Wayne Thiebaud on finding “charm and freedom” in your work
The late American painter on a delicious artistic breakthrough
Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers, which I launched two years ago this week. Thank you all for reading, commenting, and sharing, your enthusiasm keep this newsletter going!
Wayne Thiebaud (1920–2021)
The California-based painter died last Christmas at age 101. Though I’ve only seen his paintings in person once—at an SFMOMA exhibition in 2018—Thiebaud’s glowing pastel cakes, pies, hot dogs, ice-cream cones, and other lovingly rendered foodstuffs gave me a kind of giddy feeling, and I was glad last week to finally find some time to delve into his life and work.
About those pies and cakes: Thiebaud explained how he arrived at his most famous subject matter many times. In the 1950s, he took a year off from teaching art in California—and from feeling stuck with his own painting, which he was doing on the side—to go to New York and hang out with his artist heroes, among them Willem de Kooning, who was friendly to Thiebaud and told him to make sure to paint “something that you feel is real.” When Thiebaud came back to California, he decided to strip away all the “mannerisms” of his existing work, and “just try to get a composition as basic as I can.” He asked himself:
What shall I paint? Well, I am going to take basic shapes: a triangle, a rectangle, some squares or parallelograms or whatever architecture I can think of, and I made these ovals thinking I am going to put something on those and see if I can make them sit on those things.
Thiebaud tried putting triangles on top of his ovals, and he realized that the result looked like slices of pie on plates:
I ended up with this row of pie paintings and stupefied myself. I mean, I virtually said to myself, “That would be the end of a serious painter.” And I could not from then on leave that subject matter alone, and it was because the drawing and the painting was coming together in this very interesting way.
Part of what made it interesting was that Thiebaud never looked at actual pies (or cakes or hot dogs) as he painted. An interviewer asked him about this in 1968:
When you started the pie paintings did you work entirely from memory? In other words, did you invent the composition and paint without having any pies in front of you?
Yes, and though it seemed a simple-minded idea, for the first time I felt comfortable. I worked freely on things that in the past I had worried about intensely. It was such a joy to find a release. I think if I had had a still life in front of me it would have seduced away all the charm and freedom of what I was doing. This way, I could formalize the whole idea without inhibition and that was a great help to me to get what I wanted in the painting.
I highlight this exchange because, well, isn’t this what we’re all seeking as painters or writers or musicians or other makers-of-things—to strike a vein of work that we can’t leave alone, and where we can shed our inhibitions and find “charm and freedom” in the work?
Of course, so often that streak of charm and freedom seems to arrive only after a long period of feeling terribly stuck. In Thiebaud’s case, he decided to become a painter in 1946, at age 26, after several years working as a freelance cartoonist, illustrator, and layout designer—but he didn’t have his breakthrough with the pie paintings until 1960, fourteen years later. Maybe that’s part of the feeling of giddiness that comes across when you look at them. Thiebaud’s gallerist said that there’s “a real joy of painting, a joy of life in his work.” Joy, yes, but also relief. Those pies have the feeling of someone finding his subject matter and being delighted—at last—to dig in.
“READ POETRY, LISTEN TO GOOD MUSIC, AND GET EXERCISE”
For more on Thiebaud, this 2016 studio visit is pretty charming:
I also enjoyed Thiebaud’s reply to an interviewer who asked him, shortly before his 100th birthday, what advice he had “for people who’d like a long and happy life.” Thiebaud said:
I would just tell them to stay healthy, have a nice life, read poetry, listen to good music, and get exercise—which I’m going to do as we speak. I’m heading to the tennis court at the moment.
Indeed, according to the delightfully named NorCal Tennis Czar, the almost-centenarian artist continued to paint seven days a week and play tennis two or three times a week—and continued to be competitive on the court. “He’s still pretty tough,” 74-year-old Larry Crabbe said. “For 100 years old, he’s not a pushover. He makes you work. I have played sincerely against Wayne (in doubles) and lost—in recent times.”
Speaking of advice: I’m still sporadically playing advice columnist, and I would be happy to receive your vexing creative dilemmas at firstname.lastname@example.org (or you can just reply to this email).