Essays

Art With a Dash of Hospitality But Save Room for Dessert

Wayne Thiebaud's "Coastline" (1993) featured on the California Arts License Plate (photo via artsplate.org)

I’m almost embarrassed to confess I’ve only just recently made the acquaintance of artist Wayne Thiebaud‘s work. The man’s been painting upwards of 70 years and spent much of his time in California. I, despite my accumulation of years in New York, also consider California my home. There’s really no excuse.

Case in point: That painterly interpretation of the palm tree and sunset image on the California Arts License Plate, the specialty plate (first of its kind in the country) that benefits the California Arts Council? Just learned it’s Thiebaud’s “Coastline,” circa 1993. Those plates have been on the road since 1994. Seen ’em.

And the Google doodle celebrating Google’s 12th birthday on September 27, 2010? The one of the cake that reads “Google” on top, only the “l’ is a single lit candle? Yup, that’s his too.

Thiebaud's Google doodle design for Google's 12th birthday (2010) (photo via google.com/logos)

But something about his work just won’t let me do it. Feel embarrassed, that is. It could be the contact sugar high — Thiebaud first made a name for himself in the American art scene painting cakes, pies, parfaits and other diner-esque confections around the time Warhol was in his soup can phase, and has experimented with the form and function of such since. But I’m not really a drool-on-cue, sweet tooth kind of girl. (Somewhere in my online immersion I read Thiebaud’s favorite food is cheese. Whether that’s true or not, now that’s my sort of guy.)

Instead, what I feel is an innate sense of hospitality. The artist as host. “Sit down for a while. Would you like a slice of pie? An ice cream cone? Some hors d’oeuvres? You can hang your coat over there.”

Now, this isn’t to say that every piece of work, every series that Thiebaud has completed over the course of his expansive career, has this sensibility. His landscapes — his vertical San Francisco scenes, his study of the Sacramento River delta, and, recently, his towering mountain abstractions — are each their own.

But when it comes to his food offerings, it’s all about abundance and sharing. And joy. As in, “Here, have some. Are you hungry? Please, help yourself.”

In California we have this saying, “Mi casa es su casa” In that spirit, The New Yorker could not have commissioned a more perfectly suited artist to create the cover of its annual food issue, published on November 21, 2011, the week of Thanksgiving — one of the most gracious, and food-centric, holidays of the year.

Wayne Thiebaud, "Turkey Dinner," The New Yorker (2011)

In “Turkey Dinner,” Thiebaud, the consummate host, sets the table: Roasted turkey leg, mashed potatoes with a pool of gravy, peas and carrots, side of cranberries. Plate of toast with a pat of butter. Salt and pepper shakers, perfectly folded triangular napkin, glass of water, and set of clean flatware. Single rose in a bud vase.

It’s such a beautiful spread that the quiet aloneness of the scene — a proper Thanksgiving meal for one, in one of a thousand New York cafes, on a holiday that celebrates togetherness — only comes later. Right after you’ve accepted the invitation to sit down and dig in, you realize this solitude. But it’s okay. You know Thiebaud is not letting you leave without dessert.

Home page image credit: Wayne Thiebaud, “Plate of Hors d’ouevres” (1963) (photo from “The California Artists Cook Book,” San Francisco Museum of Art, 1982, via tinybanquet.blogspot.com)

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