporary artists. “I am very proud of him,” says the painter. “We were very close. That part made it possible to go on.”
Thiebaud never lost his admiration for commercial art, but in the late 1940s he began to pursue serious painting, and earned a master’s in art history. He joined the UC Davis faculty in 1960 as an art instructor. He preferred teaching undergraduates and “raw beginners,” says the painter Michael Tompkins, who was his student and assistant in the 1980s. “He wanted people who were wide open. Without any irony, he told us his work was about scrambling around with the basic issues, like a baseball player who still goes to spring training each year to brush up on the basics.” In teaching, Thiebaud says, “you have to constantly rethink things.”
Begin mixing the icing sugar and the cream cheese in a large bowl with an electric mixer. Add the milk, 1 TB at a time, until the desired consistency is reached.
Line a 12-cup muffin tray with cupcake papers and spoon in ½ of the mixture. Slip into the oven for 20-25 minutes. Check the doneness of the cupcakes by inserting a toothpick into the centre of a cake, if it slides out clean, the cupcakes are done.
Throughout his 50-year career, Thiebaud has been canonized for his delightful cake arrangements and nostalgic commonplace objects, as well as his similarly textured portraits and landscapes. While he has undoubtedly achieved a huge amount of success—in 2015, Artnet ranked Thiebaud as the sixth highest-grossing living artist—he has remained humble and consistently self-deprecating. In the face of a constantly shifting contemporary art world and in contrast to the flashy, gimmicky work of his younger colleagues, Thiebaud has not wavered in his authenticity or purity. Simple and delicate, his portraits, landscapes and still lifes, are dedicated to explorations of pleasure and the tactility of taste. Thiebaud is the product of the culture and objects that have surrounded him, and his paintings express a distinctively American sensibility in both their style and subject matter.
In the 1950s Thiebaud began his teaching career which eventually led him to become a lecturer at the University of California, Davis. He officially retired from this role in 1990 at age 70, but continued to teach his legendary class sporadically until last year. It was while on a sabbatical from his first teaching job in 1956 that he travelled to New York and befriended Abstract Expressionists artists such as Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, as well as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, who were rebelling against “Ab Ex”. Thiebaud was so inspired after meeting these artists that one day, during his time in New York, he sat down in a restaurant and made his first drawing of a pie in a display case.
The use of solid outlines and shadows on a stark background is typical of Thiebaud’s work in the 1960s, which has much in common with advertising images, and its subject matter – common consumer items – aligns it with much of Pop Art, but its thickly applied paint sets it apart from much of the movement. Curator Megan Fizell writes, “The frosting upon Wayne Thiebaud‘s 1963 painting, Cakes, is so thickly applied that I am often tempted to reach out, run my finger along one of the perfect cake-tops to taste the sugary dessert.” As such, the painting exemplifies “object transference” (a term Thiebaud used to describe his own work), meaning that the paint literally mimics the element it depicts – in this case frosting. To further compound this tendency, American artist Sharon Core recreated the painting as a still life and then photographed it. To achieve the look of the heavy brushstrokes, she replicated the effect in frosting – thus completing the cycle of imitation between the subject and its representation.
With Two Paint Cans Thiebaud elevates the ordinary into something more profound. He said, “The wonderful thing about common objects, of almost any kind, is exactly what the poets talk about. They are talking about a transcendent potential, that they can be more than they are. For instance, let’s say a bunch of kitchen objects like [18 th century French painter] Chardin: copper pipes, clay pots, a loaf of bread. Your job as a painter is to make them different enough and special enough that when you go back to look at the kitchen’s actual objects, they seem wanting.” On another note, though, one senses that Thiebaud is also making subtle references to painters who came before. The paint splattered surface under the cans is reminiscent of paintings by Jackson Pollock or Cy Twombly, and one wonders if the subject matter – two cans – might be a sly nod to Jasper Johns’ famous Painted Bronze (Ale Cans) (1960).