SAN FRANCISCO — Wayne Thiebaud, whose exhibition Memory Mountains recently closed at the Paul Thiebaud Gallery in San Francisco (October 29–December 21, 2013), turns 94 this year. Consisting of nearly fifty paintings and drawings of mountains and mesas done between 1962 and 2013, this survey exhibition reveals another side of a painter best known for his impasto paintings of frosting-slathered cakes, thickly crusted pies and sticky pastries. Looking at his paintings of mountains, and recalling his many other bodies of work — his vertiginous cityscapes and elevated views of rivers and farmlands — I began thinking that one way to recognize Thiebaud’s vision is to focus on the dance he establishes between paint’s materiality and states of excess.
Thiebaud’s fascination with paint’s materiality and excess spans the gamut, from subject matter to composition, with a particular focus on our relationship to food and to usable land — forms of consumption. In the early painting, “Pies, Pies, Pies” (1961), there is a tension between image and materiality, repetition and surplus, surface and shadow. Everything is exaggerated, from the thick wedges of meringue (two different whites) sitting on thick swaths of lemon yellow, to the brownish-orange diagonal brushstrokes, each signifying a sweet and yummy slice of pumpkin pie.
In counterpoint to the excess, Thiebaud’s use of the grid and repetition makes the surplus seem manageable, as well as enables the artist to explore color and color relationships. The palette in “Pies, Pies, Pies” is earth colored — reds, yellows, oranges, browns, and whites. What initially looks appealing soon morphs into a far more baleful possibility. Like the thick oil paint they are made of, the confections turn poisonous right before our eyes. Looking shifts from the literal to the metaphorical and back again in the blink of an eye. Obversely, Thiebaud’s pastries mirror the viewers’ gluttony, their insatiable desire to see more. This is what is disarming and powerful about Thiebaud’s paintings — they look inviting but there is often something ominous and even creepy lurking within.
In many of his best paintings, everything teeters on the brink of surfeit, ready to slide into pandemonium — there is no room for another cake or pie on the counter; the tall skyscrapers on the edge of plummeting down the picture plane, like the vertically plunging, macadam streets cutting between them; and the mountaintops are often narrow and precarious, the trees planted along the crests barely able to persist against the elemental world.
While the paintings of pies and cakes evoke the illusion that there is plenty for all, and it is reasonable to expect that more will soon arrive, the underlying theme of the cityscapes, with their streets accelerating down the picture plane, is vanity and the belief that mankind can dominate nature. And yet, Thiebaud understands that illusion and human fallibility aren’t necessarily evil, that perhaps they are further proof of our foolishness more than anything else.
At the same time, it seems to me that what is hinted at in “Pies, Pies, Pies,” and becomes increasingly evident over time, is Thiebaud’s determination to learn — paraphrasing the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein — whether the limits of his language signal the limits of his world. His drive to realize what paint’s materiality is capable of evoking — from cake frosting to cliff face, and from tilled farmlands to creampuff clouds — is inseparable from his desire to discover its physical limitations.
Memory Mountains revealed that Thiebaud’s deepest ambition from the outset was nothing less than the reinvention of generic subjects, such as still-life, landscape and cityscape — which may have been, for him, touchstones of reality. Formal devices such as perspective are to be explored and pushed, rather than accepted as conventions, and Thiebaud, in his recognition of perspective and cropping as critical to the viewer’s relationship to the scene, whatever it might be, has long been at the forefront of figurative artists investigating their radical possibilities. (In this regard, he is closer in spirit to an experimental, non-narrative poet than a conventional, narrative one).
While there will always be critics who will find fault with Thiebaud’s paintings, I think this viewpoint misses the wildness of his imagination, his willingness to shove against conventions regarding perspective and color, his use of halation, his push towards abstraction, as well as his courting of the theatrical, the absurd, the comic and the unlikely. In his aerial views of rivers cutting through farmlands — where he sets pattern against pattern, one sweet pastel color against another (almost as if we have entered an ominous Candyland) within multiple and contradictory perspectives — Thiebaud repeatedly invites failure.
Paralleling this sense of failure is the artist’s own awareness of mortality and his refusal to depict a comforting image. In “Canyon Mountains” (2011–12), there is a road leading to the edge of the mesa whose top slants down, underscoring gravity’s dominion over us all. A number of the mountains and mesas are isolated, backlit forms, faintly evoking Arnold Bocklin’s painting, “Isle of the Dead” (1886). In “Laguna Rise” (2003–12), the upper part of mesa rises from the painting’s bottom edge, culminating near the top. The top of this mesa is overrun with buildings. Cranes and other signs of construction are visible, as well as a building that clings to the sharply descending mountain’s side, like a caterpillar to a tree trunk. On the far right are four figures that seem to be approaching a gateway to this civilization. The scale is wrong and they are too large. Is this Thiebaud’s vision of heaven? An impossible, overcrowded world atop of a mountain?
At times, while looking at the paintings in Memory Mountains, I was knocked out by the strangeness of Thiebaud’s depicted worlds (the word “landscape” does not do it justice). They seem more like visions and dreams than anything seen. In “Palm Hill and Farm Cloud” (c. 1968), the shape of the rounded hill, which takes up most of the painting, reminded me of a Thiebaud scoop of ice cream, only this one was largely green. A farmhouse, barn and water tower are visible on the hill’s crest. The shape of the hill, and the road leading up to the farm, bear a striking resemblance to Grant Wood’s painting, “Death on the Ridge Road” (1935).
In “Palm Hill and Farm Cloud,” a cloud casts its shadow on the landscape, pushing it back from the picture plane. We seem to be approaching it in a hot air balloon, suspended slightly above its crest. And if the association with Wood is surprising, it shouldn’t be. Thiebaud is one the few artists who is unafraid to try anything that strikes his fancy; he understands gluttony as an artist, the desire to transform anything and everything into work.
Later, it occurred to me that the rounded, blocky shape in “Night Mesa” (2011–13) might have even been inspired by Rockwell Kent’s depictions of the Arctic or even of Moby Dick rising above the ocean surface — that Thiebaud’s love of other artists isn’t rooted in ideology or fashion.
And yet, even as these possibilities came to mind, I realized that it didn’t matter what Thiebaud was channeling — the American Regionalists; the 16th-century Flemish painter Joachim Patinir; movies that John Ford shot in Monument Valley; the artist’s visions of Mesa, Arizona, where he was born and briefly lived; or memories of his trips to Italian hill towns — the work would always be unmistakably his, and not because of style. Rather, one of the most prominent features of Thiebaud’s work is his paint handling, which is something he shares with his friend and mentor, Willem de Kooning.
Whereas de Kooning famously equated oil paint and flesh, Thiebaud seems to equate oil paint with nature — from impassive stone to ephemeral cloud, and from warm glowing light to portentous back lighting. He seems to pull his views of mountains out of an unpredictable brew of movies, cartoons, memories and direct observation. Throughout the show, I was repeatedly reminded of Thiebaud’s impulsiveness and his eagerness to test possibilities, as when he overlaid a surface covered with modeling paste with a thin, semi-transparent, blue wash of luminous oil paint. The restlessness running through the work is invigorating.
Thiebaud isn’t afraid of learning from artists who are out of favor and are even considered sentimental. He injects humor into his work, even as he recognizes the tenacity of human beings, their stubborn, self-inflated insistence that they can dwell wherever they please, irrigate whatever soil is nearby, damn the consequences. The sugary sweetness of the colors is often simultaneously cloying and distressing, an unlikely and provocative synthesis. He is the only contemporary artist that I can readily think of who has extended the advances in color made by the Fauvists. In contrast with his friend and contemporary, Richard Diebenkorn, he has never shied away from being vulgar, as his early paintings of cakes and his recent paintings of mountains attest. In his choice of subject matter, Thiebaud found a way to direct his love of paint’s materiality, have it affirm his devotion to paint and to the perishable and impassive things of this world. The ordinary and the fantastic, the observed and the imagined, became the limits of his language and visual world.
In the wide range of works included in Memory Mountains, Thiebaud’s paint evokes hard packed dirt, scarred ridges, smooth rock face, muddy and barren soil, geological sediment and rock striations. Along the way, he has channeled the Bibemus Quarry of Paul Cezanne, the American Southwest of Chuck Jones’ Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons, and the craggy hills of the Sienese painter, Giovanni di Paolo. What continually comes through is his openness to possibility, his impulsiveness, and his love of paint and other painters.
Whenever I think about those who assert that painting is dead, I am reminded of Wayne Thiebaud and other like-minded artists. Their attachment to painting and the handmade may strike some as old-fashioned, unnecessary and obsolete. But then, one can also say that about love if one is so inclined. As the magnificent Italian sculptor and writer, Fausto Melotti, who also came to art rather late, stated: “Once he has found his language, the artist finds himself free of the drudgery of the avant-garde.”
When he first began exhibiting in the early 1960s, Thiebaud was in his early 40s and his interest in the painterly language associated with the avant-garde was behind him. By then he had developed the basics of an expansive, materially rooted, visual language that is accessible and immediate, but clearly his own. For all their earthy vulgarity, strange dreaminess and oddball humor, a rich, complex and subtle language, whose rewards are yet to be fully mined and appreciated, informs Thiebaud’s unprecedented paintings.
Wayne Thiebaud: Memory Mountains was on view at the Paul Thiebaud Gallery (645 Chestnut Street, San Francisco) from October 29 to December 21, 2013.