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Wayne Thiebaud’s Clowns: A fitting finale to a long career

By MARRIE STONE

Photos by Jeff Rovner

When centenarian artist Wayne Thiebaud was a boy – back in the early 1930s – the circus came to his hometown in Long Beach. Thiebaud became captivated by the clowns and took a job with Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, bringing water to the elephants and helping the clowns pick up the tent in exchange for tickets. “It was probably the biggest event that happened during the year,” Thiebaud said in an interview with Janet Bishop in his 2020 book Wayne Thiebaud: Clowns. “Because it was so bizarrely the opposite of most American’s lives.” 

Thiebaud befriended a carnival worker known as “The Wild Man from Borneo.” His act took place in a simulated cave, and he played the role of the untamed savage, swallowing lit cigarettes and eating glass. But Thiebaud remembers him as a wonderful guy whose real job was combing Southern California’s beaches for lost treasure – coins, wristwatches, and rings. He invited young Thiebaud to tag along, letting him keep the pennies. Then there was “Ossified Roy,” a stony man with rock-hard skin that sounded like it might crack when hit with a hammer. 

Like most visceral childhood memories, these men made an impression on Thiebaud. But the bulk of the artist’s career didn’t concern clowns. Instead, Thiebaud became known for his colorful still life portraits of another kind of Americana – brightly painted pastries (cakes, pies, and cupcakes), ice cream cones, hot dogs, and gumball machines. He also did several series of mountains, streetscapes and landscapes, cities built on a hill, and some portraiture. 

He mostly kept the clowns locked in the treasure chest of his own memories, waiting until his mid-90s to bring them back out. But they bear all the hallmarks of his artistic expressions cultivated over decades of practicing his craft, this time with a twist.

Wayne Thiebaud Entrance

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The Wayne Thiebaud “Clowns” exhibition is on display at the Laguna Art Museum through October 24

Thiebaud’s exhibition, Clowns, has been on display at the Laguna Art Museum since December 2020 and will close on Sunday, Oct 24. It features more than 40 works from the series, representing the culmination of more than seven decades of artistic work. Opening just three weeks after the artist’s 100th birthday, the show coincided with a retrospective of his work on exhibit at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, where Thiebaud lived most of his adult life. 

Clowns is a particularly poignant and fitting finale for an artist nearing the end of life whose career largely celebrated the simple joys of our colorful American culture. Clowns conjure the innocence of childhood memories with their red noses and oversized shoes. These animated settings and painted faces appeal to Thiebaud, whose art reflects his enduring fascination with the cartoon form. But, of course, there’s always been something more complicated about the clown. 

Wayne Thiebaud Mystic

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“Clown Mystic,” oil on board mounted on panel, 2019

Thiebaud began the series in 2015 during a time of personal transition. The artist was 95 years old. His son, Paul, had passed away in 2010 at the age of 49 and, five years later, he lost his wife of 56 years to Alzheimer’s. “It was a time of trying to figure out what to do to keep going,” he told Bishop. Several of the pieces reflect that struggle. 

For Thiebaud, the clowns represented transience and elusiveness. They were there and then they weren’t. As an artist confronting mortality – both his loved ones’ and his own – what could be more elusive or transient than life itself? 

Wayne Thiebaud Mask

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“Clown and Oversized Mask,” charcoal and chalk on paper, 2019

“They’re almost like spirits or like figures of that domain that are of a different character,” he said. “These people were just like me, but they had these extraordinary experiences, most of them having a lot to do with moving all the time.” They were both familiar and exotic, accessible and distant. They were performers – trapeze artists, tumblers, jugglers, and entertainers – but they were also grunts doing the hard work behind the scenes. 

The series retains that strong sense of nostalgia that’s always been present in Thiebaud’s work. His paintings have often called up images from childhood and an uncomplicated vision of mid-20th century American life – apple pies and ice cream sundaes, pinball and slot machines. The kind of America conjured by the peaceful prosperity of the 1950s. 

Clowns are no exception. But there’s a poignant sadness and seriousness to this series unlike what’s come before. In addition to his playful clowns juggling desserts, popping out of boxes, or driving cars, Thiebaud’s clowns are also often in peril. Some are on fire, locked behind bars, being rescued from the spotlight, or smothered by a beast. There are cigar smoking clowns, naked clowns, disintegrating clowns, and a sopping wet clown trapped beneath an isolated raincloud. Perhaps the most poignant is a dead clown whose spirit is floating away. 

Wayne Thiebaud Spirit

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“Clown Spirit,” oil on board, 2019

Thiebaud’s clowns connect to his love of whimsical cartoons, and yet they have an edge of somber reflection and a ribbon of loneliness and grief. They are tragic and comedic. Solemn and silly. There’s a shape-shifting quality that leaves the audience a little on edge. 

Wayne Thiebaud Cigar

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“Clown with Two Cigars,” oil on board, 2016/2018/2019

This November, Thiebaud turns 101. “Thank God for history,” he once remarked to KCET’s Robert Pincus. “It’s so clarifying.” He is, after all, an artist who’s witnessed a lot of it. The series reflects Thiebaud’s history, too. Perhaps one of his more autobiographical exhibitions, Clowns is a culmination of Thiebaud’s thematic concerns and psychological curiosities. It showcases his artistic influences (including Picasso, Matisse, Monet, and Cézanne, among others), it explores the range of his emotional terrain, and it includes a few self-portraits to ensure the audience understands the artist exists inside his own work. 

Wayne Thiebaud Self Portait

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Self-Portrait

When talking about his inspirations for the series, Thiebaud says he was particularly touched by the 1959 Henry Miller story, “The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder.” The fable chronicles the story of two clowns. Auguste, the story’s protagonist, could make people laugh in the moment but desired the ability to impart lasting joy on his audiences. Could the same be true of Thiebaud? “It addresses a lot of things that I’m fundamentally interested in – about the vulnerability of human beings, and also about celebrity,” Thiebaud told Bishop. 

The story was inspired by the cubist painter Fernand Léger, who created a series of clown and circus drawings that Thiebaud also admired. “Auguste is unique in that he came from the blue,” said Henry Miller. “But what is this blue which surrounds and envelopes us if not reality itself?”

Wayne Thiebaud 100

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“One-hundred-year-old Clown,” 2020

Interesting, then, that Thiebaud chose the color blue to surround his own One-hundred-year-old Clown painting. The piece is both an intimate self-portrait and a self-referential homage to many of the tropes and techniques Thiebaud’s paintings have incorporated over the course of his long career. Art historian Julia Friedman has written extensively about the piece. She notes the skullcap that summons Thiebaud’s mountain series (first appearing in his work in the mid-1960s), the dark lines on his coat that conjure city roads he often painted in San Francisco in the 1970s and ‘80s, as well as the curvature of the artist’s ear that echoes his Sacramento landscapes. Of course, the signature red nose is the cherry on top of Thiebaud’s many iconic dessert paintings – cakes, cupcakes, and ice cream sundaes. But it’s the clown’s expression, as well as the heavy burden of his black overcoat, that weighs on the viewer. This is a clown past his prime, still wearing the makeup but having shed the traditional clown attire, who seems to understand his show is over.

Not so for Thiebaud who, at 101, continues to stretch himself into new and unchartered territory. Curator and critic Karen Wilkin had already declared Thiebaud an “American master” in 2015 before the then-nonagenarian opted to tackle new ground by inserting himself into his work. He’s produced 10 covers for The New Yorker magazine, including one as recent as August 2020. 

Wayne Thiebaud Cars

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“Running Cars,” 2019

“Spending time with Theibaud’s Clowns exhibition has been a personal delight, perhaps only superseded by watching and listening to groups of visitors touring the exhibition,” says Julie Perlin Lee, executive director of the Laguna Art Museum. “Whether love, hate, or something in between, visitors react to this body of work often by projecting their own feelings or narratives into it. My favorite exhibition moment so far was to see a young group of visitors, wonderfully outfitted in stripes, suspenders, and other clothing evocative of something a performer might wear. This is the magic of Theibaud, an artist whose painting is of the highest caliber and who has the ability to speak to each of us.” 

This is, indeed, the enduring power of Thiebaud’s clowns. They are both windows out and mirrors in. They are, as the artist observed, both foreign and familiar figures. They are us – frequently joyful and occasionally burdened, sometimes playing in the company of others but more often alone. No surprise the audience is inclined to put themselves into the paintings and see themselves reflected back. After living over a century, and painting for more than 70 years, Thiebaud has had ample time to study human nature and empathy. Who better than this artist and his clowns to teach us something about ourselves?

Clowns will be on display through Sunday, Oct 24 at the Laguna Art Museum located at 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach. 

For more information, go to www.lagunaartmuseum.org.