Wayne Thiebaud Bakery Case, 1996 Oil on canvas 60 x 72 inches Thiebaud Family Collection
Wayne Thiebaud Bakery Case, 1996 Oil on canvas 60 x 72 inches Thiebaud Family Collection
Wayne Thiebaud  Bakery Case, 1996  Oil on canvas  60 x 72 inches  Thiebaud Family Collection
Wayne Thiebaud Bakery Case, 1996 Oil on canvas 60 x 72 inches Thiebaud Family Collection

The San Jose Museum of Art will trace the career of American artist Wayne Thiebaud in the retrospective exhibition Wayne Thiebaud: Seventy Years of Painting, on view February 16 through July 4, 2010. The exhibition of 103 paintings and drawings spans the Sacramento-based artist’s career from his earliest work as a young student to his latest paintings. Approximately one-third of the works on view date from after his last major museum retrospective, in 2001. While the exhibition includes the distinctive, lusciously painted still-lifes of food for which Thiebaud is most famous, it also ventures into other subject matter, in particular the Southern California beach scenes on which Thiebaud has most recently focused.

“This exhibition reveals the full spectrum of Thiebaud’s career and will surprise many viewers. It is a tribute to the enduring vitality of his work as he enters his eighties,” says Susan Krane, Oshman executive director of the San Jose Museum of Art. “From his intriguing student paintings to his famous Pop Art images; from his San Francisco landscapes of the 1970s and 80s to his recent pastoral beach paintings, this exhibition highlights Wayne Thiebaud’s ability to make paint sing. In Thiebaud’s hands, the everyday world becomes a treat to behold.”

“It has long been [Thiebaud’s] practice to mine his near-photographic memory for salient images that signify his past,” writes guest curator and catalogue author Gene Cooper, emeritus professor of art history at California State University, Long Beach. “Whether it is a display of nostalgic candy apples or recollections of Southern California’s beach culture, they are primary forms that mark his life’s journey as well as illustrating his warm humanist values. In the world of art, Thiebaud remains as America’s vox populi.”

Born in Mesa, Arizona, in 1920, Wayne Thiebaud studied commercial art and become an animation artist for Walt Disney Studios at age 16. While serving in the U.S. Air Force during World War II, he put his skills to work as a mapmaker and cartoonist for the GI newspaper. After his discharge in 1945, he worked as a commercial illustrator. Thiebaud began his formal artistic studies at San Jose State University, and then transferred to California State University, Sacramento, where he finished both his bachelor and master degrees.

By 1960 Thiebaud developed a distinctive visual vocabulary centered on food. His depictions of fruits, cakes, candy apples, and delicatessen items arrayed in an assembly-line style earned him inclusion in the first museum exhibition of Pop Art in 1962. However, Thiebaud never claimed allegiance to any particular style or subject matter, and his images of common objects date from as early as 1953, long before the emergence of Pop Art. The exhibition includes prime examples of Thiebaud’s foodstuffs, such as Watermelon Slices, 1961, Bakery Case, 1996, and Hot Dog Stand, 2004-05.

Also included are his steep San Francisco urban views, based on fragmented memories, as in Ocean City, 2006-2007. In the 1990s, Thiebaud began to expand his imagery with the windy riverscapes of the Sacramento delta, such as Tide Lines (2004-2006). The artist’s beach paintings draw on his youthful memories of Long Beach, California, in the 1920s and 30s, when the community filled with immigrants from other parts of the country during the Great Depression. The seaside imagery included in the exhibition ranges from early works depicting bathers, such as Two Kneeling Figures, 1966, to more recent images such as Beach Dogs, 2004-2007.

In 2001, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco organized a retrospective of Thiebaud’s work. Thiebaud remains active in his Sacramento studio, as a painter, arts educator, and as a tennis player.

Wayne Thiebaud: Seventy Years of Painting is organized by the Palm Springs Art Museum and co-curated by Dr. Steven Nash and Professor Gene Cooper. The exhibition is sponsored generously by the Myra Reinhard Family Foundation.

Monica Turner
Contributor to Stark Insider for tech, the arts and All Things West Coast for over 10 years.