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A tribute to Wayne Thiebaud: The Laguna Art Museum celebrates the life of one of its treasured artists

By MARRIE STONE

Art is not delivered like the morning paper; it has to be stolen from Mount Olympus. – Wayne Thiebaud (1920-2021)

If artists are lucky, their work gains notoriety within their lifetimes. Other artists attract recognition after they’ve passed on. For Wayne Thiebaud, who died last month at the age of 101, his followers may well come from both camps. Especially if the Laguna Art Museum (LAM) has something to say about it. For an artist whose career spanned eight decades and cut across many mediums in the art world – including drawing, painting, animation, printmaking and more – there are countless ways to appreciate his contributions. Thiebaud’s playful subject matter was only outmatched by the seriousness with which he approached his craft. 

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Courtesy of LAM

Artist and educator Wayne Thiebaud (1920-2021)

“Our Friend Wayne Thiebaud,” an exhibition of Thiebaud’s work in LAM’s permanent collection, will be on display at the Museum through May 1. It includes over a dozen donated pieces, including several rough pencil sketches that give audiences access to Thiebaud’s artistic process. It also contains woodcuts, linocuts, serigraphs and etchings that showcase the broad range of Thiebaud’s printmaking techniques. Whether you’re already familiar with Thiebaud’s work or encountering his art for the first time, this exhibition likely holds something for everyone. It’s both a tribute and a gentle introduction to the might and mind of an artist at work longer than most people’s entire lifespans. 

Happy childhoods beget happy art

Born on November 15, 1920 in Mesa, Arizona, Thiebaud spent the bulk of his life in California. The family moved to Long Beach when he was only 6 months old. His Mormon childhood was a happy time, influenced by memories of traveling circuses and summers spent on his uncle’s Utah ranch. The exhibition conveys that sense of joy and playfulness that permeated Thiebaud’s long career.

Though born into a tumultuous time in American history, Thiebaud described his childhood as essentially ideal. “I was a spoiled child. I had a great life, so about the only thing I can do is to paint happy pictures,” he once said. What some might characterize as misfortune (breaking his back playing high school football), Thiebaud viewed as opportunity (it gave him more time to draw). 

He first found his artistic voice as a cartoonist, spending a high school summer working for Walt Disney Studios where he drew “in-betweens” (a process in animation that involves generating hundreds of intermediate frames to produce a sense of movement) of Goofy, Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket.

“If we don’t have a sense of humor, we lack a sense of perspective,” Thiebaud once remarked. He was able to retain that youthful sense of humor, and subsequent nostalgia for those childhood memories, throughout his 80-year career. 

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Photo by Marrie Stone

“Jolly Cones,” oil on panel, 2002 

A lifelong educator

In addition to his many artistic talents and work across genres, he was, at his core, a teacher. Thiebaud began teaching at Cal State Sacramento, where he obtained both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the early 1950s. He became an assistant professor at UC Davis in 1960, where he remained until 1991. Even after his retirement at age 70, he continued imparting his wisdom on young artists, retaining his Professor Emeritus title until his death.

“I hope one of the takeaways when people see this exhibition is what can be learned from his sketches and drawings,” said Julie Perlin Lee, executive director of LAM. “Wayne was a teacher. When people look at this work, I hope they see his teaching through these drawings. He was always working out his thoughts, as artists do. The sketches are raw and direct. That’s what he imparted to so many people – his process. It feels very personal.”

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Photo by Marrie Stone

An untitled sketch shows Thiebaud’s artistic process while creating a cover for “The New Yorker” magazine in 2002

At the opening of Thiebaud’s exhibition sits a book that invites viewers to leave their impressions and remembrances. To prove Lee’s point, one unsigned entry reads: “Since I was a kid, I could always spend tons of time staring at his cakes, pies, cityscapes, trying my hardest to track his moves, his brushstrokes, his color choices. I heard an interview with him a few years ago on the Modern Art Notes podcast and hearing him talk about his work rushed me back to my years before art school when his paintings were the magic that got me excited about painting in the first place.”

“Every paint-stroke takes you farther and farther away from your initial concept,” Thiebaud once said. “And you have to be thankful for that.” The half-dozen sketches on display demonstrate this point. With each pencil stroke, the viewer can watch Thiebaud’s mind at work.

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Graphite and ink sketch showing the stages of Thiebaud’s process

Michael Tompkins, a former student and assistant to Thiebaud in the 1980s, said of his teaching style, “He preferred teaching undergraduates and ‘raw beginners’…He wanted people who were wide open, without any irony. He told us his work was about scrambling around with the basic issues, like a baseball player who still goes to spring training each year to brush up on the basics.” Thiebaud believed that in teaching, “you have to constantly rethink things.”

Pop artist? Maybe not…

Despite his association with the 1950s pop art movement, Thiebaud rejected the label. He didn’t want to be lumped in with Andy Warhol, whose work he regarded as “flat” and “mechanical.”

One reviewer at the time interpreted Thiebaud’s colorful desserts, gumball machines and childhood toys as a commentary on the vacuousness of American culture. Editor and critic Thomas Hess admired Thiebaud’s work for offering a scathing critique on American consumerism. Thiebaud rejected that interpretation as well. In contrast to Warhol’s cynicism, Thiebaud’s joy was genuine. 

When asked why he painted gumball machines, Thiebaud relayed a conversation he once had with Barnett Newman, who pointed out: “The gumball machine is the most surreal object in the world. It promises things inside. It’s like gift-wrapped elegance. All it supplies is something to chew on but look at it with its brightest kind of colors plus the fact that you put in the dirtiest, grimiest kind of copper money and out comes a beautiful magenta or yellow ball full of sweet promise.”

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Photo by Marrie Stone

“Toy Counter,” serigraph proof, 1970

An extraordinary career in print

Fans of Thiebaud’s paintings and drawings may be interested in exploring his versatile talents as a printmaker. The exhibition includes roughly half a dozen examples of his woodcuts, linocuts, serigraphs and etchings.

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Photo by Marrie Stone

“Candy Counter,” linocut, artist proof, 1970

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“River Turns,” etching and aquatint, hard worked with charcoal and white chalk, 2012

A strong supporter of LAM

Thiebaud was a longtime friend and ally of the Laguna Art Museum. He staged three exhibitions at the LAM over the years: 70 Years of Painting (2007), American Memories (2004) and Clowns (2021). He even funded the wood floors in the museum’s galleries. In 2013, LAM presented Thiebaud with the Wendt Award for his outstanding contributions to the study and public awareness of California art. 

I had the opportunity to write about Thiebaud’s Clowns last September. (To access the article, click here.) What struck me then was the sense of melancholy that slipped into Thiebaud’s work in his later years. Clowns came late in the artist’s life, after the death of his son Paul (2010) and his wife, Betty Jean (2015). The pieces contained Thiebaud’s classic playfulness and cheer, but also a ribbon of sadness and a recognition of his own mortality. He must have known that, in all likelihood, he was painting his final act. 

“This retrospective exhibition reminds us that the museum is an important hub,” said Lee. “Over the years, people came to see three full exhibitions, attended programming and had the opportunity to meet him, learn from him and experience that direct connection to his work. Many of those people are students of Wayne’s. They’ve increased their own art practicing success because of the things they learned from him over time. It’s a huge loss felt deeply by so many people in town. We’re honored the museum can pay tribute to that legacy.”

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“Our Friend Wayne Thiebaud” exhibition will be on display through May 1

“I think art is probably our saving grace,” Thiebaud wrote last year. “It can almost ignore our animal premise and spirits. It’s worth investing in as many deeply involved people as we can muster because I think that’s where our hopes lie: in giving us a life of pleasure, challenge, comfort, joyousness – all of the things that make us human and able to relate kindly to each other.” 

The day after Thiebaud’s Christmas Day death his daughter, Twinka Thiebaud, made the following statement on Facebook: “Master painter, art professor, tennis player, joke teller extraordinaire, beloved husband, father, uncle and friend, Wayne Thiebaud has packed up his brushes in search of new scenery to paint, new canvasses to conquer. He will always be our favorite Father Christmas. Rest in sweet peace, Papa. One hundred one extraordinary years on planet earth!”

For more information on the exhibition and Wayne Thiebaud’s contributions to the Laguna Art Museum, visit their website at www.lagunaartmuseum.org.