Born in 1920, Wayne Thiebaud is known for his still-life paintings of mass-produced foodstuffs and objects — cakes, lollipops, shoes, ties, paint cans and ice-cream cones — as well as for his portraits and landscapes. Although he was included in the first museum survey of Pop art, ‘New Painting of Common Objects’, in 1962 at the Pasadena Art Museum, Thiebaud prefers to describe himself as ‘a traditional painter of illusionistic forms’. In June this year, the artist Thomas Demand travelled to Thiebaud’s home in Sacramento, California, to talk about his unique artistic language, which evolved from his work in the 1940s and ’50s as a sign painter, movie poster designer and cartoonist. Thiebaud’s exhibition earlier this year at the Laguna Art Museum, ‘American Memories’, was selected by the artist himself, and ranged over his career as a painter, draftsman and printmaker from 1959 to 2014.
Thomas Demand It was stunning to see so much of your work at the Laguna Art Museum.
Wayne Thiebaud It’s all mixed up together!
TD How did the show come about?
WT For a while, we had a condominium in Laguna Beach and I grew up not far from there in Long Beach, so the beach and the ocean have always meant a lot to me. Gene Cooper [who curated a show of Thiebaud’s paintings in 2007 at the Laguna Museum] is a good friend; he’s a student of painting now. The Laguna Art Museum is a long-suffering little museum, so we tried to help it, and I like the new director, Malcolm Warner, very much. He let me pretty much do what I wanted, and it was a nice experience.
TD And what did you want to do?
WT I wanted to be sure that I didn’t present a single product.
TD My favourite painting, the one I completely fell for, was the one of the shoes. Also, the one of a $10 note on the floor of the studio.
WT Men’s shoes or women’s shoes?
TD The men’s shoes. They reminded me of Henri Fantin-Latour’s group portraits; the shoes make the men in the paintings stand very confidently. I discovered that you collect his pictures and I thought: ‘I’m on the right track!’
I first started to paint because I thought that’s what art is, because everything — line, colour, composition — comes from it. I still consider there to be elements of painting in my work. The first time I saw your paintings in the flesh, I fell in love with the decisiveness of your line and brushstroke. I read that you worked as a sign-maker as a teenager.
WT Yes, I didn’t go to art school. I had wonderful people show me how to do sign painting. Also cartooning. There is such a grand tradition of lettering and typography; it’s a very admirable world, I think.
TD And an unbroken world, as well. In Europe, of course, painting history has a big break in World War II, but typography kept going.
WT That’s true; that’s a good point. I had a wonderful traditional training. That’s missing in today’s art schools, I think, and it’s a shame.
TD I agree. I teach in Hamburg and I think the students are missing out on a lot, but you sound conservative if you say that.
WT I know. But interestingly, in my opinion, almost every good painter that I admire is sort of retrograde.
'The idea of weathering, of crackature or destructing mechanisms, the organic aspect of it, has to be felt in the paint itself.'Wayne Thiebaud
TD Because they draw the energy from work which is there already.
WT Yes, I agree.
TD Who would that be for you? Fantin-Latour and Giorgio Morandi?
WT Yes, certainly; also Balthus and a great number of other artists, including Matisse and Picasso, who continued to look back at classical drawing.
TD I saw the exceptionally beautiful Matisse show at Tate Modern in London, which focused on his paper cuts. The pace he developed is unbelievable.
WT Very inspirational.
TD Totally inspirational! I’ve met so many artists, even video artists, who didn’t want to like that show, and it blew them away. Matisse took liberties when he realized the image he was creating wasn’t for a canvas but for a room.
WT In some ways, Matisse was a more thoughtful artist than Picasso. He’s a little richer. I mean, Picasso was a practicing art historian!
TD Picasso is Picasso: he’s basically the North Pole!
WT Matisse recognized the importance of folk art and naïve art and it made his work have a human immediacy, I think.
TD With Matisse’s work, I try to answer the question: ‘What is it actually about?’ When you painted the sweets and the cakes, say, some people saw it as being within the Pop art tradition but, from what you have described, it seems as though you were trying to get away from the question of subject in order to translate a figurative painting into a set of problems about painting.
WT Yes, that’s true.
TD What are you working on now?
WT I’ve done a series of mountain pictures, called ‘Memory Mountains’. I’ve worked on them for around 15 years, but in between, I’ve done a lot of other things. I stay fresh and make a lot of mistakes that way!
TD Are you stopping with the mountain series because you have a better idea?
WT I just sort of decided that I didn’t know what else to do in that particular series of problems, so I looked for another challenge.
TD How do you paint them?
WT They’re all painted from memory.
TD That’s what I figured.
WT When I was around 13, I lived on a farm in southern Utah and, after that, I spent time on a lot of the beach bluffs in Long Beach and Lake Tahoe, and in the Southern California mountains. The paintings are all memories of those experiences.
TD Your father tried farming?
WT Yeah, we tried! I liked it a lot: it was very hard work, but I had a horse and I thought that life was pretty nice. But it was 1931, during the depths of the Great Depression, and the farm didn’t work out — my father essentially was a mechanical engineer and an inventor. I was lucky: I had a very good father and very good mother, who spoiled me.
TD When you decided you wanted to do sign painting and cartoons, did they ever insist you get a ‘proper’ job?
WT No, they were very indulgent. It’s why I have had such a pleasant life and a pleasant attitude.
TD Were the visual arts part of your home life?
WT No, neither of my parents were interested in that at all.
TD What’s the first museum you remember going to?
WT Well, Dad would take me to museums, and we would go on field trips with the church. The first museum I visited was the Huntington Museum of Art in Southern California. I remember seeing sculpture and painting for the first time, but I was interested mostly in becoming a cartoonist.
TD You joined the Air Force during World War II?
WT Yes. I was an artist in the First Motion Picture Unit of the Air Force in 1945.
TD And, after that, you did sign painting?
WT I worked in motion pictures and made posters for them: some of them are still around. I worked for a marvellous and strange Russian art director who took pity on me and let me work because my samples, he said, were the worst he’d ever seen! It was a wonderful experience and it was very influential in many ways, because I got to watch how carefully they lit the sets and so on. It was a revelation. Painting was the most difficult of all. It was an impossible challenge, but it was marvellous to move away from commercial work. Over the years, I have worked as an art director and designer; I still have a lot of respect for all of that. But, for me, to make a painting is the end of this competition.
In 1956–57, I took a leave of absence from teaching at the University of California and moved to New York. I had a family by then, though, and everything was very expensive, so I had to move back. But I got to meet all of my heroes, De Kooning, Franz Kline and many others. It was a cohesive group of friends, critics and painters who all supported each other. They all met at the Cedar Tavern and talked, so I was lucky to witness that.
TD And you were painting at the time?
WT Yes, my painting was, at first, very influenced by Abstract Expressionism but, for me, the trouble with the Modernist enterprise was that it tended to dissuade influences. I mean, the lesson of an artist like Balthus, who goes right back to Courbet and Poussin etc., is to make sure that the tradition is not made ignoble. Maybe I’m wrong but, however, fascinating and important the Modernist movement was, its darker sins have to be accounted for. It ruined the academic enterprise. So you can see I’m foremost a teacher!
TD I think the more structure you present, the more students can either work against or for something. If you only ever describe their work as ‘nice’ then you never enter into a discourse or a contradiction.
WT De Kooning was very clear about that. I think he was so self-conscious because he was the most academically well trained of any of those artists but, at the same time, he seemed embarrassed by it. His difficulty with finishing paintings had to do, I think, with the Modernist project. If you finish something, you have to account for it. If it’s not finished, it’s up for interpretation. So, when he went back to figure painting, they gave him hell. They did the same with Philip Guston. They didn’t want him to do figurative painting, but the question is: why? Why aren’t we able to do what we want?
TD Did you read much?
WT Yeah, I’ve become a better reader; I’ve paid a lot of attention to people like Josef Albers and other colour theorists.
TD Did you ever paint abstract paintings?
WT Yes, I painted a lot of abstract paintings. But De Kooning said to me when he saw my work: ‘Find something that you really want to paint.’ He liked Fairfield Porter because Porter kept to what he could do. I remembered that vividly, and when I came back [to California], I said: ‘Well, let’s start at the beginning.’ I was a teacher then, so I took those very basic forms, some ovals and then some triangles — I had been a window dresser as well, and worked in restaurants, and I was always arranging things — and I painted them and I thought: even though the art world is not going to pay any attention to my work, for me, these are problems which are closer to my interest in design and cartooning and caricature, and it made sense to me.
TD Because your subject matter is so friendly and so accessible, your paintings are very welcoming.
WT And they were so intimately associated with my life — washing dishes, working in restaurants and working with objects in various ways — they felt comfortable to me. I would then create problems like: ‘I’m going to take on some of that colour for a while.’
TD The early paintings are very white and very graphic.
WT Well, yes. The problem was to try and use colour in such a way that it related to the tradition of colour painting, Indian miniature painting, Eastern painting, but also my love for Bonnard and Vuillard and that whole tradition. I’d never had a colour class, and so one of the problems that I set myself early on was that I had to start with a white background. I paid an awful lot of attention to the painters who I loved, but then colour became such a difficult and fascinating world of its own. I found out what Matisse meant by the idea of temperature. I’d never heard of that before.
TD A lollipop is very attractive because it’s supposed to be attractive. The vitrine with a cake in it is, in a sense, tautological because it’s already there like a painting to be looked at. So your painting seems to be, on the one hand, autobiographical, but also as if it’s trying to explore a problem.
WT I think the problem shouldn’t be obvious. Do you know the writing of Richard Wollheim?
TD Yes, and I know the painting you made of him.
WT Wollheim and I became friends. He was essentially a philosopher. His book Painting as an Art (1987) is very difficult but very good. He said to me: ‘You say you’re a formalist but I don’t think you are; you should rethink that.’ What you’ve been talking about has been of great importance to me, without my knowing it, I think.
TD Do you think it’s important for me to know that you were working as a window dresser or in a bar? It had never occurred to me that you were responding to the things that surrounded you. I thought you liked them because of their repetition. It’s very clear to me that your work is about the paint much more than it is about the lollipop.
WT If you turn one of Balthus’s paintings upside down, then the design emphasis is very clear. On the other hand, I’m very much interested in the idea that I’m almost forming things as well as painting things, if that makes any sense.
TD Yes, totally.
'Humour, I love. I'm an old cartoonist. I told Robert Hughes that I was a sign painter gone uppity.' Wayne Thiebaud
WT That was particularly true of the mountain pictures. The idea of weathering, of crackature or destructing mechanisms, the organic aspect of it has to be felt in the paint itself. So that fracture is very, very important.
TD You can’t do that in the drawings, can you?
WT I think drawing is central to everything. The command of drawing is crucial, because it allows you to generalize, to caricaturize and to stylize. If you try to generalize without any knowledge of what you’re generalizing about, then you’ll get very simplistic answers. When Matisse was painting those marvellous standing male nudes that are so goofy in a way, he’d look at that foot and know where the heel and the toes are: it’s just little triangle, yet it incorporates the anatomy of that foot. Astounding achievement, I think; just a heroic kind of stylization, because he knows enough about what he’s drawing.
TD Do you draw every day?
WT Yes, I do.
TD But the sculptural use of paint is fundamentally different to drawing.
WT My big hero is Velázquez. If you’re referring to something like premier coup painting, wet-into-wet painting, and how it has to have within that brushstroke maybe six or eight colours, when Velázquez makes the attack, he has to know exactly and precisely where everything will fit. That’s a supreme accomplishment and it can easily go wrong. You can make a hierarchy of Velázquez and then John Singer Sargent, Seurat and Manet, but Velázquez, he trumps it! How the hell did he do that? It’s like sport. In a game like tennis or golf, you have to train a lot in order to no longer think about what you’re doing.
TD That effortlessness is what I love about Manet. When he paints people on a balcony and there’s that plant on the left-hand side; if I could ever paint like that, just that plant, I would be so proud. Coming back to your portraits, you use a very confident brushstroke, or more like a line with a brush.
WT There was a great lesson I learned when I was trying to paint signs as a kid. I worked in a sign shop, I just washed brushes mostly, but I was learning show-card writing, that one-shot idea where you learn to turn the brush a certain way. I was pretty good with what they call a ‘one stroke’ on all letters except the ‘O’.
An old German sign painter was watching me said: ‘You don’t make “O”s in one shot’. I said, ‘No, I can’t.’ He said: ‘I know what your trouble is. Make an “O” for me and I’ll watch you.’ So I was all set to go and he moved behind me and I said: ‘Aren’t you going to watch me?’ He said: ‘Yeah, I’m going to watch you’. So, I made it and he said: ‘Ah! I know what your problem is. You’re looking where you’re going rather than where you want to go.’
TD But to paint a portrait while looking at the person whose portrait it is, is very hard.
WT Very hard. I make lots of mistakes, a lot of bad paintings, and I scrape them off and start again.
TD Is that the hard part?
WT Well, you’ve invested all that time. You’re sad, but you have to do it. I guess one of the blessings is I had very good art directors who’d say, ‘God, that’s terrible, go back. Don’t bring me that kind of crap!’ You learn then to have some kind of expectancy.
TD Self diagnosis?
WT Yes, but we all need help. Some of the best communities are those where artists help each other, because it’s very tough to get any kind of deep, personalized, non-ideological criticism. Braque and Picasso were very fortunate to have each other. You have to have a talent for critical interrogation in order to be a good painter. I think it’s important to stay open to any possibility. There are certain art movements, art conventions, which present themselves as a kind of unending possibility and others that are collapsing into something terminal. I think that painting is still alive because it has such a glorious tradition of endless possibilities, even though people say it’s dead. It is dead in the sense that the viewer has to enliven it.
TD When you make still-life drawings and depict, say, six objects on a sheet of paper, it’s interesting to see how you try to avoid a narrative between the objects. The composition is much stronger than the quality or the significance of the objects themselves. How do you avoid a certain symbolism?
WT It’s a good question I’ve never been asked before. Interesting! Can you avoid symbolism? Probably not. When I painted objects like the radios, the thing was to get as much variety and texture as possible and I didn’t think of them symbolically. But I did get quite a number of interesting reactions, where people interpret a narrative in ways that I hadn’t thought of.
TD Does that often happen?
WT Yes, with the figure paintings. My idea was not to have a narrative in the paintings but to have people move around a lot. For instance, there are two figures and I have no idea what they’re doing but they’re together on two chairs and the pose is interesting enough for me to paint. People would ask: ‘Is that a brother and sister at a dance?’ Once, when I disclaimed these interpretations, a woman came up after the lecture and said: ‘You mean, you don’t think you know why you did that?’ She says: ‘Come on, you can tell me, I’m a psychiatrist’. It startled me. She thought I’d hidden something.
TD Are you getting better as the years go by?
WT No, I don’t think so. Maybe even worse!
TD If you look back at your earlier work, are you surprised by it?
WT Well, a long time ago, there was a little painting of devilled eggs that Allan [Stone, his first dealer] sold. A bartender came in and he loved those devilled eggs because he sold eggs and he said: ‘I want to buy that painting.’ Allan said: ‘It’s $300.’ So he says: ‘How about $250?’ And Allan says: ‘All right.’ So the bartender pulled out dimes and nickels and $5 bills from his pocket and paid for the painting. I yearned to see that painting again but I couldn’t find the bartender. Years later, the bartender died and the family came to Allan and asked if he’d buy the painting back and he did, so I got to see it again. But it wasn’t that great! I was disappointed. Sometimes, I’ll see something I’ve painted and think I couldn’t have done it any better. That’s rare, though.
TD Have you ever used photographs as references for your paintings?
WT I’m very suspicious of working from a photograph. It’s just a little too seductive and a little too singular for me.
TD What do you mean by ‘singular’?
WT Single frame, single focus. I think painting has to comprise quite a variety of perceptual experiences and be able to notate them. Even paintings by Vermeer, who possibly used a camera obscura, have a slightly frozen moment but it’s a very long moment. An art historian said to me once that he liked the fact that my paintings had a gleam, a glow. And looking at Vermeer you see that; you see light in shadow, and peripheral light. It’s the same as coordinating various states of vision. It’s almost like a sprinkle of salt on it or something, so crystal; then, other times, you can’t find an edge. There is basically no edge in The Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665). Jesus, that’s a miracle of accountability. That can’t happen in any photograph.
TD But Vermeer’s View of Delft (1660 – 61) is a different case. It’s the same painter but you learn something about the interior spaces from the landscape; because it’s not an interior space it doesn’t have the same tension, but it’s a similar treatment of the visual.
WT It’s very different. That’s a truly interesting distinction.
TD I remember exactly when I turned a corner in the museum and saw that work. Vermeer painted everything that I thought I knew about interior spaces, but when I saw that, it made it even better. I assume photography for portraiture doesn’t really work for you, either?
WT No, it doesn’t.
TD If things are slightly funny, is that a problem for you?
WT Humour, I love. I’m an old cartoonist. I told Robert Hughes that I was a sign painter gone uppity. We became firm friends. I liked his writing and he wrote an essay about the mountain paintings.
TD Do you think that humour can get in the way of a picture?
WT I think jokes can. You don’t want to put paintings out that would embarrass the tradition, but sometimes you do and you pay the price.
TD What’s the price, do you think? That you have to scrape it off again?
TD Do you have any advice for young artists?
WT Pretty simple stuff: learn how to work, develop your tools and consult with tradition. Look at a lot of paintings and love what you’re doing. You’re in a very privileged position to enter into a community of excellence and, as I said, try not to embarrass that; measure up to it. Go to museums. Don’t worry about individuality too early. Do lots of drawing.
Wayne Thiebaud lives in Sacramento, USA. ‘Wayne Thiebaud: American Memories’ was held at the Laguna Art Museum, USA, earlier this year. A solo show of Thiebaud’s paintings is at Acquavella Galleries, New York, USA, until 21 November.