Homage To Wayne Thiebaud – In Conversation With Colin Smith

Wayne Thiebaud

I had the good fortune to meet Wayne Thiebaud (November 15, 1920 – December 25, 2021) in Sacramento, California. We spent a day together and I was impressed with his kindness and modesty. His son Paul had a Gallery downtown, a large building; I assumed it also contained Wayne’s Studio. Much of his work was there, but it transpired later in his home that he worked on an easel on the upstairs landing. This somehow reflected his modesty but clearly in no way reflected his ambition or achievement. I heard later from our mutual friend John Walker that he considered this interview one of his favourites. Thiebaud was a unique and special character whose influence was considerable on numerous generations of painters.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A WOLF AND A DOG  (British Painter Colin Smith Interviews Wayne Thiebaud)

Colin Smith: I know that in the past, you have been described as a Pop Artist. This would seem a very lazy description of your work. It’s just too easy.

Wayne Thiebaud: Well, I’ve never thought of myself as a card-carrying Pop Artist; in fact, I’m much more interested in that long tradition of Realist painting. I’m particularly interested in ways that Realism and Abstraction are combined in various ways. Pop Art, I have not much interest in it; I’m not a big fan of it, partly because I worked in commercial art, I see it more as an adjunct of that. I think that more should be written about it in terms of its relationship to commercial art to help evaluate its role.

Wayne Thiebaud, Big Field, 2007,
Wayne Thiebaud Wedding Cakes 2015 Photo: Courtesy The Artist’s Estate and Acquavella Galleries

CS: You’ve partly pre-empted my next question! One of the things I have always admired is the incredibly strong sense of design in your paintings. I am aware that in the past, you have worked as a commercial artist.

WT: Edward Hopper, Arthur Dove, De Kooning and many other American Artists worked in commercial art as well. At that time, as you probably know, Fine Artists and Commercial Artists were trained in the same institution. I didn’t go to Art School, I wanted to go very badly, but I couldn’t. I still admire Art Schools and keep thinking that I should go back and do it anyway! Teaching, though, to which I am very committed, is like being at Art School in a way.

CS: I wanted to ask you about teaching a little later; perhaps we can come back to that.
There seems to be a tendency for West Coast or Californian artists to be very individualistic, not part of a group. I would definitely include you in that, as well as Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, Elmer Bischof, Mel Ramos and even Ed Ruscha.

WT: I don’t think that is quite true for the following reason, there were many painters; Ed Ruscha was trained in an institution called Chouinard’s and was part of a whole group of southern California artists, including Billy Al Bengson, Ed Moses and Robert Irwin. They were a group that related to each other, helped each other, criticised each other. The same is true of the Bay Area people, including Diebenkorn, Bischoff, Park and also a whole cadre of younger people. So those groups were very important to each other. New York and its own preoccupation with provincialism always liked to refer to Diebenkorn as a Californian artist or a West Coast artist. So he had to endure that for years.

Wayne Thiebaud
Wayne Thiebaud Big Field, 2007 Oil on board Photo: Courtesy The Artist’s Estate and Acquavella Galleries

CS: He mentioned he had a few run-ins with Greenberg over that.

WT: I didn’t know about that.

CS: Was there a sense of rivalry with the East coast?

WT: I asked one of them when I was there one time, ‘What did he think of West Coast painters?’ He thought a long time and then he said, ‘I guess the answer is that we really don’t think about them. I had a chance to talk to De Kooning, he was much more open, he liked all kinds of painting as you know, he said ‘There’s a God damn good artist out there -Willy Bishop’ I said, ‘You mean Elmer Bischoff,’ ‘Yes that’s it, a good painter, there’s something about what he does -lowering things’ I didn’t quite know what he meant until I looked again at Elmer’s work. He does have this tendency to have the pictures low down. But, unfortunately, he doesn’t get the sort of play he’s entitled to, a very good painter. He is able to place things in the low part of the composition without the elements falling out of the bottom edge.

CS: Many Artists in Europe are making work that revolves around a kind of dialogue with Photography, often in the shadow of Richter. Do you ever work from photographs? Has it ever been part of your practice?

WT: I don’t feel it should be in the curriculum with painting. I think they are totally different species; even though they look alike, it’s like the difference between a Wolf and a Dog.
Photography, as I see it, is made from everything into something. Painting starts with nothing and has to find something. So in a way, photographs are made from the outside in, and painting is made from the inside out, and for me, at least seems to miss that very important aspect of Empathy in Painting. To use the body as a Plumb line, for example, so Photography does not direct us toward the same avenue of experience as painting.
I would assess that somewhere between 80 and 90% of the visual images we live with are photographically based. I think that does something to the spirit of enterprise towards our experience, which limits people’s accountability about other kinds of visual representation.

CS: Most of the time, we accept Photography unquestioningly as a substitute for reality

WT: It’s a great service form in terms of its documentary character, but if you read people, Phenomenologists, Merleau Ponty, Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, they target what Photography’s role is and isn’t.

CS: Obviously, you’ve drawn a lot from observation. I think it’s very significant, very important for artists to do that.

WT: I agree very much. I think it’s the basis of good painting. Richard Wollheim put it very well; Painting is a metaphor of the body in terms of equilibrium, skin, texture, chemical organisation, and musculature. Life drawing training, having to start with nothing and make it into something, is a very painful process with a high fatigue factor. It’s easy to see why people want to avoid it, but if you choose to do it and learn to make closer and the finer distinction between things like grace, tension, pressure, those qualifying forces are fundamental to making fine paintings. Since painting is dead, still object, it doesn’t move, so you have to enliven it, it seems to me, with your sense of a perception of physicality which you then transfer and enliven a work. If that’s missing, you are then, whether you like it or not, in an area of a kind of Taxidermy.

Wayne Thiebaud
Wayne Thiebaud Lipstick Row, 1964 Private Collection Photo: Courtesy The Artist’s Estate and Acquavella Galleries

CS: Unfortunately, too many people think that projecting an image with an overhead projector and tracing a line around it is drawing.

WT: Yes, It’s nice to see Hockney turning his back on it now.

CS: Are you an admirer of Hockney?

WT: I admire his graphic sense; I think he’s an interesting designer and draughtsman.

CS: I think he’s variable but has made some outstanding work.

WT: I like him and have a lot of respect for him in various ways, but his photographic work is not so interesting to me.

CS For me, there are a series of finely tuned balancing acts in your work,
One I would say would be between a kind of playfulness and a very strong veneration of tradition. There’s an almost mischievous quality sometimes.

WT: Yes, well, I am all mixed up! Of course, I have a great interest in cartooning; that’s where I started. It’s been nice to know, talking to Diebenkorn, Bischoff and De Kooning about our mutual love of Krazy Kat and with Philip Guston about the American cartoon tradition. I met him just after the cartoon-like work that he got much criticism for. The imagery of the shoes, bare light bulbs, window shades etc., are taken directly from Mutt and Jeff cartoons.
So that’s also a very strong element of my work. I think if you then move to Caricature, which I’m very interested in, then I would tend to expand
the word Caricature to include not just large and small variations, but Caricature of something like colour, or the Caricature of line, Caricature of value, and then you are talking about the concept of conventions. The Caricature of medieval drawing, the Caricature of Matisse’s work. Not just the obvious one like Daumier but even the Caricature of Cubism, its interest in a variation of space and disproportion. So I think that a more complex enjoyment depends in a sense on some kind of reduction or expansion of form.

CS: Is that the same as the distillation of something essential?

WT: I think so. To overemphasise something either in terms of colour or the dynamics of space, colour or light in a work.

CS That relates strongly to your Landscapes

WT You should be able to juxtapose various projective systems into a single work and try to bring it off. You will be skirting a kind of disaster, but in the kind of work I love, in the whole of a tradition of painting, you enjoy those extremes. Cezanne’s reluctance to finish, to play around with the difference between complete and finish. His work is very complete but not finished. That’s an area of equivocation, I guess. You keep thinking that maybe those planes won’t hold, but they do!

CS: Out of interest, do you ever go back and rework old paintings?

WT: Oh yes! (laughing) All the time, actually. Throw away a lot of work, too, of course.

CS: So the whole Kerouac Zen thing of – It was what it was at the moment and should stay that way- is not for you?

WT: That’s right ( Laughing)

CS: Another balancing act, in the paintings where you have a strongly defined object, as opposed to the landscapes, there’s always a critical relationship between the figure and ground if you like. Sometimes the grounds, especially in the earlier work, seems almost like plastic, as physical, as the objects.

WT: Yes, the backgrounds are often as difficult or more so than the objects. That marvellous thing about painting is the planimetric and its insistence and need for it, whether its Vermeer or Cezanne, it’s the same, a mysterious flatness that’s also not flat.

CS: Did the use of the word ‘Halination’ regarding your painting come out of trying to enliven the interaction between those two very physical presences- the positive and negative areas?

WT: That’s a very interesting question. If you paint a form and it’s in a positive special position, and then you paint the negative space very white, in order to keep those two things from looking unrelated spatially, you try to figure out some kind of transition. One transition would be to paint a very dark background and let the edges fade out. The desperate thing for me with the white background was to try to achieve some kind of transition. It came out of the tradition of painting like Van Gogh, who would have a cadmium red-orange line around this side and then cerulean blue on the other edge.
I spent a long time looking and it seems to me that he would paint under strong electric lights or out in the sunlight, and your eyes because there are two views all the time, you merge them, but under exhaustion, the longer you look at something you get this actual vibration. So I have the students test that by putting something like a white cup, or a white egg on a white background, in sunlight or intense light, and stare at it for a long time. Soon, one can see that these are actual things that are truly perceptual.

Photo: Courtesy The Artist's Estate and Acquavella Galleries 
Wayne Thiebaud Photo: Courtesy The Artist’s Estate and Acquavella Galleries

CS: Would it be wrong, or too easy, to suggest that it is similar to the effect you get with a misregistered print?

WT: Yes, that’s true. It may well have influenced while working in Commercial Art; you often see proofs that are not quite registered. It also relates to that law of simultaneous contrast, where you have equal intensities and different hues next to each other; you get this vibration. That was the basis of all those rock music posters for a while (Laughing)

CS: I think that was more chemically induced.

WT: It’s like any convention. It can be the simplest possible thing, or the most sublime,
like in a Vermeer painting with that incredible intent of form, he gives you all the clues and none of the secrets of how his edges are transitional.

CS: There’s a concern, especially in your earlier paintings with a kind of modulated repetition of forms; they are similar with slight changes, a bit like the two figures in Millet’s ‘Gleaners’.

WT: Well, it’s a design principle that is used a great deal. If it’s too systematic, you worry about it because the drumbeat doesn’t occur.
It isn’t so interesting if it’s this- da/ da /da /da, but rather
da da-da-da-da

CS: A kind of syncopation

WT Yes exactly, good term, you try to syncopate the forms. It’s just compositional play and what painters often do.

CS In some of the early work, you used a kind of raking slanting system, which gradually becomes more and more flattened out, more and more frontal.

WT Yes, well, that’s that wonderful joy in painting, those three things, atmosphere, plane, and volume. The idea of playing with the positional aspect of planes to be worked in space. Even in terms of vectors, not just horizontal, vertical and diagonal. Someone like Frank Auerbach is very interested in that. So, in the case of my own work, to enliven it, you try to see if that can work out. Finally, most things, and you understand this as a painter, is this kind of desperation to somehow stop the painting from dying off. Somehow almost unconsciously, you come across some rut, change or accident that suggests new possibilities.

CS: Almost to trip yourself up in some way?

WT: Yes! And you’re obliged to try in some way to make it tough on yourself. Degas made it awkward for himself, you know, something like eighteen figures over here and then a watering can over there. In a sense, it’s a kind of melodramatic desperate act, but it works. His compositions depend on these extremes and challenging juxtapositions.

CS: I’m thinking of that pastel of the figure in the Tub with that vertical shelf cutting down the right of the paper. Only the Hairbrush sticking out over the edge ties it together.

WT Yes, exactly.

CS I remember talking with Dick Diebenkorn and he told me that he had made a copy of the Bayeux Tapestry as a child and that that had somehow influenced all those events happening around the edges of his later works.
Is there any way that maybe the box-like structure and the frontality that you would get, for instance, in one of the Delicatessen counters, could this in some way be related to the Cartoon grid?

WT Why I think so- yes. And in advertising, the Art Director would give you this rough and say – Fill this up with products. That matrix that you refer to, that’s always very important in painting. You’re always working on a format, and the students get very impatient with me because I invariably make them do a format; they say, ‘I just want to do it this way,’ but no, your world is here, that’s all you have to work in.

CS: You’re quite unusual for an American painter in that you tend not to make many really large works.

WT: Well, yes, my favourite size is around two to three feet. It has something to do with the body’s reach, I think. It’s something to do with a physical judgement of what you’re sensing. I would say the following about the interrogation of the work, let’s say in terms of physical properties. We tend to think of it like, say, a Watch, where you can understand how that all works together. That would serve you pretty well on the two-dimensional surface. It doesn’t help you much in what you sense in front or behind the surface; you’d need several hypothetical devices instead; you’d need a Pressure gauge, an Altimeter, a Depthometer, and so on. Paintings, for me, have to be judged that mysterious way.

CS: I’ve read on a couple of occasions that you talk about your landscapes as ‘Composites’, that they are constructed rather than observed. There is an element of a kind of cubism in the different viewpoints. Do they start from a place or from an idea for composition?

WT: They are both, actually. There’s a large area here called the Delta, which is about one thousand miles of waterways, just below Sacramento, and we lived down there at one point. The rivers wander through these agricultural areas. That’s where I painted a lot and drew a lot, so the vocabulary of forms came from that. I still go out and draw there. The kinds of trees, the kinds of water, the kinds of agricultural patterns form themselves into a sort of repertoire, which I can use in various ways. So it comes from that combination. If I don’t go out and refresh and expand the vocabulary, then the clichés begin, and the formulas can develop. So that’s always a fight. I talked a lot about this with Diebenkorn, who was always fearful of the formula but dependent on it at the same time.
One time in his studio in Ocean Park, we looked at lots of drawings and paintings and talked about them. Then when you went over to the windows, and you looked out and saw the concrete, and the green, and even the roofs of the houses, and the palm trees, you could look at his work and see where it came from. I understand that, of course, and I am a great admirer of him. He was very influential, very crucial to what I do, and I owe him a great debt. The other thing about Dick was he had this exquisite, almost a French touch, which he was impatient with because he wanted that grit; he always talked about grit and anomalies.

CS: Certain people have a facility which they often feel they have to fight against.

WT: Of course, De Kooning was that way; he was marvellously facile and skilful.

CS Did you know him very well?

WT: I was around him in 1956, talked to him a bit in the studio, had tea together. I was close to his wife, Elaine, we taught together in Paris, and my wife made a film about her painting a portrait. We did talk about his facility, and there is a lot written about the struggle he had with his abilities. You know that drawing of his of a Jug and a Table in the Metropolitan Museum, astounding kind of rendering. It shows how well trained he was.

CS: Is the way you make space in Landscape paintings ever overtly influenced by Persian or Indian Miniatures?

WT: Oh yes, very much. When I go to the Metropolitan in New York, I’ll go where they are and sit in those chairs and study them. We’ve even bought a couple, have them around and look at them continuously. Dick, of course, was also very interested in them.

CS: I believe Howard Hodgkin has a collection of them.

WT: Yes, I’d heard that.

CS: When I look at some of your San Francisco paintings, I’m sometimes put in mind of Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’.

WT: There’s also another film called Bullet. They certainly must have some kind of influence, but the street pictures came out of going out on the street and trying to paint and not having any success to get that kind of feel of Vertigo or displacement. So to try to get that, it was more constructed in terms of the projective devices and perspective used to try to force that extreme.
I don’t know. I don’t have a lot of confidence in them; they may be too melodramatic. But, on the other hand, one person said he thought I had missed the grit of the city.
I think in some ways that’s true; I think that they may be sometimes too prettified or something, but these things you worry about afterwards, but then you think I did what I could at that time. I like to read criticism and I believe it is important for painters to be critically responsive and to write criticism themselves. I think that’s wonderful about your magazine; I like Painter’s writings and teach a class where I encourage students to do that.

CS: You mentioned a few Theorists earlier. Are you someone who is driven by theoretical concerns?

WT: I guess I don’t know how committed I am too theoretical premises. It seems to me that while they are interesting, they are maybe a little too much like Jell-O may be; every theory is good to a point, marvellous constructions. But what finally counts is what the painting physically is. And that is something I don’t think words can ever do. Though to give some dimension to your enquiry about things, it’s worth reading and thinking about. Even the Philosophical tradition was one of the marvels of being around Wollheim, who was deeply trained Philosophically.

CS: Yes, a frighteningly erudite man.

WT: It’s the same with Donald Kuspit.

CS: Like Wollheim, very interested in Freud.

WT: Yes, both are interested in Psychology. I use the Gombrich text with students’ Art and Illusion’, Psychologically based, I think and very useful. If I understand it correctly, it is based on getting between what you are told to see and what you actually see—a lot more complex than we think. One of the big problems for us is when the engines of publicity kick up these amazing edifices of a reputation for a painter; it’s hard for students to get between that and learn to look and learn to see.

CS: I’ve sometimes said to students – You want to be famous before you want to be good.

WT: Yes, yes, it’s a deadly trap.

CS: Why do you continue to teach? Must you enjoy it?

WT: Enjoy and hate it both; it’s devilishly hard work. It’s continuing education for me. I’m selfish in the sense of having students I can use as research. If I do a project in colour, for instance, having twenty students doing the same thing, I see what I can steal! ( laughs )

CS: I like the quote from Eliot, ‘Amateur Poets are influenced by people, and Professional Poets steal things!’

WT: Very true! Students, well, they have a great sense of the ironic, of course. They will question and force you to realign your questions. We tend to think it’s all been dealt with, but they will often find escape clauses. I find that very stimulating.

CS: Can I ask if you have any other passions, Literature, for instance?

WT: Yes, I read quite a lot of Poetry, especially. Someone made a statement which I think can qualify things for Painting students, ‘Poetry is a kind of X-Ray of Literature’, and I think painting is a kind of X-Ray of a type of vision, which allows us to see things that have not been seen, things that aren’t there, things that are not clear, equivocal things. This parallels Poetry in some way. There’s this wonderful thing which is so essential in Painting, It’s a sense of ambiguity, equivocation, ineffability, which I guess is my disenchantment with something like Pop Art, which seems so singular and headlong in its pursuit, that it doesn’t enquire after those things which I think are the fundamental attributes of serious works.

Interview By Permission Colin Smith © 2021 This interview was first published in Turps Banana in 2005. Photos: Courtesy The Artist’s Estate and Acquavella Galleries

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