- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 10, 2001

To find the links in octogenarian Wayne Thiebaud's giant retrospective at the Phillips Collection isn't easy.

The show, which marks the most comprehensive in the 50-year career of the California artist and his first on the East Coast, occupies two floors in the Phillips' Goh Annex. It gathers about 120 of Mr. Thiebaud's oils, watercolors, pastels, mixed-media works and painted boxes. (The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Northwest has mounted a separate exhibit of Mr. Thiebaud's still lifes.)

The artist, celebrated for his mouthwatering still lifes of thickly frosted cakes and wedges of pie, is better known in his home state than in the rest of the country.

The explanatory wall labels at the Phillips describe the painter's preoccupations — still lifes, the figure, cityscapes and landscapes. His creations from different years, subjects and styles are grouped together, however, and no single idea seems to connect them.

A roughly brushed 1959 abstract-expressionist sleeping figure hangs near a hard-edge gum-ball machine from 1963. Paintings of San Francisco's steep streets appear next to images of the flatly planed farmland around the artist's home in Sacramento, Calif.

Organizer Steven Nash, associate director and chief curator of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, does a better job in the catalog than in the show of explaining the artist's jumping from theme to theme. He says in the catalog that Mr. Thiebaud paints from personal experiences and about subjects he feels deeply.

The artist grew up close to the land. He plowed and planted as a boy at his grandfather's home in Southern California and also worked at the family ranch in Utah. His images of food hark back to his large Mormon family, which gathered frequently for picnics around tables of home-cooked food. He also loved to look at rows and rows of pies and cakes in bakery windows. Paint cans were a favorite of his at hardware stores.

Mr. Thiebaud started doing cityscapes of San Francisco after he bought a second home in that city in 1972. The paintings of hills, plunging streets, cloud-bursting skyscrapers and careering highways recall his uncle Lowell, a builder who introduced his nephew to highways and cars and taught him to drive at age 12.

The artist also turned to figures in the 1970s because he considered figure painting fundamental for all artists. Influences included Richard Diebenkorn, David Park and Elmer Bischoff, fellow figurative painters from the San Francisco Bay Area.

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Early in his life, the artist washed dishes and prepared meals in restaurants. He recalls the Pike in Long Beach, Calif., where he helped make hamburgers.

"They had snow cones and all the kinds of American popular foods. It seemed like an interesting subject matter that hadn't been dealt with before — color, the light, the food shapes," he told Mr. Nash in a recent interview.

Galleries and museums also found the subject matter intriguing. The Allan Stone Gallery in New York City gave Mr. Thiebaud his first one-man show in 1962 and solo exhibits thereafter almost annually. The M.H. de Young Museum in San Francisco honored him with his first museum exhibit the same year.

Shows in New York and California earned him enthusiastic reviews, although critic Alfred Frankenstein joked that Mr. Thiebaud "must be the hungriest artist in California."

The reasons for the success of his food paintings are debatable. But abstract expressionism had ruled the New York art world in the 1950s and was waning. Mr. Thiebaud's paintings of mass-produced food and consumer commodities also were purely American in their celebration of blue-collar objects and values.

The Californian began them in the mid-1950s, well before the work of 1960s New York pop artists Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol became known. The superficial resemblance between his work and that of the pop artists, however, may have helped his initial success.

One of the differences between him and artists such as Mr. Johns is that they satirized the culture, while he portrays it affectionately and humanely.

The painter also is part of the larger tradition of American still life, which includes the 18th-century family of Charles Willson Peale. Peale sons and daughters painted fruits, especially those of their family garden, as expressions of a joyful universe.

Mr. Thiebaud turned rather abruptly to figure painting at the height of his success with the still lifes. He often changes themes and styles when he believes he has explored them thoroughly.

His figurative works are a curious combination of Edward Hopper-like isolation and still-life-like humans. Mr. Thiebaud floods his people with the same strong spotlights and open white backgrounds that he uses for the cakes and pies. Many of the figures have not been shown before.

In his landscapes and cityscapes, Mr. Thiebaud does for San Francisco what photographer Alfred Stieglitz accomplished for New York. Both loved their cities and plumbed their metropolises' inner cores. Mr. Thiebaud is fascinated with geometries, and he layers perspectives and foreshortenings with abstract geometric forms.

Mr. Thiebaud paints the vertical world of San Francisco. He encounters steep hills when he sets out from his house in the Potrero Hill neighborhood. "Close to his front door are some of the nose-dive streets, perchlike intersections and rows of blocky architecture clinging to the sides of roadways that are so famous a part of the San Francisco cityscape," Mr. Nash writes in the catalog.

The artist's works are devoid of human life — except for motorists on freeways — and his San Francisco also threatens. Consider "Hill City" (1981), in which a freeway climbs to the bottom of a towering building. Another superhighway races down at the skyscraper's left. He clustered tall, narrow structures to the right.

Mr. Thiebaud does this with the city's signature crystalline light and bright colors. He also looks back to the American precisionist movement of the 1920s and 1930s and artists Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth, Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe, who celebrated cities.

The artist executed a 180-degree turnaround with his mid-1990s panoramas of rural Northern California. In 1968, he had painted the bluffs around his home with the delicate acrylic "Diagonal Ridge," which marches lollipoplike trees up a steep hill. Later, Mr. Thiebaud seems to transfer the San Francisco tensions into the flat expansive farmland or present the tilled fields from a bird's-eye point of view. He uses multiple perspectives again but horizontally.

"Waterland" (1996) shows a wide river zigzagging from top to bottom. The patterns of the tilled fields form angular tensions with the curve of the water and rounded center clump of trees.

Mr. Thiebaud is proud of the historical sources for his art, which here clearly are Paul Cezanne and Vincent van Gogh.

"I'm very influenced by the tradition of painting and not at all self-conscious about identifying my sources. I actually just steal things from people that I can use — just blatant plagiarism," he says in the catalog.

Strong and energetic, Mr. Thiebaud, 80, will have a major exhibit for the first time in New York when this show travels to the Whitney Museum of American Art in June.

His chief interest and most successful pursuit involves spatial dynamics, as in San Francisco's thrusting skyscrapers and the patterns of the Sacramento River near his home. It will be interesting to see what he does next.WHAT: "Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective"WHERE: Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NWWHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and noon to 7 p.m. Sundays, through April 29TICKETS: $10 for adults, $7 for seniors and students, and free for members and children under 18. An exhibit audio guide is included.PHONE: 202/387-2151

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