The painter Wayne Thiebaud died Christmas Day at the age of 101. Thiebaud had made his public debut in the early 1960s with a series of still lifes that pictured assorted dishes and desserts of the type ubiquitous in American diners and delis, and a series depicting neat rows of department-store haberdashery lit by then-new fluorescent lighting. Those still lifes are by far his best-known paintings, but they were only the beginning of a prolific decades-long career. Thiebaud’s death was met with a barrage of heartfelt tributes in the press and on social media, proving the popularity of his work among both amateurs and connoisseurs. The simplest explanation of this phenomenon is most likely the correct one: while his paintings can be appreciated for their subject matter by just about anybody, they are also sophisticated enough to keep the attention of experts.

Thiebaud’s repertoire expanded quickly. The still lifes were followed by large-scale paintings of human figures—both single- and multiple-sitter compositions. In the 1960s he also began painting mountains (something he continued to do well into the 2010s), and by the 1970s he was constructing vertiginous portraits of San Francisco streets. His 1990s quasi-aerial views of the Sacramento Delta incorporated elements of cartooning—one of Thiebaud’s lifelong passions. But according to the painter himself, the subject matter was only a pretext for solving a set of essentially formal problems that had to do with light, composition, and color.

Because Thiebaud’s first subjects came from a contemporary commercial context, and because the latest art movement in the United States at the time was Pop Art, he was mis-identified as a “Pop” artist. This error was reinforced by his inclusion in the 1962 group exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum “New Painting of Common Objects,” where his work was displayed alongside that of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Unlike American Pop artists, Thiebaud was not driven or limited by popular culture—its artifacts were only starting points, just as the elements of landscapes or cityscapes were. But despite his own protestations, and against the evidence of other series that were not paintings of man-made products—the only subject favored by the practitioners of Pop—the label stuck.

Thiebaud was born into a nurturing Mormon family in Mesa, Arizona, on November 15, 1920. His early years were peaceful, even idyllic, despite two Great Depression–prompted relocations. Wayne’s father was nothing but supportive when his sixteen-year-old son (who was already a Latter-day Saints bishop) told him he wanted to leave the church. “He was such a good father, he was already on my side,” recalled Thiebaud fondly. During World War II he served in the U.S. Army, working as an illustrator for an Air Corps newspaper. Next he went into advertising, first at Universal Studios, then at the Rexall Drug Company. After that came formal schooling—a B.A. and then an M.A. at Sacramento State College—and in 1956–57, a decade after making a commitment to become a painter, Thiebaud took a leave of absence from his job as an instructor of art at Sacramento City College to travel to New York, where he befriended many of the best-known Abstract Expressionists.

From 1960 onwards he had the stability afforded by a professorship at the University of California, Davis, and, outwardly, his life fell into the American equivalent of the French métro, boulot, dodo: he commuted, he worked, he went home to his family. And yet, according to the late Dave Hickey’s binary division of humanity into “pirates” and “farmers,” Thiebaud was a “pirate,” not a “farmer”—because “farmers build fences and control territory,” and what Thiebaud did in his studio, and his classroom, was “tear down fences and cross borders.”

Thiebaud’s resistance to what Hickey called “the U. S. of A., where farmer culture is all but hegemonic,” lay in his discreet but steadfast dedication to painting from his point of view, as a title of his 1973 UC Davis research talk proclaimed. Nonetheless, Thiebaud has often been mistaken for a “farmer.” The vernacular subject matter of his early paintings gave him an unequivocally wholesome image: he was nothing like the alienated visitors of the Cedar Tavern, or the medicated eccentrics at Warhol’s Factory, or even his Beatnik acquaintances from San Francisco’s North Beach. But he also had little interest in becoming a PG-13 version of a contemporary artist—an artist who leads with personality. Thiebaud’s view of both art history and the world of contemporary art was aligned with T. S. Eliot’s assertion that the goal of “divert[ing] interest from the poet to the poetry is a laudable aim.” Despite his kind and patient disposition, and his generous willingness to speak about art, Thiebaud was always reluctant to be the focus of attention. The “continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality” that Eliot advocated was Thiebaud’s nature. He was a painter, and he did not need to play the role of “artist.”

Thiebaud did not have studio assistants, and, although he painted daily (and for longer hours after his retirement from teaching), he judged his progress only by the criterion of whether he had gotten the painting right, or at least right enough to leave the studio. Whereas most painters would be delighted to join the roster of a commercial gallery, Thiebaud declined an invitation from a global blue-chip gallery on several occasions. After the untimely death of his son Paul, who was his dealer in the late 2000s, he reluctantly accepted representation by Aquavella, but only after making sure the gallery was on board with his retaining the power to decide what and when he would show, and because he thought of that gallery as “a little museum.” As he said to me while relaying this story: “I want to paint whatever I want to paint, whenever I want to paint.”

Decades earlier, the art historian and critic Barbara Rose had expressed interest in writing about Thiebaud but bemoaned his lack of gallery representation. Thiebaud objected that he had a dealer in New York—Allan Stone Gallery—only to be told that Allan Stone was “a non-dealer.” Looking back, Wayne commented that, in a way, Rose had been right. Stone was “a different kind of a dealer . . . he loved things so much he wanted to keep them and not sell anything.” Stone refused to advertise exhibitions and said he did not care if critics came, wanting the work “to go on its own power.” That suited Thiebaud, who did not think of paintings as merchandise, and who was known for altering, repainting, and even destroying work that had already been shown in galleries and museums. His unorthodox attitude combined confidence in his work with a blatant lack of interest in seeking publicity. His aims were purely artistic. He played the long game from the start, “contending,” as he used to say, with the painters of the past, not the artists of the present.

This is doubtless why, throughout his career, Thiebaud engaged art historians, and in one instance a famous philosopher of art, to discuss his work vis-à-vis the paintings of his predecessors. His own knowledge of art history was both substantial and nuanced. My exchanges with Wayne began in the spring of 2018, after he read several of my articles in The New Criterion—he was a faithful reader and longtime supporter of this publication. Over the course of the next three years, we spoke a lot in person and over the phone, mostly the latter after the pandemic hit. Sometimes Wayne would casually refer to a conversation on a similar subject he had had a quarter of a century ago with the British philosopher Richard Wollheim, whom he met around the time of his 1985 sfmoma retrospective. Wollheim made his reputation as a philosopher (there is even a paradox named after him), but in 1984 he was invited to deliver the prestigious A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts at the National Gallery of Art—an honor normally reserved for art historians. In 1987, Wollheim’s lectures were published in an expanded form by Princeton University Press in a book titled Painting as an Art. Wayne kept a copy next to his studio armchair. In 1998 Wollheim wrote about Thiebaud’s Sacramento Delta series for the art journal Modern Painters, offering a seminal interpretation of not only this body of work, but also the painter’s larger project.

Wollheim saw Thiebaud as a twentieth-century Chardin, because his approach to painting was not that of a contemporary artist such as Warhol, whom Wollheim used
for contrast:

One kind of artist puts too little distance between his work and its subject matter, so that, for all the irony—that great alibi of contemporary art—that its admirers read into it, it merely serves back to us the banality of everyday life, from which it takes off. The other kind of artist can take hold of the most ordinary objects, and, by dipping them in some deep-down recess of his mind, will turn them into works of true reflexivity.

According to Wollheim, this pursuit of true reflexivity “works against the American grain.” Thus Thiebaud, “despite all the references in his work to popular culture, [is] the least ‘pop’ of all American figurative artists working today,” because his painting goes beyond poeticizing what it represents, producing

a visual experience . . . which at once derives from looking at the real world and enhances the real world when we return to it. This power of enhancement can only come from certain resources that painting has developed, over the centuries, over the cultures, and that partly account for its survival.

Wollheim saw this modality as an effective response to the question posed by Hegel in his Lectures on Aesthetics: if what is represented already exists in real life, what is the purpose of painting? Thiebaud’s “formalism” was thus a tactic for “rescu[ing] painting from the charge of superfluity.”

Thiebaud’s final project validates Wollheim’s assessment of his being “evidently confident as an artist” and “too genuinely, too deeply, too seriously, ambitious to show any interest in the forms of notoriety for which many contemporary artists compete.” Over the last two years, Thiebaud had been revisiting paintings and drawings of people he had made over eight and a half decades. The result of this self-reflective study was a book that went into print shortly before Thiebaud died. He called it People (his two other categories were “places” and “things”). The figure, he said, “is the devil,” once joking that it was “practically impossible to do [because] you go to the Prado and see Velázquez, and then you are ready to shoot yourself.” But he would not think of resting on the laurels of the Americana still lifes that brought him nationwide fame.

Thiebaud was not just contending with Chardin’s still lifes. He was also contending with the landscapes of Poussin and the figurative paintings of Velázquez, Degas, Manet, Eakins, and Bonnard. His view of traditional genres as incidental to the formal questions of painting was a classic pirate way of “tear[ing] down fences and cross[ing] borders.” Wollheim, who knew Thiebaud well, thought that this rejection of traditional genres was an exercise in control, and that by invoking the tradition he became a part of it. One of Thiebaud’s last interviews, with his student Vonn Sumner, confirms as much:

I am trying to make [painting] look as interesting as possible. [The] formal order is sustained, celebrated, and used ruthlessly, to make those paintings special, whatever the direction, whatever the intent—[that] is more likely than anything to get them into the canon.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 6, on page 78
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