The American artist Wayne Thiebaud is best known for the paintings of starkly lit confections he has been making since the early 1960s, so his daring recent work may come as a surprise. I first became aware of the new circus series during a visit to his Sacramento studio in March 2017. Among two dozen or so paintings lining opposing walls—mostly the signature landscapes and still lifes—were several small canvases of clowns. I did not take any photos, but from what I recall these were: a lonesome white clown standing against white background; a tiger pinning down a puppet-like prone clown; bust portraits of a clown and a fortune teller; and a painting of a clown behind an American flag–draped podium, his upraised arms forming a “V,” with a billboard-sized portrait inscribed “vote!” in the background. We did...


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