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|Art Market Guide 2000
by Richard Polsky
|If the New York art world isn't in love with Wayne Thiebaud yet, it might very well be on June 28, 2001, when his traveling retrospective opens at the Whitney Museum. The octogenarian's last survey exhibition, back in 1978, never made it to New York. This new show, which contains an additional 20 years worth of work, makes a strong case for Thiebaud as an artist of international importance.
In the past, if you went to Europe and asked local dealers and collectors about Thiebaud, most would give you a nonplussed look. Those familiar with the work would often respond, "Wayne Thiebaud? Isn't he a good regional artist from California?" Part of the reason for lack of recognition was that Thiebaud's New York dealer, Allan Stone, made a conscious decision not to pursue the European market.
It's hard to fault Stone, since the one time he consented to a show of the artist in Italy, apparently he never got paid. Since Stone was able to sell virtually everything Thiebaud produced, there was never much incentive to arrange further European exhibitions.
It stands to reason that a number of European collectors and curators will see the Whitney show and some of them will want to own a Thiebaud. This should give his market a boost -- not that it needs it. While this past auction season lacked a major Thiebaud, two small but good quality pictures did appear. The first, Gift Box (1981, 16 by 20 in.), sold at Christie's Nov. 1999 for $376,500 (est. $180,000-$250,000). Six months later at Phillips, a painting from 1963 titled Cracker Rows, that measures only 13 by 14 in., more than doubled its $100,000-$150,000 estimate to sell for $307,500.
The sale of these two paintings, one from the vintage 1960s and the other from the 1980s, raises an interesting point. Probably 90 percent of all works created during the 1960s by artists who emerged during that decade are worth far more than their later works. But, Thiebaud's market, for some reason, is based more on the image than the period. Sure, if the subject matter and price were similar, a collector would opt for a 1960s work over one from the 1990s. But at auction, subject matter is the greatest determining factor when it comes to price.
Another development in the Thiebaud market has been the emergence of his son's gallery, the Campbell-Thiebaud Gallery in San Francisco. Just as Henri Matisse showed at his son Pierre's gallery (the Pierre Matisse Gallery), Thiebaud has is working with his son Paul. The results have been successful. Paul has surrounded his father's work with other strong painters such as Christopher Brown.
As anyone who has followed Thiebaud's career can tell you, the artist originally came into prominence during the 1960s with his so-called "food landscapes." Thiebaud painted cakes with thick colorful brushstrokes that reinforced the illusion of the icing. He also painted ice cream cones and other confections in a similar manner -- not quite Pop, but certainly associated with the movement.
The late 1970s saw Thiebaud begin interpreting the steep streets of San Francisco with an exaggerated perspective that gave the viewer a case of vertigo. These urban landscapes set the tone for the artist's current exploration of the river and orchard landscapes of the Sacramento delta. In this Thiebaud explores a third significant shift in his oeuvre -- the rural landscapes -- a similar twisting of space along with an expansion of his signature palette of warm colors.
It is with these current rural landscapes that a collector has the best opportunity to buy a painting below auction price. New paintings start at $225,000 and works from this series have already been purchased by several museums.
A final thought on the Thiebaud market: Many collectors wonder about the future viability of realist painting -- given that the art world has seemingly become obsessed with difficult conceptual works by the likes of Robert Gober and Matthew Barney. When it comes to current realism, there also seems to be a glut of poorly painted works by a new wave of minor talents, such as John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage.
When you compare the plurality of styles that are currently in vogue to the straight-ahead realist style of Thiebaud, you realize that there will always be room for artists who can flat-out paint. The fact that there are no great young realists on the horizon (at least none that are currently being shown) lends extra poignancy to his paintings.
The history of art has been written, in large, by artists who reflected their times by painting recognizable imagery. The future of realism may very well turn out to be in photography, not painting. But at least for now, the evident skill and originality of Wayne Thiebaud remains one of the standards by which realism is judged.
RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer specializing in post-1960s works of art. Questions or comments can be directed to him in San Francisco at Polskyart@aol.com.