A Review of Wayne Thiebaud: 1962 to 2017 at White Cube in Mason's Yard, London
Long before #instafood, #foodporn or #foodart became Instagrammable sensations, American artist Wayne Thiebaud had made a profitable and lengthy career out of it. Melting ice-creams in wafer cones, perfectly poised cherries on cinnamon buns and swirling dollops of sugar icing were the rising stars of his early compositions. You could say that Thiebaud paved the way for a modern obsession with beautiful food. However, Thiebaud is so much more than a cutesy still-life pop-art painter. He is, in fact, regarded today as one of America's foremost living portrait and landscape artists.
White Cube’s current exhibition Wayne Thiebaud: 1962 to 2017 at Mason's Yard is the artist's first UK retrospective. Given Tate Modern only has a handful of works by Thiebaud, it is well worth grasping the opportunity to see his works before they disappear once again. Presenting a comprehensive overview of his paintings and works on paper from the past 50 years, expect to see cherry pies and bakery cases jostling for attention, alongside his recent landscapes of ploughed fields and urban jungles.
Born in 1920, Thiebaud emerged as a fully fledged artist when Abstract Expressionism reigned supreme. Yet his work stands apart from that of his peers. Overtones of mass consumption and Americana – one perfect pastry after another – punctuate his work. But it is evident from this show that in style he is closer to Edward Hopper and in subject to Paul Cézanne or Giorgio Morandi than to the Abstract Expressionists or later pop artists.
Through his use of pastel and bold colour palettes, Thiebaud creates a tension between surface and depth that is almost tangible. The heightened tactility results from the viscosity of his paint. In Bakery Case, 1996, dollops of icing swirls are re-created on the surface of the canvas through thick impasto, while the oozing fillings of his unobtainable cakes and pies in later compositions are re-imagined through heavy daubs of vibrant colour.
It must be said that Cherry Pie, 2016, looks almost too good to eat. But his portraits and landscapes are bolder, and more abstract in composition. Fall Fields, 2017, is characterised by bold primary colours and a distorted perspective that evokes David Hockney’s Going up Garrowby Hill, 2000. The winding roads that undulate like vertiginous theme-park roller-coasters in Hockney's earlier work resonate loud and clear with those in Thiebaud's work. While his subject matter has varied over the years, his alluring palette has remained pretty constant. It's little wonder, then, that he is regarded as one of the best colourists working today.
A teenager during the Great Depression when luxury goods were sparse, Thiebaud yearned for the unattainable; this may explain why food is so often depicted behind glass cabinets or reflective shop windows. Out of reach, out of mind, or so they say. Fast forward 70 years and we live in a world dominated by the desire and the need for new things. It's all about the quick fix. The buy now, pay later mentality. Thiebaud's still lives are as relevant today as they were when he painted them – albeit for different reasons. In his 10th decade, Thiebaud is as prolific and successful as ever. Just like the Japanese woodcut Master Katsushika Hokusai, Thiebaud just gets better and better with age. Long may it last.
Written by Lucy Scovell, a contributor to Arteviste.com