Contributed by Laurie Fendrich / The California painter Wayne Thiebaud died on Christmas Day. He was renowned, first and foremost, for his paintings of candies, cakes, and pies, which he first started exhibiting in New York in the 1950s. He later become known for his surreally steep California landscapes, paintings of the flatlands of California’s midriff, and his lonely, isolated figures. To be sure, the gods were with this painter. Not only did they let him live to the magnificent age of 101, but, up until the end, they gave him lifelong vigor that allowed him to fulfill his passion to work in his studio just about every day. His death makes painters like me feel a real personal loss.
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If there’s one word that describes Thiebaud as an artist, it’s “obsessed.” The statement on his passing released by his New York gallery Acquavella rather confirms this, quoting him as saying he had “this almost neurotic fixation of trying to learn to paint.” The subjects in Thiebaud’s early paintings were often arranged in a modernist grid, and he was described as a West Coast Pop artist. Thiebaud never saw things this way, thinking of himself as a realist. That said, being designated part of the Pop Art movement established his fame.
I arrived as a young artist in Los Angeles in the late 1970s already enthralled by Thiebaud’s paintings. Because I was an abstract painter, I was mostly interested in the way he moved paint. But I was also a faux sophisticate and couldn’t understand how serious painting could have such cheery and charming subject matter. Where was the anxiety I believed was the heart of modern painting? In any event, I loved the way he used color to create light and could put air around his figures by surrounding them with lushly painted bright colors – not to outline them but to nestle them into his backgrounds of goopy white paint. I started ordering oil paint from his San Francisco supplier, Bay City Paint Company, so I could mimic his wet paint moves.
Several years after I left California for New York, I finally got to meet Thiebaud. The first occasion was in the fall of 2015, when my husband and I were visiting artists for the semester at the San Francisco Art Institute. My friend Gina Werfel and her husband Hearne Pardee, both painting professors at UC Davis, invited us and Thiebaud for dinner at their home in Davis. It felt strange to call this man I’d admired for so long by his first name, but his unassuming, friendly manner, elegant but relaxed, made it easy. He had been a full-time professor of painting at Davis for 40 years, until university rules forced his retirement, and he’d returned to teach part-time for another 16 years. Thiebaud’s pedagogical approach was famously participatory: he worked right alongside his students.
At that dinner, he talked about how working that way allowed his students to see him make and correct “mistakes,” and then make and correct them again. In typical modesty, he said he couldn’t be Titian for them, but he could be a painter they could observe in the throes of solving painting problems. Thiebaud said that, from the brief time he lived in New York and hung out with de Kooning, he learned that the marks we make in paintings are but one mistake after another. We all discussed the reasons painting was so different from the other visual art forms. It’s at least in part because it has implied rules that can be violated only so much before a painting is no longer painting. Unlike sculpture, for instance, it begins with the unspoken rule that everything will happen within a rectangle, honored in the breach by the likes of Elizabeth Murray and Frank Stella.
During a series of phone interviews I did with Thiebaud a few months later for an essay I was writing on the crisis in teaching painting in colleges, he told me, “To call everything art is an obfuscation for the students and fails to clarify what we’re trying to get at as painters. Painting is concrete, but art is abstract. I don’t think we know what art is. But we know a lot about painting.”
In the winter of 2017, more than a year after that dinner but a few months before the essay was published, Thiebaud surprised me by showing up for a lecture I gave at UC Davis. He was 96 by then, but damn if he didn’t drive the 15 miles from Sacramento to Davis on – literally – a dark and stormy night. There were power outages all over the place, wind and rain were splintering umbrellas into toothpicks, and tree limbs were littering the streets. Yet there he was, the most famous nonagenarian painter in the United States, seated in the back of the auditorium, curious to hear what another painter he barely knew would say about painting.
Afterwards, Thiebaud attended the dinner reception, where we briefly talked once again. He brought up a few points from my lecture, as well as the fact that he was going to his studio virtually every day and continuing to play tennis a couple of times a week. He was known for playing tennis long past the time most mortals are ensconced in nursing homes. The California sculptor Peter Gutkin noted that Thiebaud, when asked if he still played tennis, answered, “Only when the ball comes to me.”
It’s not far-fetched to see Thiebaud’s paintings and his tennis game as connected. In both cases, he saw himself as a perpetual learner, and understood that the real task was to make the most of inevitable errors. And just as one can wrest victory from defeat even in a wretchedly played tennis match, one can conjure a finished painting out of a pile-up of truly awful errors. Thiebaud’s legacy consists of his gorgeous paintings, yes, but he also reminds us that to paint means to be perpetually starting over.
About the author: Laurie Fendrich is a painter, writer, and professor emerita of fine arts at Hofstra University.