Wayne Thiebaud: Draftsman
The Morgan Library and Museum
New York, New York
May 18, 2018 – September 23, 2018
By DAVID AMBROSE, June, 2018
“I started drawing at sixteen, when I broke my back doing sports.”
Wayne Thiebaud in an interview for Mark Strand’s, Art of the Real: Nine American Figurative Painters (1983)
Athletics' loss proves to be aesthetics' gain as Wayne Thiebaud’s fully functioning spine is currently on display at the Morgan Library in Wayne Thiebaud: Draftsman. It is the first all encompassing museum retrospective of his drawings that date back to his days as a cartoonist, commercial draftsman and art director. Thiebaud’s unique brand of graphic gymnastics takes place in the over eighty works in this exhibition curated by Isabelle Dervaux, Acquavella Curator of Modern and Contemporary Drawings at the Morgan Library. While Thiebaud has been known primarily as a realist painter; the show postures to set the record straight by presenting a compelling argument for drawing as the backbone of his painting practice.
Upon entering the gallery one first encounters what is in effect, a long sampling wall that presents eleven works on paper of some of the confections that have become synonymous with Thiebaud’s art: hard candy sticks, ice cream cones, pie slices, fountain syrups and candy apples in a wide array of media. While this taster’s menu may whet the appetite for the seventy-odd works to follow, it also acts as a key for the entire exhibition; a sort of Swiss Army Knife of Thiebaud’s multifaceted drawing techniques mixed and matched with the variety of materials used by the artist during his eight decades long career. How Mr. Thiebaud reached this point is presented for the most part chronologically in five categories: early work, food stuff, tradition, sketches, cityscape and landscape.
The earliest drawings in the show introduce us to Thiebaud’s path to becoming a fine artist. He began his art education as a commercial artist and art director through the late-1930s and early-1940s. In the pen and ink cartoon, “Stand Up Please!” (1940s), an elevator operator grins at two young female passengers on a car that has stopped between floors. The caption provides both comedic relief and a bit of awkward tension. While humor is a theme that will thread its way throughout his career, the tension comes as more of a surprise. It is heightened by the linear economy of the three cropped profile portraits as their range of emotions is defined by each single stroke eyebrow.
By the 1950’s we find Thiebaud submerged in a dialog with art history fueled by a teaching appointment at Sacramento Junior College. The teaching post led him to embark on a yearlong art sabbatical from the West Coast to New York City. There he immersed himself in the avant-garde, specifically the Abstract Expressionist movement, and in particular with the painters, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. As a result, Thiebaud adopted a looser, gestural style that began to appear in works such as the black and white street scene, New York City Winter (1956). The delicate, staccato dabs of abstract mark-making add syncopation to the window display in contrast to gritty realism on the prowl in the form of a black cat that appears to have slinked out of a Manet into the shop’s entryway. In a direct nod to Kline’s use of white as an editing tool to cleanup his large scale gestural brushstrokes, Thiebaud uses hints of white watercolor to erase a few unwanted ink marks. It’s as if the art director in Thiebaud removed them to preserve pictorial clarity. Thiebaud pays an even more direct homage to Kline in the graphite portrait of him, Franz Kline, NYC (1956). Here Kline’s squinting visage makes a mole-like appearance that is drawn with all the wiry, taut, compressed energy of a Giacometti drawing.
By the 1960’s, at the height of the Pop Art movement, Thiebaud began to steer his focus off the sidewalk and into the display case by highlighting consumer goods and specifically how presentation can affect and influence our wants and desires. Thiebaud’s experience in advertising and a brief stint at Universal Studios as a lighting technician literally set the stage for his earliest “food stuff” still lifes that in 1962 would bring him overnight acclaim. In the two ink wash drawings, Food Counter and Hamburgers (both dating from 1964), high contrast, noirish lighting adds a layer of cinematic suspense to each rather mundane subject. In the former, spatial depth is stunted by horizontal bands of saturated black ink. A transparent, light gray wash plays the role of cast shadow, as streaks of opaque oil paint double as highlight and anchor; weighing down each tray to the cream colored paper. In the latter, value is not attained by the gradation of the pools of saturated black ink, but by the simple act of Thiebaud drying his brush inside the oval of those bun tops; the streaky, scumbled brushstrokes looking like a surge of storm clouds along the English coast in a Constable Cloud Study.
These early black and white still lifes speak to us as drawings but work counter to the Wayne Thiebaud we know, an artist engaged with color; a color propelled by light and lassoed by shadow as if refracted through the geometry of a prism. Thiebaud’s color, for all its optical bounce, comes with graphic restrictions in the service of line and shape. Nowhere is this more evident than in the watercolor Lunch Table (1964) with its streamlined rows of receding elliptical plates. As is the case with many of Thiebaud’s still lifes, the buffet selections are painted not from observation but from the expectations provided by memory. They offer perfection and temptation by the slice. A human presence can be felt in these orderly rows; where soup bowls masquerade as upside down hats and olives sit atop of sandwiches like pairs of humorous, bulging eyes. It is an assembly line of low brow, middleclass taste where each serving size acts as a sort of human proxy. A portrait of isolation served without a crumb, drip, or spill to hint at the imperfection of the server or the consumer’s acceptance or purchase.
In Ice Cream Cone and Untitled (Three Ice Creams) (both from 1964), similar subjects are explored with different mediums to dissimilar ends. In the graphite drawing Ice Cream Cone, a lone suspended cone is virtually devoured by cross hatching so densely layered that it resembles a type of gauze fabric. While in Untitled (Three Ice Creams), the blended softness of the pastel and delicate pink color curiously mimic bouffant hairdos and sugar cone necks of the backs of three women’s heads - and oddly had me recalling the 1940s cartoon of those three elevator riders trapped and cutoff between floors. Humor is a theme that Thiebaud returns to all his life, yet his humor comes with more than a spoonful of pathos. A chilly air of loneliness and alienation exists in his spaces no matter how sundrenched or sugary sweet his subjects prove to be.
The sense of alienation also extends to Thiebaud’s figure drawings such as Mallary Ann (1966) or Tennis Girl (1967). Each figure feels cold and distant, more tailored than drawn, stitched together by a series of intermittent graphite hatch lines appearing as if they could be comfortably contained under a glass cake dome. These sitters are less about being “consumers” and more about being “consumed” by the controlled refinement of Thiebaud’s drawing technique. Even parts of the psychologically charged work, Girl in a Striped Sweater (1965), where the space between her legs below the knee implies a fold of vaginal lips, lacks much, if any heat. The orderliness of the striped pattern on her sweater graphically staples her to the page. She sits knees up; motionless, detached and silent.
Thiebaud’s figure drawings nestle neatly under the umbrella of academic tradition as do his compositions. Many of them have been influenced by the Old Masters –da Messina, Bellini, and Degas – or in some cases copied directly from them – Daumier, Morandi. Thiebaud’s efforts both as an ardent traditionalist and teacher lead us to the art of copying as pedagogical tool. A case in point is his slavishly rendered copies of two Old Master drawings: one by Honore’ Daumier - Untitled (After Daumier) (1975) and one by Giorgio Morandi (Untitled, After Morandi) (1979). In each it is Thiebaud who turns into a consumer by mimicking the style and technique of each artist. The result is drawings that feel more engineered than copied. He treats the originals more like a recipe or a piece of sheet music. In doing so he turns the act of copying Old Masters into some sort of parlor trick or forgery (as he even copied Morandi’s signature).
Thiebaud divides his drawing practice into two principle groups: public drawings and private drawings. The public drawings can be standalone works of art or instructional, both to the artist and his students. The more private side of his drawing is found in the rarely shown sketches made on loose sheets of paper. Each small scale sheet offers a series of thumbnails that search for compositional solutions or answers to material matters. Most of them read like storyboards or visual scripts where the panels isolate and frame out a thought on organization, light, material, or scale. Aptly, Thiebaud arranges the small studies on the page as if they were chocolates in a box; the edges of each thumbnail border acting like a foil candy cup. The sheets can be thematically familial (freeways, ties) or randomly arranged, but they are always composed and never spontaneous. In A Page of Sketches “Around Yorkville” (ca. 1990’s), cartoonish, gestural heads pivot from profile to frontal portrait along the bottom of the page like a frieze of bus riders. The group of figures is crowned by selections of cakes in the middle row. At the top, two flanking panels showing a lone shopper contemplating window display bracket a central one of a single cloud as it hovers over a butte like a thought bubble in search of a message.
The sketches reveal the alienated labor of Thiebaud as he honed his craft through the hourglass of academic practice and repetition. Thiebaud also maintains a healthy respect for the once private art of self-taught outsiders like James Castle and Martin Ramirez. His admiration becomes influence in a series of spectacular, plunging landscapes and cityscapes where he somehow manages to both extend space and compress it simultaneously (much in the manner of the late Martin Ramirez). In Diagonal City (1978), a made-up cityscape is divided in half, diagonally by a steep incline. Two cars and a truck speed down the hill appearing to screech to a halt as graphite sparks fly from the bottom right corner of the drawing like the grinding of metal brakes. Along the central axis, telephone poles cast shadows that resemble a series of T – pins. They effectively block the rest of cityscape above like an inverted window shade; one stuck on one side and dangling from the other.
Thiebaud uses extreme measures to drive these landscapes in a battle with pictorial space. In the pastel Lake Edge (1997) a line of cypress trees marches across the field while geometric parcels of land fit together like puzzle pieces flipping back and forth between flat planes and perspectival space. The edge of the land mass is drawn to resemble a caricature of a face in profile; one with a heavy brow, long nose and gaping mouth. In the charcoal Three Roads (1983), the intersection of two black asphalt roads form the shape of a T-square and divide the series of San Francisco high-rises like the arc of a pendulum. The compositions underlying architecture brings to mind a black and white Kline painting; one that was rendered by the architectural drafting firm of Rizzoli and Ramirez: outsider artists, A.G. Rizzoli and Martin Ramirez.
The best analogy I can find to describe the space in the late landscape and a cityscape drawing is that of an envelope. The envelope travels for you, yet your mind and the recipient’s do all the traveling after. However the envelope in Thiebaud’s landscapes would start as a die cut pattern before gluing. As you fold the envelope into shape it overlaps and compresses its space, but it also creates a pocket; one that would neatly fit a sheet of paper, perhaps one with a decorated letter or two on it. I might suggest a W and a T. WM
David Ambrose is an artist and critic living and working in Bound Brook, New Jersey. He has exhibited both nationally and internationally. He is the currently the subject of a mid-career retrospective entitled, “Repairing Beauty”, at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, New Jersey. He has taught at Parsons, The New School for Design, Pratt Institute and the Fashion Institute for Technology.view all articles from this author