Forget the cakes, ice creams, and pastries that pop into your head when you hear “Wayne Thiebaud.” Nothing was sugarcoated in the mountainous solitary landscapes that appeared at Acquavella. Across thirty-three works in sundry media—oil, acrylic, watercolor, pastel, gouache, and assorted types of prints—the artist confronted vertiginous territories with the same enchanted, impassioned eye as that of Caspar David Friedrich. Altitude doesn’t frighten Thiebaud, because he’s able to convey monumental scale, even in more modestly sized pieces. His vision extends over spectacular, unobstructed vistas—and for this exhibition his signature, cartoonlike clouds morphed into soft puffs of cotton. When dramatic diagonals bisect the picture plane, hillsides and ridges become studies of geometry, proportion, and gravity. Frontal views of majestic canyon passes are meditations on luminosity, while extremely high and inhospitable blue and purple peaks become curtains that open onto an empty stage where the sole protagonist is a cerulean sky—a theater of pure light.
Mountains first appeared in Thiebaud’s art around 1965 but have long remained peripheral, likely because they were frequently scorned by critics, who preferred his flatter landscapes comprising distorted views of San Francisco and aerial depictions of intersecting highways (all of which are infused with that typical strain of Californian anxiety). But every now and then Thiebaud goes back to explore the wilder terrains of his childhood memories, via Utah’s gorges and plateaux, the Sierra Nevadas, and Yosemite National Park. Over the past twenty years his vertical monoliths have become denser in structure and volume—their steep flanks and plunging slopes further enhanced by luscious impasto and a vibrant palette of oranges, violets, and ultramarines, both dark and pale. The artist does not lose sight of Cézanne and his piercing investigations of Mont Sainte-Victoire, yet the paintings in this show were perhaps the most abstract works he has ever made. Often, his rocky masses recall the color fields of Morris Louis, from whom Thiebaud borrows his soft symmetries, azure casts, and stripes. We see this likeness quite explicitly in his renderings of flat-topped mesa rocks and in the oil Lake Mountain, 2019, where the artist depicts geological strata through an array of lavender-blue bands. A solitary boulder is reflected—like the two halves of a perfectly split geode—in crystalline green water. The horizon line is multiplied three times and traverses the lower visual field like slow waves on a lake.
The persistent verticality of the artist’s granite walls (which, in some cases, relates to the orientation of the paintings) conveys height with dizzying success. But their solidity isn’t static. On the contrary, Thiebaud’s deft, cinematic use of shadow animates his craggy ranges. And he skillfully captures the light effects of virtually every time of day, from the glow of dawn until the last rays of sunset. We also see the occasional car rambling along winding paths and steep inclines, as in Cliff Road, 2019—automobiles are often the only hint of a human presence in these works. These transcendent landscapes are the pure essence of nature, majestic and rarified. In many cultures, mountains are associated with revelation and sacredness; they create a bridge between the earth and sky. Thiebaud’s bluffs, too, link the physical world with that of the spirit—in stark contrast to his most renowned paintings, which show him taking sweet pleasure in the smaller aspects of everyday life. Here, shifting his attention to the powerful forces of this world, he observes the ever-changing elements of our environment—and ourselves within it.
Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.
— Ida Panicelli