'Throughout, although Thiebaud is of course not a Conceptualist, his capacity for creating quasi-serial images that make us think of the difference/likeness between art and life renders him philosophical, thought-provoking and inquisitive. Rather than a de facto ‘realist’, we might better conceive him as an artist who interrogates reality refracted through a deeply knowing lens.’ (David Anfam, 2017)
White Cube is pleased to present an exhibition of work by Wayne Thiebaud. One of America’s foremost painters, Thiebaud’s career spans seventy years. This exhibition is his first comprehensive solo presentation in London and includes a selection of paintings and works on paper that date from 1962 to 2017.
Thiebaud deals with a uniquely American vernacular in his paintings of everyday food, urban and rural landscapes and people. Often modest in scale, his subject matter is isolated and reduced, becoming the focus for painterly exercises in colour, volume and style. In the artist’s most well-known images of cakes, pastries and pies, begun around 1953, a heightened tactility and viscosity of paint is analogous to the actual objects depicted, a technique he has called ‘object transference’. In these paintings, icing swirls are recreated on the surface of the canvas through thick impasto or, in the painting Cotton Candy (2016), paint is applied in hazy, spidery strokes to suggest the airy texture of candy floss itself. As John Yau has written: ‘Thiebaud conflated the forms and colours of the observable world with those of an imagined one so that they were virtually indistinguishable from each other.’ (Thiebaud, Rizzoli, 2015)
Although emerging concurrently with Abstract Expressionism and then Pop Art, Thiebaud’s work stands apart, closer in approach to Edward Hopper’s paintings of urban life or the focused still lives of Cézanne or Morandi. Thiebaud creates a tension between surface and depth, using a strong colour palette that ranges from pastel hues to bright, bold tones. In works such as Cherry Topped Desserts (1986) or Cheese Deli (2016−17), bold colour recalls a Fauvist approach, freed from direct descriptive purpose. Ample, blank space is allowed within the compositions and dark shadows around forms are emphasised, a technique used in commercial illustration which Thiebaud also studied. This creates a sense of grounding and stability within the image but also suggests the disconnection and isolation of modern life. In his portraits, Thiebaud employs a similar approach, placing his sitters against an expanse of blank, white space. In paintings such as Player (1981) or Green Dress(1966/2017), minimal props and pared-down settings create works of great intensity whereby the viewer’s gaze is directed onto the details of physiological expression.
Thiebaud’s landscapes employ dramatic compositions, often aerial views of cliffs or fields with rivers or lakes bisecting the image. Farmed fields are depicted as patterned rectangles, slices or squares set against each other in vivid colours. In the charcoal on canvas landscape Ridge Bluff and Farmland (2017), the composition is divided diagonally as if the sheer face of the exaggerated and vertiginous cliffs are splitting the picture in two. Thiebaud relates these images to the experience of driving in America: ‘It came about by driving across the country and actually going through those canyons. Those imposing structures seem to just fall in on you and make such a nice visual shape that I can't resist doing them.’ Likewise, in the work River Lands (1996), the dramatic, snaking edge of land meeting water is the focal point of the image. To its left is a blank expanse of still water and to its right, a series of closely packed agricultural fields, represented through various delicate patterns. By contrast, in the painting Sandy Cliff (2013), washed-out purples, whites and skin tones depict the edge of a cliff, so abstracted and simplified its forms and undulations take on anthropomorphic qualities.