Wayne Thiebaud, “Big Cloud” (1992), mixed media on board, 32 x 24 inches

Wayne Thiebaud is best known for paintings of food: rows of cakes, pies, and lollipops. He seems to have understood our unsavory cravings for sweets long before it became a public health problem. He loves to equate creamy paint with thick frosting, and let’s face it, no one does it better. He is a modern master. However, as well known as Thiebaud is for his paintings of food and lunch counters, what gets overlooked is his ability to merge the fanciful with the formal. For years he has invented landscapes that speak to everyday turbulence as well as idyllic calm. His views of dizzying heights and steep inclines get at something basic in our nature, a sense that whatever we are standing on — no matter how solid — can slide without notice into the ocean, collapse, or crumble. After all, it is northern California that he has painted for many years.

Wayne Thiebaud, “Up Street” (1993), oil on canvas, 24 x 18 inches

For those who want a close-up look at Thiebaud’s whimsical side, the exhibition Wayne Thiebaud: Land Survey at Allan Stone Projects (October 26 – December 23, 2017) is a good place to start. The exhibition includes more than two-dozen modestly scaled drawings, paintings, pastels and mixed media works, dated between 1966 and 2000, depicting cityscapes, mountains, and farmland. Thiebaud has absorbed a lot from a diverse group of artists, including Grant Wood, Giorgio de Chirico, and Richard Diebenkorn. In the highway-scape (what else to call it?) “Up Street” (1993), he depicts a multilane highway slightly off center and parallel to the picture plane. In the foreground, along the bottom edge, we see the crest of another multilane highway, a car disappearing over the edge. That curled plane along the bottom, like a perfect California wave, opens a vast space between it and the vertical highway.

This is something Thiebaud does with incredible pictorial economy. He gets you to think about the way we have shaped the landscape to suit our needs, while recognizing the folly and hubris that goes into it. This does not suggest apocalyptic thinking. Rather, it means that he knows something about mankind’s foolishness while at the same time delighting in the possibilities of paint.

Wayne Thiebaud, “Freeway Curve” (1995), oil on canvas, 24 x 36 inches

In “Freeway Curve” (1995), a wide black curve (highway) full of speeding cars starts at the upper left quadrant and swings down sharply to the bottom edge, slightly off center. It makes sense even if such an angle is impossible. In fact, if anything, it might remind you that driving is a matter of skill, trust, and faith. The abstract blurs of paint at the top of the curve are signs of how quickly everything can go wrong. I think one reason Thiebaud paints these impossible views is because he simply wants to see if he can pull it off, make it believable enough while also celebrating the painting’s flat, insistent surface. You can buckle under or you can have fun. Lucky for us, Thiebaud decided on the latter.

In the gouache on paper, “Valley Farm” (1974), Thiebaud depicts the side of a slope in profile: the ridge starts on the upper left edge and plunges down to the bottom right. A house rises from the crest. In the middle-ground, a perfectly elliptical pond is visible. In front of it is a cow. The house is too big and the cow is too small and the ridge is too sharp. Everything in the painting is wrong, but it makes perfect pictorial and, equally important, emotional sense. The deep loneliness of rural America flows through every inch of the mostly blue surface of this gouache.

Wayne Thiebaud, “Valley Farm” (1974), gouache on paper, 11 x 8 1/2 inches

Edward Hopper did this in “Early Sunday Morning” (1930), with the impossibly long shadows spanning the full length of the sidewalk. Like Hopper, Thiebaud knows how to expand one part of a painting while condensing another. Moreover, their work is touched with a degree of melancholy. The difference is that Hopper’s melancholy borders on despair, while Thiebaud’s seems to border on something approaching joy.

In Thiebaud’s gouache, you get the feeling that the cow is a stand-in for the artist: he is drinking from this amazing pool, but there is no one else to join him. The world is empty in every direction and yet, as the pond suggests, nourishing. This is Thiebaud’s strength: he stirs up contradictory and complex feelings without ever relying on extraneous details. He pushes toward abstraction but never crosses over: everything we see in his work has a counterpart in reality: car, freeway, cloud, mountain, river, pond, desert plane. He loves to push a thick, creamy coat of paint across the canvas, like a baker covering a cake with frosting, but doesn’t allow it to fall into a mannerism.

Wayne Thiebaud, “Sunset River Study” (1996), oil on board, 5 3/8 x 7 7/8 inches

He can be a tonalist when it is called for, or he bring together unlikely and zany colors to depict a pink river. He can make a cloud look like a ball of cotton candy. There is a hedonism to the way Thiebaud applies the paint and chooses his palette, but it never gets out of hand: that is what is breathtaking about the work. He knows how to dance out on a limb and even, by some sleight-of-hand, extend it further than you might have thought possible — but he also seems to know just when to stop. The lone cow should not be standing by a perfectly elliptical pond, but it is. It is there in the distance, a place you know that you will never reach, no matter how far you walk.

Wayne Thiebaud: Land Survey continues at Allan Stone Projects (535 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 23.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...