Wayne Thiebaud, an influential Sacramento art teacher and internationally recognized artist who was best known for his richly textured, brightly colored paintings of ordinary objects and enticing California landscapes, has died.
Thiebaud, who apprenticed in high school as an animator for Walt Disney, had a long and distinguished career as one of the most popular American artists since World War II. He was 31 when he had his first one-man exhibition at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento in 1951, more than a decade before a New York show vaulted him to fame in the art world.
His transition from works influenced by European modernism, abstract expressionism, and Italian and Spanish impressionism to the creamy, thickly brushed, intensely colored oil paintings that, in his words, “tattle” on us and our material culture, coincided with his appointment in 1960 to the first art department faculty at the University of California, Davis.
His daughter, Twinka, said in remembrance on Facebook: “Master painter, art professor, tennis player, joke teller extraordinaire, beloved husband, father, uncle and friend, Wayne Thiebaud has packed up his brushes in search of new scenery to paint, new canvasses to conquer.
“He will always be our favourite Father Christmas. Rest in sweet peace, Papa. One hundred one extraordinary years on planet Earth!”
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg remembered Thiebaud as “not only a brilliant artist but a wonderful man who remained devoted to Sacramento and its surrounding landscapes despite the pull of fame and fortune.”
“Thiebaud’s work is a combination of the real and the imagined, the nostalgic and the modern,” Scott A. Shields, author of the book “Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings” and Crocker ‘s chief curator and associate director, told The Bee in 2019. “These dichotomies are part of what give his work its lasting appeal.”
That comes through in Thiebaud’s now-iconic dessert-inspired works.
“Boston Cremes” (1962) and Crocker perennial “Pies, Pies, Pies” (1961), are on display at the Crocker. Also there is 1964’s “Delights” series, with 12 etchings: a roadside cherry stand; a neighborhood diner’s breakfast order of bacon and eggs; and, of course, the pastries, cakes and lollipops. Simple images and scenes, pulled from memory, shot through with nostalgia.
“It’s just very, very familiar. They’re mostly painted from memory, from memories of bakeries and restaurants. There’s a lot of yearning there,” Thiebaud said, as quoted in one exhibition’s notes.
The most prominently displayed work in Thiebaud’s sprawling retrospective last year at the museum commemorating his centennial may also be one of his most arresting.
Two figures, seated: wife and frequent subject Betty Jean Thiebaud at left; Wayne’s close friend — that’s Sacramento Bee scion C.K. McClatchy — to the right. The two are feet apart, but the distance between them may as well be miles. The pair wear terse expressions, their arms stubbornly folded at the chest, each looking away from the other. An uneasy tension fills the space. Clouds linger.
Thiebaud’s “Two Seated Figures” (1965) gives us an uncomfortable look into a private space and, in doing, Thiebaud accomplishes what he always has: extracting deeper resonance from the seemingly everyday.
The depiction of people, Thiebaud said in the notes that accompany another work in Crocker’s collection, the striking “Betty Jean Thiebaud and Book” (1965-1969), “… is the most important study there is — and the most difficult. Viewers are more acutely attuned to the human body.”
Seven decades after Thiebaud’s first solo show at the Crocker, the artist remained hard to define — the multi-dimensionality on display in his career is staggering. Oil, etchings, pencil, watercolors. Paper and canvas. Figure studies, still life and landscapes. Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Realism.
The son of a mechanic, Morton Wayne Thiebaud was born Nov. 15, 1920, in Mesa, Arizona. His family lived briefly in Long Beach and moved to a farm in Utah that failed during the Great Depression. They returned to Long Beach, where he played basketball, took art classes and drew cartoons in high school. At 16, he worked for several months in the animation department at Walt Disney Studios.
He attended junior college in Long Beach and served as an illustrator in the Army Air Force during World War II. By 1943, he was transferred to Mather Air Force Base in Rancho Cordova and was an artist and cartoonist for the base newspaper. From 1946 to 1948, he was an illustrator and art director for Rexall Drug Co. in Los Angeles.
At 29, Thiebaud enrolled at San Jose College on the GI Bill and transferred to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art from Sacramento State. He began teaching at Sacramento City College in 1951.
During a sabbatical in 1956, he worked at an advertising agency in New York. He met and befriended influential artists, including Elaine and Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, and found creative inspiration in commercial merchandising displays. Experimenting with shapes and light, he began painting popular confections and treats displayed in store windows and deli counters, including cakes, pies, ice cream cones, candy and gumball machines.
While in New York, he was introduced to the concept of artist-run cooperative galleries and upon returning to Sacramento, he co-founded the Artist’s Cooperative Gallery (later the Artists Contemporary Gallery), which, according to Tower Records founder Russ Solomon, who helped support the gallery, led to “the flowering of Sacramento art.”
“The year in New York made a difference,” Thiebaud told The Bee in 2018. “I hung around the Cedar Tavern and met many of my heroes, including Willem de Kooning. At the time I was trying to make (abstract expressionist) signs of art — drips, spatters, gestures … trying to find my way.”
Encouraging him to find his own path, de Kooning said, “You should find something you feel is genuine for you. … All the influences of the art world can trip you up.”
What Thiebaud found was a piece of pie, whose formal elements — ovals, triangles, rectangles — called to the painter and teacher of art and art history in him.
“I tried to put them (the images of pies) down as clearly as I could, addressing them head-on.”
Looking at the results, he said, “My God, that’ll be the end of me … but I couldn’t leave them alone.”
His 2011 “Encased Cakes” — a vivid painting of cakes ensconced inside a bakery’s glass display case and “testament to Thiebaud’s exceptional mastery of color,” Sotheby’s noted — fetched a record $8.46 million during a 2019 sale at the auction house a day before his 99th birthday.
When he first exhibited the pies in Sacramento and San Francisco, many critics and viewers were baffled. The Bee’s art critic John Oglesby panned them and the San Francisco Chronicle’s Alfred Frankenstein passed them off as the work of “the hungriest artist” in town. As for sales, only one prescient couple bought a painting of pies from his first show of them at the Artist’s Cooperative Gallery in 1961.
He was recruited away from Sacramento City College to UC Davis by founding department chair Richard L. Nelson, who stole him away by promising him a roll of canvas as thick as the trunk of a large tree on the campus’ grounds.
Thiebaud taught there for four decades, influencing a legion of artists who continue to extend his ideas.
“He’s an artist who sees teaching as central to his purpose as an artist,” said Rachel Teagle, founding director of the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis who curated a retrospective on Thiebaud last year in celebration of his 100th birthday. “It’s unusual. He’s been around so long, taking it so seriously. He has an amazing legacy out there.”
Teaching and connecting with students “fuels his own work. It keeps his work fresh, driven. It takes a special person to see that reciprocity,” Teagle said. Thiebaud taught without salary for years after his retirement.
Thiebaud’s still-life paintings of gooey desserts in which paint mimics meringues, cake frosting or ice cream are so familiar now that we have forgotten how radical they were when they were first done. As Teagle pointed out in an essay on the formal inventiveness of these works, which were initially seen as Pop Art, they maintain a tension between tradition and innovation.
“Working in what was perceived to be the conservative medium of oil painting,” she writes, “he was nevertheless engaged in the most radical work of the day … unlike his colleagues … he found a path forward by looking back …”
With the support of Nelson — who encouraged his artists to do their “research” — Thiebaud produced more than 100 paintings between 1960 and 1961, putting in long hours at the easel.
Painting was seen as a dying medium when Thiebaud ascended into the public’s consciousness in that decade, Teagle said. His now-classic dessert-inspired works infused the art form with new energy. Where other of his contemporaries turned to irreverence or detached irony; when critics and observers saw popular tastes moving away from the canvas to photography or film, Thiebaud leaned into the medium’s history and tradition using that as a foundation for his art.
“He was a keeper of the flame, a champion,” Teagle said. “As we move more into the 21st century, he was among the few who saw painting as a serious intellectual pursuit.”
Thiebaud cited the influence of pivotal abstract expressionist Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993).
Diebenkorn’s words, quoted in the notes that accompany the piece, resonated with the artist who would soon become a giant of his own: “One wants to see the artifice of the thing as well as the subject. Reality has to be digested, it has to be transmuted by paint. It has to be given a twist of some kind.”
The humble, self-deprecating Thiebaud was reluctant a year ago to prepare another show dedicated solely to his works. But his thinking changed when the focus turned to programming a show featuring his students, Teagle said.
Teagle added, “When I told him what we wanted to do, he said, ‘This is an opportunity to give a leg up to the students. Of course, I would.’”
Thiebaud and the foundation that bears his name were honored at Nov. 13 gala at UC Davis’ Manetti Shrem Museum of Art on the eve of his 101st birthday, where a new Wayne Thiebaud Legacy Fund was established to support the museum’s educational mission.
Gov. Gavin Newsom and First Partner Jennifer Seibel Newsom, UC Davis Chancellor Gary May and LeShelle May, San Francisco Mayor London Breed and museum founding partners Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem were among the guests.
A frail Thiebaud was unable to attend in person, but foundation president and Betty Jean Thiebaud’s son, artist Matthew Bult, accepted the university’s Margrit Mondavi Arts Medallion and paid tribute to his family’s longstanding foundation.
As of 2020, the Fine Arts Collection at the Manetti Shrem Museum included 90 pieces by Thiebaud — nine paintings, 19 drawings and 62 prints. Of those 90, 83 were given to the museum by Thiebaud, with the remaining seven given by donors.
Rachel Teagle, Manetti Shrem founding director, also announced a recent gift of 24 of Thiebaud’s works from his foundation to UC Davis’ fine arts collection at the November gala.
He was the most prominent donor to the museum’s Fine Art Collection, giving away 392 works of art in total, including 309 works by other artists.
In 2010, Thiebaud was inducted by the California Museum into the fifth class of the California Hall of Fame, alongside other prominent figures with California roots such as Mark Zuckerberg and Serena Williams.
He married Patricia Patterson in 1943 and had two daughters, Twinka and Mallary. The marriage ended in divorce.
He married his second wife, Betty Jean Carr, in 1959 and adopted Bult. Betty Jean died in 2015 from Alzheimer’s disease. The couple also had a son Paul, who died in 2010.
Former Bee writers Robert D. Dávila and Victoria Dalkey contributed to this story.
This story was originally published December 26, 2021 12:33 PM.