American Pie

Wayne Thiebaud is best known for painting pastry—and not even visually arresting pastry. His pies and cakes just kind of sit there, looking reasonably tasty but not seeming to do much else. He also paints perfectly nice people and landscapes, too. Lots of beach scenes. If you wandered into an exhibit of his work not knowing anything about the guy, his paintings might seem about as interesting as those unsigned prints they sell in big, plastic frames at Ross for 17 bucks each—the stuff that's just supposed to hang unobtrusively on your wall for a few years without clashing with your couch. You could easily picture Thiebaud's work on display in a bank, or printed on the front of the menu at a really nice, outdoor café in Laguna Beach.

Thiebaud is an artist you have to put in context to really appreciate. In 1962, the Pasadena Art Museum debuted the historic “New Painting of Common Objects” show, featuring Thiebaud's work alongside that of Andy Warhol, Jim Dine, Edward Ruscha, Robert Dowd, Phillip Hefferton and Joe Goode. It's now widely considered the first show of Pop art, but Thiebaud had actually been painting “common objects” since the '50s, when Warhol was toiling away in advertising and occasionally stalking Truman Capote.

Thiebuad grew up in Long Beach and spent a few decades knocking around, apprenticing at the Disney studio as a cartoonist, and working as a waiter at the Long Beach café Mile High and Red Hot (where the ice cream was a mile high and the hot dogs were red-hot). It wasn't until his 30s that he began to create the work that would make his reputation. Steven A. Nash's book, Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective, quotes Thiebaud as he describes the mad moment when he painted his first pies:

“I can remember sitting and laughing—sort of a silly relief—'Now I have flipped out!' I did one and thought, 'That's really crazy, but no one is going to look at these things anyway, so what the heck.'”

It's hard to imagine an era when a painting of a freaking pie scared the bejesus out of people. But there was also a time when people recoiled in horror at Monet's little blobs of color (the word “Impressionist,” let us remember, started as an insult), and nowadays, you'll find that stuff hanging in your dentist's waiting room. As blandly unthreatening as it appears today, Thiebaud's work was once peculiar enough that he couldn't even imagine it finding an audience. He'd flipped out . . . so, what the heck?

With Pop, he found a movement in which he could blend in, but he was never exactly of Pop, in either style or temperament. Thiebaud's work celebrates blue-collar America without the irony of the Popsters. There is arguably a certain level of anti-capitalist critique in Thiebaud's work—note that a lot of his paintings feature tasty pastries locked away behind glass, where we can look at them longingly but never have them—but Thiebaud has repeatedly made it clear that he genuinely appreciated these objects as objects, that he found poetry in the uniformity and cheery colors of assembly-line products, and he felt privileged to be a part of the America they represented.

The Thiebaud exhibit now on display at the Laguna Art Museum doesn't feature his best-known works, many of which are in the permanent collections of other museums. But it is a very good overview of a long and amazing career. Now 86 and still going strong, Thiebaud has spent his career painting the stuff he grew up looking at during the downtime on his day jobs here in Southern California—diner cuisine, beach scenes, Mickey Mouse. To really appreciate his work, you have to understand his place in art history. But it doesn't hurt to have spent a few years behind a counter, passing the time by staring at the rows of pies you can't have.


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