Artist Wayne Thiebaud Dies at 101

(LOS ANGELES) — Wayne Thiebaud, whose luscious, colorful paintings of cakes and cityscapes combined sensuousness, nostalgia and a hint of melancholy, has died. He was 101.

His death was confirmed in a statement Sunday by his gallery, Acquavella, which didn’t say where or when Thiebaud died.

“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,’” the gallery’s statement said.

Thiebaud was the dean among California painters. He drew on his previous career as a Disney animator and sign painter, and as a commercial artist.
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Although some may consider his candy apples, hot dogs, gumball machines, bakery counters and gum ball machines to be pop art, Thiebaud did not view himself as such and did not show the same irony that the pop culture championed.

“Of course, you’re thankful when anyone ever calls you anything,” he once said. “But I never felt much a part of it. I must say I never really liked pop art very much.”

Washington, D.C., art museums
Robert Alexander—Getty ImagesA museum visitor admires ‘Cakes,’ the 1963 painting by Wayne Thiebaud on April 23, 2018 at the National Gallery of Art on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Many critics believed that paint was the real subject. The shimmering colors and delicate texture created by thickly-applied paint were the true subjects. His signature was often inscribed into the paintings instead of being applied with the brush.

“The oil paint is made to look like meringue,” said Marla Prather, a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art New York who helped organize a 2001 retrospective of the artist’s work. “And with the cakes, you get this great sense of texture with the frosting. You just want to step close and lick it.”

He used neon pinks and other blues to make many of the painted images glow. Many shadows used a deep blue color.

“It’s joyful, while a lot of modern art is angst-ridden,” Prather said in a 2001 Associated Press interview.

Thiebaud told PBS’ NewsHour With Jim Lehrer in 2000 that the subject of food was “fun and humorous, and that’s dangerous in the art world, I think. It’s a world that takes itself very seriously, and of course, it is a serious enterprise, but I think also there’s room for wit and humor because humor gives us, I think, a sense of perspective.”

Gum ball machines were a favorite theme, he said, because “a big round globe is so beautiful, and it’s really a kind of orchestration of circles of all kinds. But it’s also very sensuous, I think, and it offers wonderful opportunities for painting something like, almost like a bouquet of flowers.”

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New York was a New York in 2004 Times writer praised his “wry vision of modern consumerism” and said, “No one did more to reanimate the tired old genre of still life painting in the last half century than did Mr. Thiebaud with his paintings of industrially regimented food products.”

Thiebaud narrated NewsHour he preferred calling himself a painter, rather than an artist, because “it’s like a priest referring to himself as a saint. Maybe it’s a little too early or he’s not the one to decide that … Being an artist, I think, is a very rare thing.”

There was sometimes a sense of emptiness or melancholy that was reminiscent Edward Hopper. He likened the feeling to the “bright pathos” of a circus clown.

The city of San Francisco was his favorite subject for landscape. His fantasy-like renderings were based on its dramatic hills and striking shadows.

“Originally, I painted right on the streets, trying to get some of the kind of drama I felt about the city and its vertiginous character,” he told NewsHour. “But that didn’t seem to work … The reality was one thing but the fantasy or the exploration of it was another.”

Thiebaud was born on December 20, 1920 in Mesa Arizona and raised in Sacramento, California. His first job was as an animator with Walt Disney. He later became a poster designer, commercial artist, and a painter.

Longtime University of California Davis professor, he also served as his successor. Although he officially retired in 1991, he continued to teach one class per year.


Former APBiographical information was provided by Polly Anderson, writer.


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