Among works created by living artists, Wayne Thiebaud's paintings, drawings and prints of cakes, pies and gumball machines may be the only images that could rival Jasper John's targets and maps for sheer familiarity among eloquent icons of American art.
But when he first painted the first of his paintings in this vein, his admitted reaction was: "This is ridiculous."
Still, he didn't care.
"They fascinated me. So I painted those damn pies," Thiebaud recently told me.
He had a teaching job -- by 1960 he had joined the faculty at U.C. Davis after nine years at Sacramento City College -- so why not paint what he wanted to, even if it meant he would be relegated to obscurity.
But his obscurity didn't last. Around 1962, Thiebaud was embraced as one of the main West Coast practitioners of Pop art. Nancy Marmer's essay for the seminal 1966 book, "Pop Art," assembled by Lucy Lippard, was indicative of his growing renown. She wrote, "Of all the West Coast Pop Artists, he has probably received the most national attention for his still-life paintings of assembly line cafeteria goodies and his neon-lit bakeshop specials." The Sacramento artist has been showing this type of work annually in New York at the Allan Stone Gallery, beginning in 1962, and had been subject of a solo museum exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1965 (soon to become the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art).
But he didn't fit well to the Pop template; he was just happy for the recognition.
Today, Thiebaud is 94. He's long recognized as one of the great American painters, and still has no complaints about the early mislabeling.
"I felt lucky that I was painting something that people happened to be interested in" he says, with characteristic self-deprecation.
Nonetheless, Thiebaud defines himself quite differently.
"I am really an old fashioned painter," he insists.
Thiebaud offered this assessment of his work during a public conversation I conducted in early October with him and Kathan Brown, the founder of the venerable Crown Point Press, at the University of San Diego in October. The appearance coincided with the opening of a handsomely installed exhibition of his etchings, drawings and reworked prints -- aptly titled "By Hand: Works on Paper from 1965-2015." (It continues through December 11.) For five-plus decades, he has worked with her to produce a major stream of etchings.
He repeated this self-assessment in our recent telephone interview, adding, "Thank God for history. It's so clarifying."
Making predictions about any artist's future place in history is a dubious endeavor. But by this point, five-plus decades after his early renown, it is looking very likely that Thiebaud's art will outlive our era. Only a tiny number of American painters have enjoyed such a sustained interest in their work, as his prolific history of museum exhibitions and awards attests. Among California-based painters who emerged in the fecund decade of the 1960s, only David Hockney, Edward Ruscha and the late Richard Diebenkorn have enjoyed such widespread interest among critics, curators and collectors.
A weighty and lavish new book on the artist from Rizzoli, simply titled "Wayne Thiebaud," contains a career-spanning array of works -- selected, he said, by him with the help of family members. There are excellent essays on him by some longtime art writers of note: Kenneth Baker, Karen Wilkin, John Yau and Nicholas Fox Weber. Fittingly, all are as unpretentious as Thiebaud's art.
The selections of his paintings and drawings in the book remind us of how he continuously revisits older images and renews them. "Dark Heart Cake" from 2014 conveys the same delight in elegant geometry and lushly worked paint as "Display Cakes" or "Cakes" from 1963. The rows of candy apples that are only part of the elegant asymmetrical arrangement in "Candy Counter" (1969) become more mysterious, by virtue of the darker ground, in "Dark Candy Apples" (1983). Their glistening red shapes, as repeated, become subtly metaphysical in the same way as forms often do in paintings by one of the artists whose work he reveres, Giorgio Morandi.
Likewise, the love of geometry that Thiebaud finds and displays in a landscape like "Yosemite Valley Ridge" (1975) and "Apartment Hill" (1980) carries over to a much later agricultural landscape such as "River Lake" (2008). The way he divides the world into forms and patterns veers toward abstraction, but holds fast to the image. In a revealing interview Thiebaud did with USD gallery director Derrick R. Cartwright for the catalog that accompanies "By Hand," the artist says, "Any good painting is essentially cubist." You see how he gives this insight his own reading in all of his landscapes and cityscapes.
For Thiebaud, the search for an artistic identity took a pivotal turn after he ventured to New York in 1956. He took a leave of absence to, as he put it, "meet my heroes," the Abstract Expressionists. He spent time with them at the legendary Eighth Street Club, or the Club, as it was better known, where there was a steady stream of speakers and panels organized by the New York School artists.
"They had amazing panel discussions -- at least until they drank too much. It was a community of painters and they were very approachable. I learned a lot from them. Those artists were greatly interested in art history."
He came back feeling less like he wanted to emulate them in style and aesthetic approach. Instead, he wanted to find his own way to follow a piece of advice that the great Willem de Kooning offered him.
"He told me, 'Do something you know something about, that you are particularly fond of. Don't try to make paintings that look like art,'" Thiebaud says.
That is when he "started from scratch," as he explains it. "I simply wanted to get objects to sit well in space; I wanted to orchestrate space. That is why I started with triangles, squares and rectangles."
Those triangles became slices of pie; the rectangles, bakery cases with goodies in rows. The circles became cakes. And the rest is history, though at the time it didn't feel that way.
But he knew he had to be true to himself, in the way that de Kooning advised him. To Thiebaud that meant gravitating toward subjects he thought were quintessentially American and decidedly not connected to New York.
It was heartland material, circa 1960.
"I was picturing a homogenous, ubiquitous world. Across the country there were pinball machines, jukeboxes -- the same objects and things. And they are not the things you see in New York, which to me is not an American city really; it's a world city. I didn't quite fit there, which happened to be fortunate for me."
Ironically, that American material, as he singularly envisioned it, did connect his work to New York, in a way he could not have envisioned. By grouping him with Pop artists, he was associated with artists that were supplanting the Abstract Expressionists in Manhattan.
Unlike many prominent artists who were associated with Pop, though, Thiebaud remained committed to teaching. He was on the full time faculty of UC Davis until 1997 and is now a professor emeritus.
Though he is a true believer in he value of academic instruction, he also sees its limitations for the artist who wants to change history.
"I've often thought about: 'What happens to academically trained people [who] don't survive their academic training? There has to be another dimension to the art.'"
That other dimension is palpable in his work. So is questing faith in painting. He has no doubt it will survive, no matter what other media artists embrace.
"It is too great a thing to disappear. It is one of the only ways that a single person can convey a feeling and awareness that others can enjoy. It's one to one communication from a singular mind and it counters the distractions of the world as it exists," he says.
As for the fact that he has been able to paint for so many decades and enjoyed such response to his work, Thiebaud says, "I have been lucky beyond belief."