Slices of pie arranged in neat rows, glossy candy apples, cherry-topped ice cream sundaes at the brink of melting — these are among the most recognizable motifs painted by Wayne Thiebaud, who died on Saturday, December 25, at the age of 101. His death was confirmed in a statement by Acquavella Gallery in New York City.
Born in 1920 in Mesa, Arizona and raised in Sacramento, California, Thiebaud is arguably best known for his tantalizing depictions of bakery counters, but his renderings of gumball machines, beach scenes, and the sloping streets of San Francisco are comparably irresistible. Unlike some painters of his generation, Thiebaud began his career as a commercial artist, attending a trade school in Los Angeles and working as a cartoonist, sign painter, and illustrator until the late 1940s.
Nearing the age of 30, he made a permanent shift to fine art, earning a BA from San Jose State College and an MA from Sacramento State College. Thiebaud taught art for almost three decades, first at the Sacramento Junior College and then at the University of California, Davis.
An eclectic confluence of 20th-century painterly expressions, Thiebaud’s works belonged to no single movement, encompassing instead a unique visual language that sought out the charm in the everyday. The entirety of Thiebaud’s oeuvre is steeped in an Americana sensitivity and tinged with a deadpan, Pop-like humor. He mastered the textures of frosting, meringue, and donut glaze in thick, rich brushstrokes that reveal the influence of Abstract Expressionism, but his works exude the alluring mystery of an Edward Hopper bar scene.
Thiebaud lent his paintings their distinctive glow through a technique he called “halation,” juxtaposing warm and cool colors to make objects pop. In a 2018 interview at the Morgan Library and Museum, he described discovering the process while painting a slice of pumpkin pie.
“I mixed a big gob of what I thought was the color and put it on the triangle, and I was horrified,” Thiebaud recalled. “I made a light yellow drawing and then a blue drawing so I could tell the two different positions, and when I put the pumpkin mist on this color the edges showed up, and I thought, ‘well, that makes it look a little bit better, I’ll leave that in.’”
“So I made this painting that felt like someone else had done it, and I looked at it and said, ‘boy, if I paint that stuff that’ll be the end of me as a serious artist, nobody will ever look at something like this,’” he continued.
But look they did, often with praise and fascination. In 1967, Thiebaud was selected to represent the US in the São Paulo Biennial, and in 1994, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor given to artists by the US government. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art mounted the first major survey of his work in 1985, one of numerous exhibitions in museums and galleries both locally and abroad. A traveling retrospective organized by the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings, is currently on view at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas through January 16, 2022.
“Wayne led his life with passion and determination, inspired by his love for teaching, tennis, and above all, making art,” says the statement from Acquavella Gallery, which has worked with the artist since 2011. “Even at 101 years old, he still spent most days in the studio, driven by, as he described with his characteristic humility, ‘this almost neurotic fixation of trying to learn to paint.’”
Three Looted Antiquities at the Met Repatriated to Turkey
Nine other repatriated works were seized from Met Trustee Shelby White, whose collection was subject to a criminal investigation.
This week, the world’s lightest paint, Pakistan’s feminist movement, World Puppy Day, and were some of Vermeer’s paintings created by his daughter?
The Wider World and Scrimshaw
On March 28, join the New Bedford Whaling Museum online and in-person for a symposium on global carving traditions from across the Pacific Rim.
Who Will Decide on the Future of a Miami Native Burial Ground?
Native activists say sacred remains and objects dug up from a Brickell construction site should remain there, but mega-developer Jorge Pérez is pushing back.
How Can a Curator Approach South Asian Futurisms?
How do I acknowledge my shortcomings while reckoning with obscured histories and the exclusion of subaltern narratives in the fine art landscape? A working checklist for curators.
MCA Chicago Presents On Stage: Frictions
Will Rawls, Shamel Pitts | TRIBE, and Barak adé Soleil explore Blackness, queerness, movement, and dance in performances at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
The Complicated Legacy of Camilo Egas
The Ecuadorian painter, a leading figure of Latin America’s Indigenismo art movement, has been both praised and scorned for his representation of Indigenous peoples.
Tom Jones Zeroes in on Ho-Chunk Visibility
“I think about the young kids, the teenagers, and I think being able to see yourself represented in art is so powerful,” says the artist.
Haggerty Museum of Art Presents Tomás Saraceno in Dialogue With Dr. Somesh Roy
The artist and researcher will explore soot’s effects on climate change and public health in this online conversation.
Hundreds of Artworks by NYC Teenagers Go on View at the Met
The talented seventh through twelfth-grade students are recipients of the 2023 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.
NYC’s Flatiron Building Sells for a Whopping $190M
The sale to outsider bidder Jacob Garlick puts an end to the protracted legal battle between the iconic skyscraper’s five former owners.
McKnight Visual Artist Fellows Discussion Series at the Minneapolis Institute of Art
The series features 2021 Fellows David Bowen, Mara Duvra, Rotem Tamir, Ben Moren, and Dyani White Hawk in conversation with renowned curators and critics.
The Best Memes Roasting the “We ❤️ NYC” Campaign
A graphic designer on Twitter created a hilarious send-up of the universally reviled logo, and the rest is history.
Did You Know These Museums Were Free for New Yorkers?
The “Free Admission” campaign is advocating to make ticket pricing information more transparent to visitors, who may be confused or misled by institutions’ language.