Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 9, 2009

LA Street Smarts and Wayne Thiebaud

Every LA driver is familiar with them at freeway exits and major intersections: the guys holding bouquets of flowers, bags of peanuts, net bags of oranges. The prime spot for these men (they’re usually males) is on the median at a major intersection, because they’re right next to the drivers’ windows. With drivers stopped for the left-turn signal, the vendors work their way back away from the light, waving the flowers or peanuts or fruit, and, as the signal turns and the cars move on, they head back up toward the end of the median near the light and repeat, over and over, the livelong day. If they DON’T have that prime spot, they work other places, busy suburban stop sign intersections, or, worst of all, the right turn lane, where the driver is on the other side of the car from them, and cars keep moving ahead, even on red lights. Watching a guy with this gig, I learned a new technique. If you’re stuck with one of these right-turn beats, as you get back to the light, you punch the pedestrian crossing signal, maximizing the number of times the light turns red to stop traffic for you. Sure, over the course of the day, a couple hundred motorists are inconvenienced, but you’re trying to earn a few bucks here.

We made the hour drive north today to the Pasadena Museum of California Art to see an exhibit of the work of Wayne Thiebaud, an iconic painter of the pop-art generation whose name you may not know, but whose work you’ve probably seen. We saw a smaller version of this same show a few years ago in Laguna Beach, and an even earlier iteration nearly a decade ago at Pepperdine University.  If you know Mr. Thiebaud’s work, you’ve seen his heavily-painted depictions of bakery cases full of lusciously iced cakes, toothsome wheels of cheese, or displays of merchandise including shoes or cupcakes or candied apples. Thiebaud’s paint-rich impasto technique makes Van Gogh look as though he knew nothing about getting medium on the canvas. Cakes literally drip with icing and landscapes are slathered with deep bodies of water and full, rich trees whose leaves have a full third dimension.

What this exhibition —  which includes some paintings we’ve never seen, mostly taken out of Mr. T’s studio, but missing some notable works previously present, including some of his classic pastry and food images — lacks is a truly wide-ranging look at the scope of the work for which he his renowned. We get an extremely well-curated look at the progression of his work from simple, pop-like renditions of pies, cakes, desserts and fruits on display, balanced against his accomplished figural work early in his career, and proceeding to his fascination with the landscape of San Francisco and central California to his sunny seashore images. What we lack is a well-rounded look at the images that made him famous in the first place. Where are the racks of shoes, the pies, cakes, pastries, fruit and toys in glorious profusion that proliferate in hundreds of his paintings? Sorry to say, this exihibition is, essentially, a years-long road show promoting Mr. Thiebaud’s son’s gallery in San Francisco, drawing heavily on the gallery’s own stock, supported by loans from the family collection and a few borrowed pieces from friends, but lacking significant representation from what must be hundreds of private collectors who hold the prime pieces.

Wayne, we love the work, and want you to live and paint forever. Tell your son to round up some of the catalogue pieces and put them on show. Oh, and, by the way, fire whoever created the catalogue for THIS show and hire someone with the gumption to demand that the catalog prints LOOK like the actual paintings. This one is disappointing. That’s a common problem in the business of attempting to depict painting in print. Mr. Thiebaud’s style is so texture-rich and dependent on his impasto treatments that one immediately misses that visceral connection on the printed page that one sees in the work itself.

© Brad Nixon 2019, 2018


  1. “A Pie Is A Pie Is A Pie.”
    Brad, thanks for introducing me to the blogosphere. This is my first post!
    Now to the Art. I have to admit to my lack of understanding of W.T.’s work, or of others’ interest therein. I have painted a reproduction of one of his pies paintings, and then written an article on it. I believe it was Leonardo who said “To see is to know.” Well, I still don’t know. I get the impasto idea. It has a certain sculptural, seductive beauty that adds to the overall pictorial effect. But then what? One can say the same of Fragonard’s babes frolicking in the froth. Hey, I like those rosy, round, rumps as much as any guy. Yeah, sex sells, but so what? Is it great art? I guess you could say W.T.’s a sort of neo-Rococo Pop artist. Pretty, but that’s about it. Now, you mention Van Gogh. What a difference! V.G.’s paintings explode with his passion. His “Irises?” Wow! They literally pulsate, vibrate off the canvas. His painting is more alive that the real flowers in their natural habitat. V.G. stabs your eyes and sears your brain. Does W.T. do that? Does Fragonard? I doubt it. Do you remember the last cream pie you had, or saw? Me neither. But do you remember a V.G. painting? How can you forget his blinding fury? Will volumes be written about W.T a 100 years from now? Don’t bet the farm on it. How about V.G? Yep, you can take that one to the bank.


    • Wish I could tell on the 100-year perspective. We might be surprised. What we DO get with Mr. Thiebaud is a look at how a painter with a compelling style with which he’s strongly identified moves on to explore new styles – something Mr. Van Gogh did not have an opportunity to do over so long a span, though he certainly did evolve.


  2. Yes, VG did evolve quickly over too short a life. His style changed radically during that time as his passion eventually came to the surface of his paintings, for all of us to view and help us understand him better. And prolific? How about a hundred paintings in a month at Auvers! Major, what are now iconic, paintings, too. Not just abstract color field stuff.

    What I do enjoy most about retrospectives is seeing how an artist’s style develops over time. Saw a fabulous expo on Mondrian in Paris in 2002. What an eye opener! He started as a fairly traditional Dutch landscape artist. We all know what he’s famous for now. But he had a philosophy, developed over decades of experience, to back up that iconic, reductive style of the grids and flat colored planes that became his later work.

    While I see beauty in W.T., what I don’t see there is either VG’s passion (which reveals the inner artist to us), or something of P.M.’s philosophical underpinnings at work, to help us understand what WT’s trying to convey to us. Is it that there is beauty in things we see everyday? Or is it conspicuous consumption of America? Does he like sweets? Is he a glutton, a collector? We just don’t have any idea. It all seems superficial, tho’ admittedly, pretty to look at — a la “Neo-Rococo.”


  3. A P.S. to the above: I don’t mean to denigrate WT, but because he paints what is so common, and in a common way, I believe his work will not last, either in history, or in our individual memories. Hence: A Pie Is A Pie Is A Pie. Been there, done that. VG: well, there’s only been one like him, ever. That’s why he’s world known and will always be so: painting the uncommon (and sometimes the common), always in an uncommon way. He made himself a part of you.


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