The Interview: Wayne Thiebaud

by Janet Reilly

Wayne Thiebaud, living legend

Driving from San Francisco to my hometown of Sacramento is a trip I have made hundreds of times, but on a recent April afternoon, the mundane became memorable. I was on my way to interview Wayne Thiebaud—one of the most important artists of the 20th century and one of the city’s most revered residents.

As I pulled up to a nondescript, one-story building just blocks from the State Capitol, I re-confirm the address to be sure I am in the right place. Indeed, this is Wayne Thiebaud’s headquarters and personal gallery space. I ring the bell and Colleen Casey, a colleague of the artist, ushers me inside. Once my eyes adjust from the bright Sacramento sun, I see paintings of chocolate cake, white cake, two-tiered wedding cakes, perfect slices of pie and ice-cream cones, all casually resting on the floor, propped against the walls.  It is a wonderful, delectable bakery. I want to taste it all!

While immersed in my confectionery daydream, Thiebaud emerges from an office in the back and greets me warmly. He’s relaxed and happy; that morning, the 96-year-old hit the courts at Sutter Lawn Tennis Club with his doubles partner, Burnett Miller, another local luminary (and former Mayor). I tell him I know Sutter Lawn well, having spent a good deal of my childhood there, perfecting my two-handed backhand!

As we talk, it doesn’t take me long to realize this unassuming space is entirely fitting for this refreshingly humble icon of the art world. Known for his masterful paintings that capture life’s poignant ordinariness, Thiebaud has seen his works command millions of dollars at auction, reflecting his big following outside of California.

The conversation flows easily…

When I look at your paintings of pinwheels and candied apples, I’m immediately taken back to my childhood and summers in Santa Cruz. I’m sure you hear that a lot from people. Do you try to bring out the child in all of us? Well, it brought out the child in me, and that childhood is either silly or sublime. Those characteristics are, I think, at the center of most creative work. Children have this great capacity to always believe that that’s the first time anyone’s ever done what they do, and in a way you want painting to free itself from any kind of stricture—or, in other words, when Modernism came in, there were a lot of don’ts with that. “Don’t use the figure, don’t use illusion. Stay flat.” And while that was an interesting kind of challenge and opening of things, it was also quite dangerous in ways that, again, limited things that you would do.

Many people talk about you as a Pop artist, but you don’t see yourself that way, do you? No, because I didn’t go to art school. I had wonderful people who showed me how to do things, starting with cartoonists and sign painters, and then in commercial art, wonderful women fashion designers. They took pity on me ’cause I was so bad, and that was very generous of them. You really learn how to do something the way it’s supposed to be done. I have a great respect for commercial artists and designers and cartoonists.

You got your start animating Goofy and other characters for Walt Disney Studios before working in commercial art early on in your career. How did you transition to what you do today? I was working at Rexall drug company in the art department, and [there was] a fellow by the name of Robert Mallary—he was only about a year older than I but about 20 years more intelligent and practiced. You would think we became enemies, because he said, “You are so dumb. You’re ill-read, ’cause you don’t make close distinctions. You have all these generalizations.” He says, “You better get yourself educated.” And he turned out to be really a very wonderful critic and an artist himself who showed at the Museum of Modern Art. So I was very lucky to find this mentor who directed me toward art history and books and mostly a kind of capacity for formal criticism, which is a rare thing these days. … I’ve never run into anyone as capable as he was.

Pies, cakes, gumball machines—where did that come from? My childhood. I’d driven across country and taken trains over the last many years, and we had this sort of American chain of identity where almost every restaurant you go into serves the same kind of breakfast, makes the same kind of meringue pie, cherry pie, steak dinners, so that ubiquitousness almost makes you feel like, well, this can’t be very interesting if it’s that repetitive or that ubiquitous. So it’s easy to overlook something like a gumball machine. We notice, however, that children never overlook them … those machines are also sort of iconic tattletale evidence of what we are concerned with, what we’re thinking about.

I was very much interested in Abstract Expressionism and modern movements.

While I was [in New York], there were people I was reading about [who] said you should not try to make the signs of art, that’s relatively easy, but you try to find and make something you love, and try to make it look like art if you can. I remembered that vividly, so when I came back to Sacramento, I took it to heart and went out in the studio and set up a painting on the easel, and said “I’m going to go right back to basic things.” See if I can get the shadows to play their part so that the illusion occurs, deal with some sense of Cubism, but try to get something that just comes together well.

And I started with these ovals, and then I put triangles, which is another basic shape, and started painting these damn pies, and had this row of pies and I said, “If I’m going do this, I better get ready to be laughed out of the art world. No one can take this seriously.” I really felt that way, but all of a sudden I couldn’t leave it alone. It reminded me of washing dishes, and selling hot dogs as a kid, and newspapers, and it suddenly just made a very warm feeling about where I came from and what was my real experience.

It looks like you’re frosting the cake with your paintbrush. For some reason it felt very natural. I was painting with quite heavy brush strokes anyway. … You know how beautiful bas relief is? Especially about, let’s say a coin, where it’s both spatial and sculptural? … I try to do that a little bit in paintings, particularly the landscapes, where you want to see if you can get the paint to look weathered or cracked or worn by wind or whatever, and the paint can mimic some of that. If it’s thick enough, you’re able to do it. So that’s why you see that use of thick paint—plus, I love it anyway. Just a big piece of paint.

Seductive, right? There’s so much movement in those pieces. Well, it comes obviously from de Kooning and great premier coup painters like Velazquez, all the way to Manet, where the track of the brush is really part of the joy in looking at painting, and experiencing it, because you’re watching, in a way, the painter paint.

These paintings became hugely successful. I painted those for a while and they’d get a lot of attention, and happily and surprisingly that went on for maybe a couple of years, maybe three years, I don’t know. And then I said, “Well, I better do something else. I don’t want to make a product.” I couldn’t think at that time what I might do. So I started painting figures and I thought, Well, because these objects are always painted from memory, I’ll paint the figure from memory. And starting to do that, I found out I couldn’t draw well enough from the figure, so I spent seven years drawing from the figure. Went to San Francisco—we had a wonderful drawing group of other artists—and that made a big difference. So then I decide to do some paintings, which I finally did. When I showed them to my dealer, [it was], “My God, I’ve just gotten people used to these damn pies and you bring this thing to me?”

Who were some of the other artists in that group with you in San Francisco? I don’t know if you know them, but Beth Van Hoesen, Mark Adams, they both studied at Stanford, and Theophilus Brown. Sometimes Paul Wonner would come. That was a great session.

You used your wife, Betty Jean, as a model in many of your paintings. Was she a willing model? Yes, my poor wife. She was very, very, very helpful and it was a terrific contribution to what I was able to do with the figures. … I can’t stand to pose for anybody, but she was very good. She had been a model so she knew what it was, knew how to do it. We were lucky.

Your cityscapes of San Francisco are interesting for their use of perspective. Tell me about that. I went out in the streets and started to paint first. They looked pretty strange and not very good. They looked like Hoppers. Bad Hoppers. At one time, I was trying to paint an intersection where every road came into it at a different point, and I was trying to figure out how that might work. I was painting away and a fellow came by and said, “My God, you’re really painting an intersection?”

Somehow you make it look beautiful. Yeah, but a very known critic in New York told me about how Hopper would make a lot of different drawings from different places, and then put them together almost like a stage set, and when you hear that about Hopper, many of his paintings do look like stage sets. That prompted me to try to take drawings and memories back into the studio and paint the cities from memories and drawings that I had made.

Do you still love to paint? I love it and hate it, yes.

Have you ever painted the perfect painting? It’s elusive.

But sometimes, you must stand back and say, “Wow, that’s nice.” If I’m looking at a Vermeer I would, yes. No, the truth is, your own work, at least for me, is kind of indiscernible. What is this? I can find faults with it and try to correct it, to my recognition, but in terms of its viability, its life force or whatever it’s trying to do, judging that in terms of evaluation is impossible for me.

You’ll leave that up to others. And you always, of course—like any profession or activity—never feel you can be quite as good as you want to be. It has to do with a lot of ego to even start to paint. You got Vermeer, Velazquez, Picasso. Why in the world would you ever think you could even contend with that? The audacity is absolutely irresponsible. But if you love it, no matter how small your valuation and your participation in it, it’s one of the great human communities of spectacular results—a sort of world of challenge and comfort. That’s why I urge my students to use art history and take from it, respect it and enjoy it, and be part of it. And even though you may not make a success—in a funny way it’s hard to understand if you’re not a painter. Are you a painter?

No, not at all. Painting is a kind of secret society. … As soon as you’re around a bunch of painters over periods of time, you find out what they really want to talk about is something that the public couldn’t care less about, like brushes. You can talk for three days about brush strokes and brush series—also just about painting: how right now there’s an exhibition of Diebenkorn and Matisse together [at SFMOMA]. … It’s a real joy to see that and I hope museums will do more of that. This is the way painters would talk about, for instance, “Well, now, they ought to have an exhibition of Vermeer and Mondrian.” You’d say, “Mondrian?” There’s an awful lot of similarity, on and on and on and on. Museums are getting a little better at it.

What about you? Which artist would you pair yourself with for a dual exhibit? I think I’m too much of a thief of so many people, it’s hard. I was very much influenced by, and I also like people like Morandi, and the little realistic representational painting tradition, Manet and Thomas Eakins.

You once said, about choosing a career as a painter, I probably won’t be able to make a living, but I can make a life. What did you mean by that? I encourage that with my students, and I think it’s important for many reasons—mainly just to make your life interesting. It’s like a bad habit. You have to find a way to support your bad habits, if you’re going to survive. Most painters do something else. They teach or they drive taxi cabs, or work in commercial art, but they have this fascination with painting—and that’s something that is very difficult, I think, to enthuse people about. We were in Palm Springs, we had an exhibition down there, and [my son] Paul was with us at the time. We were all eating lunch on little tables out in front of the restaurant and suddenly a street fellow comes along and says, “What is this, a family here?” We just said, “Yes, this is so-and-so,” and he says, “Well what are you doing here?” And my son said, “Well my dad’s having an exhibition at the gallery.” “And what does your dad do? What’s the exhibit called?” My son said, “70 Years of Painting.” And the fellow says, “My God, tell your dad to get a life.”

Your paintings now sell for millions of dollars. What do you think about that? I’m sort of quick to point out that this is like winning the lottery in the art world. Pop art came along, otherwise I probably wouldn’t be known. … I think the money thing is a highly dangerous thing, and I don’t think it can match what the works are. I think it’s gotten into unfortunate economic cartels and support systems and auction houses that begin to do their own dealing, and educational classes. It’s so mixed now that it’s hard to get any kind of objective hold of it, and there are, unfortunate to say, a lot of shenanigans and buccaneering in the art world.

Let’s switch gears. You’re an avid tennis player. What do you love about the game? I love playing on a surface which is like a Mondrian. You can never really fully be beaten until the last set. You can be behind 6-1, 6-1, in the third set you’re even, you have to come back—you see that all the time in major tournaments. You have to play five sets. It’s a very intelligently programmed game, because you can be down all the way until that last ball’s hit, but you can still win. That’s like life.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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