"Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective," June 28-Sept. 23, 2001, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021.
Wayne Thiebaud is such an American artist -- at least he is if you're counting calories. Gumballs, cakes, pies, ice cream, hot dogs -- Thiebaud's subjects are emblems of the Golden Era of Dining, a bygone time before the discovery of saturated fats and bad cholesterol. His painting chronicles America's endless abundance of food at its glossy sugar-coated best.
Thiebaud's paintings are irresistible, just like Krispy Kreme donuts. They're good, but the question is, are they good for you?
The current show at the Whitney Museum, which surveys about 100 paintings, watercolors and pastels dating back to the 1950s, celebrates the artist's 80th birthday (the exhibition originated at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco). Its reception by the art critics has been fairly rapturous, particularly in a museum season heavy with high-tech wonders and fashion extravaganzas. All the critics seem relieved that a New York museum has finally, finally, given us a show of good old-fashioned, paint-it-up painting.
A painting like Around the Cake (1962) would have to be considered classic Thiebaud. An angel food cake never was so angelic. It sits iced in the center of the canvas, topped by a single strawberry and surrounded by eight slices on small diner plates. The small wedges of cake are like cherubs circling a celestial apparition.
You can almost taste the brushstrokes that render the creamy beige frosting. Thiebaud is famous for this literal correspondence of paint and painted. He is clearly trying, more than almost any other artist alive, to whet our appetites for his work. But yummy as it looks, it's weird. Could it be one of those fake paste cakes?
Similarly, in Thiebaud's Five Hot Dogs (1961), an almost melodic composition of franks with mustard on a warm gray background, the smears of yellow mustard are, of course, smears of paint. Come to think of it, mustard on a dog is exactly like a little squeeze of pigment.
Besides the famous images of desserts and sweets -- Thiebaud has been dubbed "the Chardin of the cakeshops," according to San Francisco curator Steven A. Nash -- the retrospective includes a gallery devoted to lesser-known paintings of people sitting in chairs from the mid-1960s, plus the celebrated vertical cityscapes from the '70s and the landscapes from the '90s.
For parochial New Yorkers, the Thiebaud show proves that Will Cotton isn't the only sugary landscape painter. Thiebaud's River and Farms (1996) is a 5 x 4 foot canvas with an iridescent river snaking up its center, bordered on either side by bright blue and yellow strips of farmland. Like syrup, the water spills through the busy fields, which are striated and dotted with rows of cultivated crops. You want to put your mouth at the corner of the painting and just drink it in.
In Reservoir (1999), the candy-striped fields garnish the edges of a surround a sweet lavender expanse that takes up most of the center of the picture. It's really bright and colorful -- kitschy, almost, like a heavenly postcard. In that central body of water is the sky reflecting above, a sky so beautiful that we can only view the reflection.
Could it be that in Thiebaud, we've found the perfect spiritual vision of the 21st century? Take, eat...?