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Wayne Thiebaud
Wayne Thiebaud
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Wayne Thiebaud Interview

Painter and Teacher

May 27, 2011
Sacramento, California

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  Wayne Thiebaud

Let's talk about your first New York show. It was at the Allan Stone Gallery, wasn't it?

Wayne Thiebaud: The first New York show, yes. That was in 1962.

And was that where you sold your first paintings or was it prior to that?

Wayne Thiebaud: No, I had sold paintings. I'd sold lots of paintings locally to wonderful people who were supportive, in Sacramento and other places. But these newer paintings, they were troubling to people, and understandably so.

Which ones are we talking about?

Wayne Thiebaud: Pies and cakes and the hot dogs, those things. So Allan also -- Allan Stone, the dealer -- was very puzzled by them, and it took him a year or two to get to a point of saying, "Before I got the courage to show the damn thing," was the way he put it. And that's quite a mark of his ability and loyalty, to take me on and see what he could do. We didn't have very many hopes. He said to me, "I think you're a good painter. I don't know about these, but we'll show them and we'll show them. I'll try to get a plan of about five to ten years where we keep showing things of yours in the hope you gain a kind of clientele." And that's what we did. So it was a big shock to find that, serendipitously, pop art came in, and we were sort of shunted into that sudden interesting world, that is, interesting to critics and interesting to people. And that's how really it occurred.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

Let's talk about the subject matter that you originally became famous for. Those desserts and shoes, gumballs. What inspired you to adopt that subject matter?

Wayne Thiebaud: I can't take any credit for any theoretical or philosophical awareness of it.

It was somehow important to me to be honest in what we do, and to love what it is we paint. These were lessons given to me by other artists, obviously. To do what you love, or are interested in, or have some regard for. And it seems to me that it's easy to overlook what we spend our majority of time doing, and that's an intimate association with everyday things: putting on our shoes, tying our ties, eating our breakfast, cooking our meals, washing our dishes. Somehow that ongoing human activity seems to me very much worth doing. It's only when we become presumptive, I think -- to think we're better than that, and we'd like to be, and should think of ourselves being better -- that we begin to ignore those things. But in a wonderful way, children really remind us of it. They go to the gumball machines with their little penny and put it in and say, "Look, Dad!" Look what came out of this terrible-looking thing, this magenta sweet little whirl of wonder. And that, to me, is as good as we get.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

There seems to be almost a humility about that.

Wayne Thiebaud: I don't know if it's humility. I think it's just good stuff.

Gazing at your paintings of cakes and pies, the first thing that strikes one is how delicious they look. There's a welcoming, pleasurable aspect to these paintings.

Wayne Thiebaud Interview Photo
Wayne Thiebaud: Well you know, bakeries and display people are very good at making them look almost transcendent, just like they do with diamonds. I mean how many lights they put on them to make them sparkle so much, or used car places where they have a row of lights to light them up and make them sparkle.

You do that too in your own way.

Wayne Thiebaud: Yes, I hope so. What's the use of making something and making it look bad?

In many of these paintings there's repetition. Not just one piece of pie, but a showcase of pies.

Wayne Thiebaud: Well, it has to do with the tradition of painting, of orchestrating a single shape into its various configurative potentials. If you look closely, they look all alike at first, until you examine them. Each one is curiously different in some minor way. That orchestrating principle you can find all through the tradition and history of painting, because it's an obvious design concept. It's like a drum beat, you know, slight variation, repetition, rhythms and so on.

Is there also a connection to commercial art?

Wayne Thiebaud: Very much so, yes. After all, they're trained in the same skill as the fine arts. They're very, very good at what they do, and they're very artful in what they do.

We still, I think, haven't got the categories fully straightened out about fine art and commercial art. We like to think we have, but I don't know. It's proven to be, actually now, that American illustrators of a certain quality are commanding very high prices all of a sudden, because they're so damn special. And if art -- if the character of art -- doesn't contain the idea of specialness, rare achievement, and of a certain limited convention, then I think we've got it wrong if we don't celebrate anything which makes and comes to these rare achievements.

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